OSHIMA, JAPAN -- Upon arriving at Motomachi port on Oshima, visitors to this sleepy island of 8,600 may question whether they made the right choice for a getaway. The small souvenir shops and quaint houses are not exactly eye-catching, and on a gray day they can seem downright dreary.
But other parts of the island offer an entirely different experience.
Oshima is a volcanic island, and Mount Mihara at its center is still active, spewing ash and molten lava into the air about once every 35 years, even though visitors on most days may see just a bit of smoke or steam curling above its crater.
But on a clear day, the views of Mount Fuji from Mount Mihara are spectacular. Locals say Oshima has a better view of Japan's most famous peak than anywhere else in the country.
Mount Mihara is only about 750 meters, or 2,460 feet, tall and is a popular hiking destination. The rim walk, which takes about two hours and is not particularly strenuous, allows hikers to gaze deep into the center of the gaping crater from its precipice.
Also interesting is the low-lying vegetation, mainly grasses and small shrubs, that has managed to take root in the black volcanic sand and rock on the mountain's slopes.
Geology buffs can hire a nature guide from Global Nature Club, a local tour service (81-4992-2-1966), and turn the walk into an educational experience. The group also organizes stargazing and scuba-diving expeditions on the island; English-speaking guides are sometimes available.
Cyclists who do not mind a few steep hills often choose bikes as a way to see the island. Marukyu Rental Cycle, which has an office at Motomachi port, rents out mountain bikes for about ¥2,000, or $21, a day. Visitors can arrange to be dropped off at the Mount Mihara lookout; from there, the ride down the mountain's slope to the coast is an easy one and takes just a few hours, depending on how many stops are made. Cyclists should be sure to pack water and snacks, as there are not many places to buy food along the roads.
Shortly after the onsen, or baths, at Miharayama, the road forks, offering two options for returning to sea level. The left fork is a direct route back to town. But the right takes cyclists through a beautiful old-growth forest and past a cragged yet majestic cherry tree believed to be more than 800 years old that has been designated one of Japan's natural national treasures.
Continuing downhill, the next stop is Oshima Park, which showcases the best of the island's forest and coastal scenery in a single place. One noteworthy point: The air, generally clean and fresh, is considered some of the least polluted in the Tokyo municipality.
Continuing north toward Motomachi, cyclists soon come to a stretch of road that locals call the Camellia Tunnel for the large trees that line both sides. Camellias, native to Oshima, are abundant throughout the island, and their oil is one of its biggest exports. It is bought in bulk by companies like Shiseido for use in hair- and skin-care products.
The tunnel is best viewed between January and March, when the flowers are in full bloom.
Oshima is no exception to the Japanese practice of operating onsen at every available opportunity.
From the Mihara-Sanchoguchi trailhead at the volcano's rim walk, the road heading northeast leads directly to Miharayama Onsen. A part of the Oshima Onsen Hotel, the spring includes both indoor and outdoor baths for men and women, all with panoramic views of the mountain and its surrounding grasslands. This is a traditional onsen, which means that bathing suits are not allowed.
For more modest visitors, Hama-No-Yu Onsen on Oshima's coast near Motomachi port is a rare mixed-sex hot spring, where bathing suits are required. It is an unusual sort of onsen experience but, for visitors uncomfortable with nudity, the steaming pool really becomes nothing more than a heated swimming pool. Children play and splash in the water while adults of both sexes relax and converse, even when it is raining.
Arguably the most unusual attraction on the island is the Camellia Flower Garden and Squirrel Village, where manicured gardens feature several varieties of camellia trees and sloping lawns that overlook the sea and the clear views of Mount Fuji on the mainland.
The odd part is the squirrel village -- sure to be a bizarre experience for most Westerners, especially visitors from the United States used to thinking of squirrels as part of the scenery, or common pests.
Squirrels are not common in Japan; these particular rodents are said to have been brought over from Taiwan at some point. So adults and children alike shriek and squeal as hundreds of squirrels scamper about a caged enclosure, eating seeds offered by visitors wearing hand protectors that look a bit like oven mitts.
Just across the road from the squirrel village is Sankichi, a tiny restaurant specializing in sushi made from local seafood. A sushi set costs just ¥1,800, an extremely good buy when compared with similar meals in Tokyo.
It is a popular place with just a few seats -- it actually looks like the dining room in someone's home rather than a place of business -- so it is best to have a Japanese speaker call ahead for a reservation (81-4922-2-1944).
Getting to Oshima
Technically a part of the Tokyo municipality, Oshima -- also called Izu Oshima -- lies 120 kilometers, or 75 miles, from Japan's capital city. It is the largest of the Izu Islands, at 91 square kilometers, or 35 square miles.
Tokai Kisen operates high-speed boats to the island, usually departing twice a day from Takeshiba pier in Tokyo and arriving in an hour and 45 minutes. Flights also are available from the Haneda or Chofu airports, and take about 30 minutes. One-way fares start at about ¥5,000 by boat or ¥10,000 by air.
Public transportation on Oshima is not plentiful. Buses are infrequent, and there are only about 10 taxis on the entire island, so renting a car or motorbike is recommended. Both Nippon Rent-A-Car and Toyota Rent a Car have outlets on the island, as well as Web sites in English.
The cheapest is the local Mobil Rent a Car, where daily rates start at ¥3,000 but telephone reservations would have to be made in Japanese. All rental agencies offer a pickup service from the port if arrangements are made in advance.
English-speaking staff members at Oshima Town Hall (81-4922-2-1443) will help visitors with reservations for rentals, tours, hotels, restaurants and other travel needs.travel
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.