Join Suzanne Kamata and her daughter, Lilia, on their fascinating trip to Ōkunoshima, a tiny Japanese islet inhabited by hundreds of adorable wild rabbits.
I first learned of Ōkunoshima from a Canadian friend’s Facebook post. She’d shared photos of herself surrounded by feral rabbits. The islet, just off the coast of Shikoku island and only accessible by ferry, was home to hundreds of these adorable animals. How unusual, I thought. And how cute! Surprisingly, few Japanese people I talked to seemed to know about this place. However, the moment she saw it featured on a TV travel show, my sixteen-year-old daughter Lilia, who is deaf and has cerebral palsy, indicated that she wanted to visit.
‘It’s really far,’ I told her. ‘At least three hours by car.’
‘We can take the bus,’ she signed to me.
Being charmed by the idea of an island full of bunnies, I wanted to visit as much as Lilia did, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew that there was no direct bus from our town in eastern Shikoku to Tadanoumi where we would board the ferry to Ōkunoshima. My daughter uses a wheelchair, making changing buses a bit of a hassle. So when I chanced upon a flyer advertising a one-day bus tour to Ōkunoshima, my heart leapt. I immediately signed us up.
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We got up extra early that sunny Sunday and met our tour guide in a gravel car park near the town gym. I had told the tour guide that my daughter was disabled, but that it wasn’t a big deal. We climbed into the front seat as the guide greeted us with tea and packaged rice balls. We gazed at lush green terraced fields, yellow roadside wildflowers and flooded rice paddies. The landscape outside our window might have been lifted from the 1988 animated film My Neighbour Totoro. ‘Inaka,’ Lilia signed. I agreed that we were deep ‘in the countryside’.
I was a little worried that, once we reached the island, my daughter would find the real-life rabbits annoying. I remembered how, on a school trip, she had been bothered by the notoriously aggressive deer in Nara Park on the island of Honshu. One hungry animal had even tried to nibble her notebook. What if the rabbits tried to browse her fingers or mobile phone? But as we rolled along the highway, Lilia reminisced about the rabbit that she and kindergarten classmates had once cared for. When the animal died, the children held a little ceremony while burying it.
As we approached the port, finally catching a glimpse of the sea, the tour guide gave us some final instructions. ‘Don’t give the rabbits snacks,’ she said. Instead, we could buy proper rabbit food at the port. The bus turned down a narrow road flanked by brown-tiled houses, many boasting solar panels. Finally we arrived at a car park next to a small cluster of buildings. Although seemingly in the back of beyond, a long line of people already snaked around the corner from the ferry dock. The tour guide seemed a bit nervous. ‘It’s a small boat,’ she said, ‘and they don’t accept reservations’. She hurried off to buy our tickets.
Upon return, the tour guide informed us that the passengers were lined up for an earlier ferry. We would be able to board our boat, as intended. Phew! With half an hour before departure, we all got off the bus. Lilia and I entered a small building with a big clock to buy packets of rabbit food.
Upon boarding, most passengers went above deck. We were directed to the lower level, along with several young families with buggies. It was shaded and cool. We stayed to one side as three lines of cars were ushered onto the ferry. Lilia, who has always been far more sociable than me, tried to get me to start a conversation with a blonde foreign woman, husband and three kids. I didn’t really feel like talking, so resisted my daughter’s entreaties, suggesting that we simply relax, enjoying the wind on our faces and the sight of the waves. Nevertheless, I was intrigued. Given that most Japanese people had never heard of Ōkunoshima, it seemed remarkable that several groups of foreigners – on this ferry alone – were bound for the island.
The crossing took twenty minutes. I half-expected hordes of rabbits to greet us upon disembarking, but it was hot. The first bunnies I spotted were lolling beneath bushes, their energy sapped by high temperatures and humidity. I pointed them out to Lilia. ‘There, in this burrow. Under that picnic table.’
The tour guide had arranged for a minibus to transport my daughter and me to the Usagi Lunch Café, where our group would eat. It occurred to me that this was the first Japanese island I had visited that wasn’t home to stray cats. ‘Are there any predators on this island?’ I asked our driver. He thought for a moment. ‘Maybe crows.’
We arrived at the restaurant. Here diners with a sense of humour could order pancakes branded with bunnies, white rice moulded into rabbit shapes surrounded by curry, and long-eared rice-filled omelettes. After lunch, we set out to explore. The bunnies were not hard to find. On a grassy lawn, we settled in a shady spot under some trees. Some bunnies were similarly seeking solace from the sun, so we tempted them closer by offering titbits. I was worried that they might bite our fingers, but they were docile and friendly, nibbling only on the food offered. ‘Kawaii!’ Lilia said. ‘Cute!’
Although the rabbits now live in the wild, they are supposedly descendants of domestic rabbits. The most anodyne story goes that, in 1971, children released eight of the creatures on to the island. As is rabbits’ wont, they swiftly proliferated: now some seven hundred call it home.
There is an alternative, more sinister theory as to how the rabbits came to inhabit the island. Unbeknownst to many Japanese, from 1929–45 chemical weapons were manufactured for the Japanese Army on Ōkunoshima. This project was so secret that, during this period, the island was omitted from most maps of Japan. The poisonous substances produced – including mustard gas, tear gas and phosgene – were used more than two thousand times against the Chinese during World War II, killing eighty thousand people. Rabbits were allegedly introduced so that the effectiveness of the gases could be tested. A different take on the leporine history is that the current population is descended from test rabbits released after the chemical-weapon facility was destroyed in 1945 by US Armed Forces.
Whatever the truth about the rabbits’ arrival, Japan is no longer secretive about Ōkunoshima’s poisonous past. Lilia wanted to visit the island’s Poison Gas Museum, which she had also learned about from TV. Having toured both the Hiroshima Peace Museum and the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, she was familiar with the horrors of war and keen to learn more about history. Saving a bit of rabbit food for later, we made our way to a small building with a red-brick facade. The exhibits – gas-making materials, factory-worker clothing and photos – take up only two rooms, but their impact is strong. It is little wonder that the museum guide ‘makes an appeal for everlasting peace’.
Back under the hot afternoon sun, we wandered slowly back toward the port, dispensing rabbit food as we went. Perhaps, I reflected, these kawaii bunnies were released here to live freely in atonement for those that had suffered and died. On Ōkunoshima, they are now protected from anything that might kill them. Signs prohibiting roadside feeding keeps the rabbits out of the way of oncoming cars. An island of death and war has become one of life and peace. As we lined up for the ferry to return home, my only regret was that we couldn’t stay longer. Then again, now that we knew how to get there, we could always hop back.
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