Updated: Jun 21, 2022
Japan is well known for its unique relationship with animals and nature. From the fox village in Miyagi prefecture, to the onsen bathing monkeys in Nagano, to the bowing deer of Nara, to animal themes cafes where you sit and play with cats, owls, lizards and more. These are all things you can experience here. One such place located in Hiroshima prefecture near the city of Takehara is a secluded Island with a dark past, Okunoshima. Commonly referred to as bunny island.
The Rabbits of Bunny Island
That's right, bunny island. Imagine a small island with thousands of rabbits living there without fear of any natural predators. Were all they do is eat, poop, multiply and look cute. Well most of them anyway. You might see one or two with a few scars from fighting each other. Even so, its a fantastic experience. These rabbits wont act like any you might find elsewhere. They are not afraid of humans, in fact its quite the opposite. Bring a head of cabbage or a bag of lettuce with you when you visit. I bought a few bags of lettuce and it worked wonders. Simply shaking the bag will alert all the rabbits near you and they will flock to you at the promise of food. They are not afraid to eat right our of your hand either. As I sat down on the ground to try and feed them, i found myself surrounded and swarmed. They attempted to climb up my chest and even perch on my shoulders just trying to reach the bag of food I held aloft. It was fantastic, and a little scary.
I had a rabbit as a pet when I was growing up and as such I was already aware. Rabbits poop a lot. A whole lot. It's everywhere. Thankfully it doesn't smell and looks more like food pellets, but I knew what it was. Don't let this deter you though, I just wouldn't recommend sitting on the ground like I did and you should probably either use hand sanitizer or wash your hands when you leave. But regardless, it was an adorable experience you wont find anywhere else.
The island with a dark past
The island is small and you can easily walk around it in a short amount of time. The coastline and view from the top of the hill offer some beautiful views of the surrounding Seto Inland Sea. There are also picnic areas, a nature museum (free to visit), and a single hotel there. Otherwise the island remains uninhabited by anything or anyone else. Just make sure you don't miss the last ferry back to the mainland if you are not staying the night on the island. Currently it is a protected safe haven for the rabbits that live there. If you love small fluffy balls of cuteness, then this is a definite stop for you. But while the rabbits are the reigning champions and attraction to the island, there is a dark past from the islands history that still remains.
Exploring the island will reveal several old buildings. Most of which are off limits and falling apart. The island was once a military base during World War 2. The base was kept top secret and the island itself was even erased from maps. The base was used to produce and test chemical weapons during the war, poisonous gas primarily. At least that's what I can recall from the stories people have told me and what I read and saw there. Very few who visit seem to have much if any interest in this past. Now its all about the rabbits.
How did the rabbits get there?
In hearing the stories from locals about the island, one mystery that remains is just how the rabbits got there. There are two main theories that seem to prevail. The first is that some students released a few onto the island. Possibly as an homage to the rabbits that were used in the testing of the chemical weapons, or just because they wanted to set free their class pets in a safe area. Either way, these few rabbits would quickly do what rabbits do and multiply. And with nothing to hunt them, they were left unchecked and became the thousands that reside there now.
Another theory is that they were survivors from the rabbits used to test the poisonous gasses being produced there. After the war, The base was destroyed and the animals were said to be euthanized. But if a few escaped that fate, then they might have multiplied in the years that follow. Whatever the case, the island remains scarred by its past while forging a new future as a have to rabbits and those that love them.
Getting to the island really isn't too difficult. Get off the Kure line, which runs between Hiroshima and Mihara, at Tadanoumi station near Takehara. From the station, take a right and walk towards the port. There you can buy a ticket and take a ferry out to the island. Just make sure to check the departure and return times. You do not want to miss the last boat off the island, or find yourself at the wrong dock with no boat and not enough time to run half way across the island to catch the last boat. Happened to me, and I had to sprint like a mad man to catch the boat before it left. That's what I got for assuming that the last boat would leave from the same dock I arrived on.
Despite the islands history, It is now a home to many cute bunnies and a place that offers a nice escape to those that visit. Stepping onto the island is almost like stepping into another world. The experience of shaking a bag of food and seeing dozens of rabbits come out of nowhere and right up to your feet is something truly magical. It is definitely another part of Japan that is perfect for getting lost in.