As an Englishman and photographer in Japan I absolutely love the idea of being able to get to a sub-tropical island in the Philippine sea in a smooth, short 2 and half hour hydrofoil ride.

If you want to learn more about Japans hidden gems and places you can enjoy from beaches to lakes, mountains to cities – join my journey on my Facebook fan page because it’s chock full of incredible places to explore!

No airport lounges, boarding tickets or passports, it’s less complicated and less of a headache than getting to Ikebukuro from where I live, and who wants to go to Ikebukuro anyway?

A world away from anywhere remotely beautiful near the British Isles, at least in oceanic terms, Shikinejima is part of the 7 northern islands of the Izu archipelago, 160km due south of Tokyo and is part of the sub-prefecture of Tokyo Metropolis.  Yep, a sub-tropical island in Tokyo.

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

View of Oura Bay from pitch

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

Evening with some firework event happening

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

Panoramic of the bay

A small volcanic island populated with around 600 people it’s the smallest of the 7 and depending on who you talk to, the best to camp at.  Oura Campsite is slap-bang in Oura Bay giving incredible views of the sunsets and it’s even possible to see Mt. Fuji on good days.

In this NW corner of the island, there are 3 large bays all neighbouring each other, Oura, Naka-no-Ura and Kanbiki.  Naka-no-Ura is very popular with families and nice enough to swim at.  Beach facilitates include food and drink, parasols and chairs to rent, etc.  Lifeguards are quite overzealous.  Kanbiki can only be accessed by boat, kayak or jumping off a 100m cliff.  There you’ll find beautiful coral, lots of fish and best of all no other people unless they’ve made the same effort as yourself to get there.

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan


© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

View from above Kanbiki Bay with Naka-no-Ura and Oura in the distance.

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

Hiking (walking really) around Kanbiki

The site is free and to explain for anyone who might be confused here (because there are two meanings to free in Japan(ese)), Oura is free to pitch wherever and however you like and there are no fees to stay there. Usually ‘free site‘ just means you can pitch wherever you like.

Very easy going, no specific rules or regulations, no long check-in lectures about what you can and can’t do.  No forms as such to fill out with all your personal information, it just works as you might imagine a campsite should work and it’s very rare in this sense, in this country.

Oura campsite is located about 30m inland from the beach and the further away you pitch from the beach, the more rough the terrain becomes but the more shade there is too from the trees and in the summer, you will want that shade regardless of whether you have tarps or not.  Small tents only work here, you can’t pitch anything bigger that a two man really.  In these wooded areas it’s best to keep your tent locked up tight (as in no zippers even slightly open) as there are centipedes that grow 10cm wide and god knows how long with a really nasty sting.  One of those in your tent and you’re going to have a really bad day/night.

To back up a bit, I was invited to go to Shikinejima a few years ago and although the idea of the sun and the sea was very appealing, I couldn’t understand the enthusiasm my friend had for the place.  “It’s special”, he would always tell me.  I’ve seen nice waters in Japan, been to Okinawa, all around Kyushu, but it’s not the scenery he was talking about.

It is specialIt’s a combination of things that just work together in a nice little perfect storm that make it such an appealing place.  The sheer laid-backness of the place, the sites staff, the fact you can spearfish, it’s as free as I’ve ever felt in Japan and perhaps that’s the allure.  It’s no secret Japan is quite rigid, full of structure and rules and you’d think campsites would be a place you’d not experience any of this, but in my experience, there are too many places where it feels like you are booking into a concentration camp.  ‘Pets, plus 500 yen’.  ‘Pet’s other than dogs, 300 yen’.  What?  How can you even calculate that a cat should be 300 and a dog 500?  That’s…  animalism!  ‘Car, 1,000 yen’ – er, hello, this is an ‘auto camp’, no?…  What can you say, it is what it is.  I know now to do my homework, read other campers blogs to get a feel for the place before deciding heading to it.

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

Preparing caught fish (by rod) for following days breakfast

So, the location is incredible, the campsite a refreshing getaway from structure and rules but what is there to actually do on the island?  Not much, and I suppose that’s one of the reasons it’s not full of tourists wandering around with maps bumping into you.  It’s a little secret that you don’t want to tell anyone, but can’t help doing so.

