“On your free day, would you mind checking out Rabbit Island?”
One week into my business trip to Japan and I had an objective that I was more than willing to tackle: surround myself with fluffy bunnies and report back what happened. Gladly. Seriously gladly.
Rabbit Island, also known as Okunoshima, is just one of Japan’s many animal-themed islands. Last year, I conquered one with kitties. This year, it’s bunnies. Lots and lots of bunnies. Hundreds of them. On a tiny island with a circumference of just 2.5 miles.
Why is this island even a thing? Some say it’s because some dipshit school children released a bunch of horny bunnies in the 1970s. Naturally— without predators— they got in on and voila: Rabbit Island. But I like the other explanation better…
During World War II, Rabbit Island did not exist on maps. It existed as an island, yes, but was considered so hush hush that train goers would pull down their shades as they passed it. And that’s because the island was doing some super scary shit: making poisonous gas. Between 1929-1945, the Japanese army produced about 6,000 tons of mustard gas (Yperite), lewisite, phosgene and other poison gases on Rabbit Island. The secrecy was due to the fact that Japan was a signatory of the Geneva Protocol, which prohibited the use of chemical warfare. Use, not production or storage. With that loophole, the poisonous gas was created, stored, and then used (oops) during WWII on about 80,000 Chinese civilians, soldiers, and prisoners.
And some rabbits.
The rabbits were used as test subjects. And the bunnies bouncing around today— some say— are actually the descendants of those poor subjects. Maybe yes, maybe no. But we do know that the water supply has an arsenic level 49 times the environmental standard. And though there are little water dishes all around Rabbit Island, I have a feeling these rabbits might still be tapping into the supply.
Attacked by bunnies?
Tip: Aim for one of the earliest ferries at 7:40 or 8:30 if you want the place to yourself.
I jumped on the 9:40 ferry near Tadanoumi station and was slightly disheartened at how many people— especially children— joined to steal the bunny limelight. That is, until later when I saw the afternoon rush (see tip above). We crossed in a short 15 minutes. In the meantime, I entertained myself reading the signs around the ferry urging visitors to “pretty please from rabbits”: Do not chase or carry rabbits. Do not put fingers nearby rabbit’s mouth. And do not feed human food. I imagine some of these were the result of trial and massive error.
Just like my experience on one of Japan’s cat islands, I wasn’t immediately mauled by rabbits upon arrival to Rabbit Island. You first need to walk off the pier for that to happen. Nah, just kidding. I immediately took a right— most other passengers get on the shuttle bus to the visitor’s center— and was soon amongst fluffy woodland creatures. The bunnies are found in clusters of three or four. They run to greet you, somewhat terrifyingly, and then hesitantly search for food.
Picky, picky bunnies
Tip: Shop ahead of time at the supermarket for a variety of fiber-friendly veggies.
I had come prepared with conbini salad. It wasn’t my first choice but options ran low once I got to Tadanoumi. Other visitors were properly armed with bags of spinach, carrots, and actual rabbit feed. In my jealously, I found that it didn’t matter much. Just like small children, the rabbits were quite choosey. One eagerly consumed half of the cabbage in my bag, another would sniff a carrot and then saunter off like a bitch. If anything I learned that the rabbits on the quiet side of the island are hungrier. You’ll see the ones near the visitor’s center, pudgy from thousands of children shoving carrots in their faces.
I spent a portion of my Rabbit Island time trying to make friends. But the bunnies aren’t domesticated. They are wild and skittish and won’t magically climb all over you in adoration as some YouTube videos make it out to be. (Did they use magical bunny crack?) I got a nose kiss at one point— “Are you food, Tam?”— but found that I wasn’t falling over myself in heart-wrenching cuteness. Because I’m dead inside. Or it was hot as balls outside.
A wander inside the the past
Tip: When you disembark the ferry, turn right to walk around Rabbit Island versus jumping on the shuttle like everyone else.
Maybe the lemmings in the shuttle had it right, but I enjoyed my sweaty walk in solitude around the island. Few people do this. Most stay put near the visitor’s center (and its “rabbit poop” ice cream) or rent a bike for a quick circle. My decision to walk was made on purpose… to give some love to the neglected bunnies on Rabbit Island. And to explore the abandoned remains of its dark history.
All of the remains are on the Rabbit Island map available to the public and visible from the path around the island. Two specific structures beckoned me inside, where it was obvious that many others have tracked. The first was the abandoned poison power plant, a large building quite close to the port. Shattered glass from the many windows littered the floor. I love Lost in the Lens’ photos from his own exploration.
Later on, the poison gas storehouse was of particular interest to me. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at since the sign nearby was in Japan but you could tell that a shit ton of poisonous gas was once sitting around. In its place, just the concrete leftovers of their bases. Some Japanese wasps. And makeshift memorials.
The bunnies— high on arsenic or not— refrained from entering the relics of their yesteryears.
Fathom Away has some more details for how to visit the island (more than I’m bothered to write). The Crowded Planet has cute bunny pictures I just can’t even deal with. For other fun and unique things to do in Japan, check out my activity guide.