If you hope to visit sanctuaries in Japan where you can interact with animals in the outdoors, I'd recommend the following locations in no particular ranking. ( But if you have to know, the cat is my favourite animal)
1. Tashirojima, the most famous among all the cat islands in Japan
2. Nara, where you can personally experience the reciprocal bow when
you bow at a deer.
3. Zao Fox Village, where there are staff to manage both visitors and
4. Okunoshima, an island with a dark past now overrun with cute
While the rabbit does not rank highly among my favourite animals (Watership Down does rank highly among my top reads though) , I was nonetheless amazed by the Youtube clip of a lady feeding a herd of rabbits on 大久野島, and subsequent videos of visitors getting mobbed by rabbits as they fed them while lying on the ground.
So while planning a second trip to the Chugoku Region, Okunoshima immediately came to my mind. After an intensive bout of cycling at the Shimanami Kaido, this seemed to be just the right place for some rest and relaxation.
Many visitors could hardly contain their excitement as the ferry approached the island, their cameras clicking away even when the longest zoom could hardly produce any decent photos. When we finally set foot on the island. many passengers continued to stay at the pier, as they were overcome by the cuteness of the teeming rabbits.
There is only one hotel available on this island - Hotel Village Okunoshima 休暇村 大久野島, where there is also the option of stay on its campsite where all camping equipment will be provided. If you are planning to visit Okunoshima, do make an online reservation early. Alternatively, accommodation can be found near Mihara Port, but surely that means you do not have access to rabbits all the time, especially during the evening and early morning when there are less people.
It was a short ride on the shuttle bus from the pier to the hotel. The hotel staff were gathered right at the car porch to welcome the guests. Well actually no, even better there was a herd of rabbits all poised for handouts, as they must had long associated humans with food. From the hotel room, one could enjoy the view of the sea and see a field dotted with rabbits. I quickly headed out, camera in one hand and a bag of lettuce in the other.
There are signs in English to remind tourists of common sense in their interaction with the rabbits. They are wild rabbits after all, and one might easily forget that when they look so cute and docile just like domesticated rabbits. If you do intend to spend a lot of time taking photos and enjoying the company of rabbits, do get some greens from any supermarket before travelling to Tadanoumi station. Packets of rabbit feed are available for purchase from the ferry kiosk at Tadanoumi Port, but it might be crowded, so missing a ferry just to queue for feed might waste precious time off a typical 2D1N trip.
There's no option for "I'd just feed a few rabbits" - even if you are just feeding a few of them discreetly at a corner of the field, many more will quickly come running your way. The lettuce that was intended to last for 2 days disappeared quickly. Well don't feel bad if you run out of food, as there are many more visitors feeding them and even there were none, they can still subsist on the abundant vegetation.
The next morning I went to explore the historical aspect of the island. Okunoshima was also known as 毒ガス島 Poison Gas Island, and was erased from all official maps by the Japanese government since the 1920s, and only reappeared two years later after the end of WWII. It had secretly served as a research and production base for chemical warfare, while Japan signed the Geneva protocol in 1925 which prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in war.
For those who might cringe at the thought that the rabbits today might be tainted, that their ancestors were once subjected to research experiments, well it is more probable that they descended from pets released by a Japanese school class in the 70s, which quickly multiplied in the absence of predators.
There is a poison gas museum on the island, but I skipped it as the exhibits detailing the horrors of chemical warfare were unrelated to the island (for furthur reading, do have a look at this blog entry here.) I did learn much about the dark past of the island from a documentary entitled 綾瀬はるか 戦争を聞く, which was produced by TBS. While many people still resent or hate Japan for WWII atrocities, many of the Japanese whom were regarded as perpetrators were very much victims themselves too , such as those whose health continued to suffer from prolonged exposure to chemical agents.
In the documentary, Ayase Haruka interviewed Mr Fujimoto, who once worked on Okunoshima. What he said made a lasting impression on me - he will never forget the production methods of poison gas, as doing so means forgetting the crime that had been inflicted upon the victims of the Sino-Japanese War.
Most ruins on Okunoshima had signs which included English translations together with Japanese text. This pier here became disused as it was visible from the mainland and any activity would have exposed the secretive operations of the research and production facilities.
This building was the power plant for all the production facilities, which had been reduced to ruins by the American forces. (The hotel was built on the site of the poison gas factory) There was a low fence and No Entry sign , which did little to deter any foraging rabbit or curious visitor.
It felt surreal walking in this building, the emptiness and silence bearing no indication that this place played a part in WWII, yet giving one time and space to reflect on its history which is disconnected from the appeal of rabbits that continues to draw tens of thousands of visitors annually.
It was a pleasant hike around the island which eventually led me to the highest vantage point of the island, where one can enjoy the view of the surrounding islets. Along the way, a rabbit would pop up and look expectantly for food, but there was none to spare by the end of Day 1.
A 2D1N visit to Okunoshima is strongly recommended if you are travelling to Hiroshima.
From Osaka/Hiroshima : Take JR Shinkansen to 福山 Fukushima, switch to JR Sanyo Line to Mihara 三原, then switch to JR Kure Line to Tadanoumi 忠海. Walking to the port from the station takes 5 - 10 minutes. To plan train route, you can use Hyperdia
Ferry time chart:
Take note of the ferry timing for your return trip too, so do take a photo of the chart when you arrive at the ferry ticket kiosk.