You can rent a bicycle and transverse the whole island in half a day.  There are some free hot springs, there’s a hike to Toujin-Zushiro, a barren hilly section of volcanic rock. There are kayak tours, diving tours and lots of bays to swim and snorkel in.  I’m here primary to spearfish and Oura Bay is one of the only places in the whole of Japan that you can do that legally.

I’m by no means an experienced free-diver or spear-fisherman but I’m working on it each year.  The allure of diving with a stick and rubber band to catch fish for your dinner everyday is something that has stuck with me.  Much like photography, I know how it works but it’s still very, very magical.  A video of my first spearfishing outing a year before at Oura Bay you can see here.

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

Look Mum, no oxygen tanks!  Shot by a friend, many thanks!

It’s so very different to fishing from a boat or pier and something that if you try once, you might not ever what to fish any other way again.  Rather than being on the surface, chatting with your fellow fisherman, drinking a beer, spearfishing dictates you enter the arena of the fish themselves.  Your concentration and skill has to outwit their survival instincts which are pretty bloody good.  You’re further impaired by the fact that you are not in fact a fish, are a large predator sticking out like a sore thumb, can’t breathe underwater, can’t move quickly or nimbly, have limited time to stay at a certain depth, are battling natural positive buoyancy and your vision is telling you everything is 25% larger and much closer that it really is.

Fish keep their distance from anything they don’t know.  They may come close to you when you’re paddling in the ocean off the Caribbean but you’ll never be able to touch one.  Once you are in deeper waters with a stick intended to impale them, they somehow just know to not get close enough to let that happen.  Call it fishy instinct voodoo power, whatever, they just know, believe me.  You’ll note the difference when you free-dive with and without a spear.  Maybe they sense something, maybe our brain waves have a signature or murderous intent that doesn’t resonate with them so well!  Who knows.

It’s very hands-on, bow and arrow primitive hunting.  Though the fish is at a severe disadvantage weapons wise, it has its wits and survival instincts that you must outwit.  Not the same as sitting in a bush with a long range rifle and hitting a huge stationary target like a deer.  No sir, you got to get into the mix, get your hands dirty.  There’s no luck involved, no bait to lure or trick the creature, you have to immerse yourself in their world so much so that you can manoeuvre into a position that’ll give you the element of surprise, which is the only way to spear a fish underwater.  When it works and you come away with a decent catch, it goes without saying it tastes better than what you bought at the supermarket.

Over the two years I’ve been visiting the island, I’ve been lucky enough to make a lot of friends that frequent the campsite and even some of the locals themselves making the whole experience a little more ‘at home’.  

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

A few regulars that stay at the site are pretty nifty in the kitchen, note the brûlée on this cheese and potato bake!

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

Seaweed drying at different stages.  Who knew seaweed drying could look so good.

There is no wifi connection at the site, very weak and intermittent cellphone coverage depending on your carrier/position on the island.  No nearby shops, restaurants, vending machines and so on.  Important news and weather reports are broadcast over the island via large speaker every day at 5pm or immediately in the case of an emergency.  If you plan to stay for more than a few days, a week or more, your best source of information will be the people at the site who’ve stayed before, and the locals.  There’s lot’s of good titbits of information that can help to make your stay more comfortable and convenient.  Stuff you can’t find on the whole world wide web even!  Secret short cuts, secret paths to secret bays!

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

The not so secret secret bay.  Without a boat forgettabout getting here with anything more than 10kg equipment

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

Typical evening view from the site

If you’re heading out that way there are night ferries that run from Takeshita pier in Tokyo overnight or the hydrofoil which goes in the mornings and afternoons from the same place.  If you opt for the hydrofoil I recommend a pair of headphones and a music player – the boat makes repeating announcements of superfluous information in English and Japanese for the entire journey that would test the patience of a Saint.  Ferry accommodation varies from a blue sheet on the deck to luxury double beds in private rooms.

If you want to learn more about Japans hidden gems and places you can enjoy from beaches to lakes, mountains to cities – join my journey on my Facebook fan page because it’s chock full of incredible places to explore!

Oura Campsite, Shikinejima

  • No check-in or out times
  • Free to stay for up to 2 weeks
  • Area for preparing and washing food
  • Area for washing clothes
  • Clean and well maintained toilets and cold showers
  • No food, firewood or charcoal for sale on site though firewood mostly freely available
  • Drink machine on site for non-alcoholic drinks
  • Kitchen area permanently stocked with knifes, chopping boards, washing soap etc that you can freely use to prepare food