Friday September 2nd – Sunday September 4th, 2016
Swimming and snorkeling with dolphins is something I’d never really given much thought to, and certainly not at Mikurajima, an island about 200km, or 120 miles, south of Tokyo and technically part of the capital’s metropolis. I had heard that getting to the island was a hassle (because of weather conditions the boat doesn’t always dock), not to mention stories of rough seas and seasickness. Scuba diving is also not permitted so for me, the island didn’t seem to offer much. But this year I decided to see what it was all about, accompanied by a group of friends who insisted that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
With an imposing presence, volcanic Mikurajima is home to rich forests of lush green, a series of gigantic trees rooted deep into the soil. There are also a couple of shrines, steep hills, a hiking trail and nutritious water that flows down into the sea. Home to around 300 people, life on the island is slow and tranquil. The Kuroshio current flows around it, providing an environment that’s most suitable for marine life. There are no beaches, just huge cliffs falling to the shore, which mainly consists of giant rocks and pebbles.
The minshuku, or inns, on the island, have their own boats and arrange dolphin swims and rental equipment. Sunscreen is a must on the boat due to the lack of shade, and it’s also a good idea to take a seasickness tablet. Depending on conditions at sea, the boat travels slowly along one side of the island towards the pods of dolphins. With around 200 of them surrounding Mikurajima, sightings are almost always guaranteed. Once a pod has been spotted, the rest is simple — masks, snorkels and fins are quickly put on, and everyone jumps into the water, swimming in the general direction pointed out by the captain. Whether you come close to the dolphins, or even better face-to-face, is not certain, but with any luck, they will come close out of curiosity so the calmer you are (it’s important not to chase the dolphins or thrash around) the better the chance of watching them doing their own thing. Their squeals of communication also sound incredible underwater.
To get as much out of the tour as possible, swimmers jump in and out of the boat several times. If you’re not used to swimming this can be tiring, and frustrating if you jump in and find that there aren’t any dolphins after all. Depending on time and customers’ level of experience, some minshuku offer basic snorkeling and swimming lessons beforehand, although it’s probably best to arrange this yourself before you go. Visitors are only allowed three two-hour tours over a weekend, so everyone gets as much time as possible with the dolphins.
Mikurajima was a wonderful weekend get-away. In addition to the dolphins, we enjoyed delicious hearty meals at our minshuku and some excellent gelato at a tiny souvenir shop down the road. My friends were spot on — it didn’t disappoint.
- We travelled to Mikurajima on the overnight ferry from Tokyo’s Takeshiba pier, and booked areas below deck to sleep in. We slept in the second class cabin, which consisted of small areas on the floor to lie down on. Blankets can be rented for 100yen each, and a small pillow is provided as well as an overhead locker for each person. A return ticket to Mikurajima is a little over 9,000yen. The boat was renovated two years ago, so everything is comfortable, clean and brand new. There is a restaurant (only open at certain times in the morning and from 17:00 to 19:00 in the evening) serving basic food like noodles and curry, vending machines with drinks and Haagen Dazs ice cream, showers and toilets.
- The boat docks at Mikurajima around 6:00AM and staff from your inn are there to pick you up. Note that you cannot disembark unless you have accommodation booked (no camping is allowed).
- Our inn (Yado Marui) was around two minutes up a steep hill by car from the port. On arrival, you are shown to a huge communal room with sofas, tea, coffee and a TV to get ready for the first dolphin swim, which begins around 8:00AM. Rooms are usually not available until lunchtime. One important thing is leave a towel and change of clothing in the bath and shower area, for when you come back after the first swim.
- Having changed into swimming costumes and prepared masks, fins, and snorkels, everyone gathers outside the front door at 8:00AM for a briefing before being driven to the port. Staff provide thick waterproof jackets for the boat in case it rains or seas are rough.
- Don’t forget sunscreen and a seasickness tablet. Seas can be rough and there are no shaded areas on the boat. It’s not worth taking bags, hats or anything else that could get wet or lost.
- After the first tour ends at 10:00AM, staff will take you back to the port and the minshuku. A heated bath and some showers await so customers rinse their masks, snorkels and fins in the outside washing area before having a shower and bath. Swimming costumes can be rinsed while taking a shower. Shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and hair dryers are all available. After washing, spin your swimming costume in the washing machine and hang it upstairs in the drying room. Customers then have free time for lunch.
- There is a restaurant down the hill from the minshuku serving set meals of rice, fish (raw fish or grilled), miso soup, pickles, curry etc for around 1,300yen. There is also a curry/pasta restaurant and souvenir shop that sells T-shirts, tote bags, key rings, stickers etc. They also do great gelato (mix of fruit flavours and yogurt flavour), about 300yen for a cup.
- The next swim starts around 14:00 and lasts until 16:00.
- Dinner is available at the minshuku from 18:00. We had a great BBQ of yakisoba, meat, vegetables, as well as raw fish and rice. There are no pubs and not much of a nightlife on Mikurajima but there is a shop nearby that’s open during the day, selling things like beer, toiletries and snacks.
- The minshuku rooms are traditional Japanese, with tatami straw mats, paper doors and futon. They are big enough for at least five people.
- Most customers do two swims on the day they arrive, and one the next day before taking the boat back to Tokyo.
- On the day of departure, before the 8:00AM tour, you must check out of your room and leave all your luggage in the communal room. After returning, showering and more packing, payments are made around 11:00AM. A dolphin swim is 7,000yen per swim, and one night at the minshuku (with dinner and breakfast) is 8,000yen. Breakfast is a simple set meal of rice, miso soup, pickles, natto (fermented soybeans), grilled fish and dried seaweed.
- Customers must be at the port for the ferry by 12:00PM. Usually people walk down the hill themselves while the staff follow by car with everyone’s luggage. After having tickets checked at the port, the boat departs around 12:30 and arrives in Tokyo at 20:45 via Miyakejima and Oshima Islands. We had areas below deck to sleep in but the restaurant opens around 17:00, and if the weather is nice it’s good to sit on deck and watch the Izu Islands pass by. You can also buy T-shirts, stickers and other souvenirs at the port at Mikurajima.
- English-speaking dolphin swims can be booked through Tokyo Gaijins (http://www.tokyogaijins.com/upcoming/miyakejima-2015jun20-21.php). The group stays at neighbouring Miyakejima (where it’s possible to camp and scuba dive) and travels by boat to Mikurajima to see the dolphins. The journey time is around one hour.