Dotted across the Philippine Sea lie a smattering of islands, stretching down southwards from Tokyo. Aogashima is the last isle that people call home in this far-flung archipelago: the few outcrops that can be found south of its sinister shores are unoccupied. And even though Aogashima looks like a paradise, few are courageous enough to reside there – or even visit for more than a day or so.
At first glance, though, Aogashima appears to be idyllic. Much of it is carpeted with verdant greenery, for instance, and the curious crater that dominates the isle also teems with jungle. Azure seas lap against the dramatic cliffs that encircle most of Aogashima, but the waves are particularly fearsome here. They frequently whip up into frenzied storms, in fact, that can make leaving the island by boat impossible for days on end.
Still, why would anyone need to flee this lush sanctuary? Well, the answer lies along one of Aogashima’s walking routes. Once part of the island’s principal road, the route has now fallen into disrepair: it’s crumbling and overgrown, with jungle crowding the walkway. The path winds its way down into Aogashima’s central crater.
Down here, the whine of mosquitoes grows much louder, and the humidity becomes more and more oppressive. Jets of steam hiss menacingly as they escape from underfoot, hinting at the island’s lethal secret. Something terrible lurks just below Aogashima’s crust, you see – and it’s more than capable of claiming lives.
Yet despite Aogashima’s terrible power, it’s actually surprisingly small. The island measures just over 2 miles long, in fact, and slightly more than 1.5 miles wide. And a generous portion of the isle is taken up by an impressive crater that’s almost a mile across. A little hillock sits within the hollow, complete with its own diminutive depression at the top.
And although more than 200 miles of ocean separates the little island from the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, Aogashima has close links to Japan’s capital. After all, Tokyo administers the 200 or so people that call Aogashima home. The city performs similar services for other isles in the Pacific, too. Iwo Jima and Okinotori are also both governed by the metropolis – despite the fact that they’re 750 miles and 1,080 miles away from it respectively.
Yet despite Aogashima’s links to the well-connected capital, traveling to the island is notoriously difficult. Due in part to its isolated location, anyone who wishes to access Aogashima must face the treacherous seas or take to the sky. The two-hour ferry service, however, often falls foul of the unpredictable climate. And if a storm comes in, the daily helicopter service can also be canceled.
Even when storms aren’t brewing, the island’s warm climate can still pose problems, and Aogashima is also subject to heavy rainfall. YouTuber John Daub can certainly attest to this. In 2017 the presenter visited Aogashima to record a special for his channel ONLY in JAPAN. While hiking, Daub commented that the “humidity level was insanely high” as sweat soaked right through his shirt.
The hiking route that Daub first found himself on is, in fact, one of the few transport links on Aogashima. As well as the paths that lead down from the basin’s wall to the settlement below, another route takes walkers on a treacherous journey to a precarious viewpoint on the edge of the island’s outermost crater. A single road winds across Aogashima, stretching from the isle’s south-western port through to the village on the north side.
High above sea level, nestled against one of Aogashima’s curious hillocks are the dwellings that the inhabitants of Aogashima call home. Yet although the village may appear to be one settlement to the uninitiated, it’s more accurately described as two hamlets. The communities – called Yasundogo and Nishigo – are practically conjoining, so they’re generally viewed as one entity.
One of the Aogashima’s principal occupations is farming. Yet although the islanders produce a variety of goods, the farmers cannot make much of a profit from selling their produce. Apart from Aogashima’s single retail store, you see, there’s simply no other places to tout their wares – so the smallholders themselves eat most of the fruits of their labors.
As well as growing their own produce, a number of islanders head to the port to seek sustenance. Yes, fishing is Aogashima’s second big industry, and the island attracts one underwater species in particular. Giant Almaco Jacks flood Aogashima’s shores in the warmer season, and their distinctive striped bodies are frequently seen in the clutches of fishermen.
Aogashima’s natural splendor aside, the island boasts few amenities. A few of the inhabitants run “minshukus,” a type of guest house that also offers food, to cater to visitors. The town is also home to a bar with catering options – an “izakaya” – a retail store, a post office and a school. The last is home to Aogashima’s sole traffic light, to educate students about road safety in busier parts of the globe.
Aogashima is home to one building that visitors may find quite special, though. The island is in fact renowned for its shochu: a distilled alcoholic drink that comes in a variety of flavors. And tourists can attend a tour of the facilities where the beverage is distilled and packaged. This behind-the-scenes trip involves a good amount of sampling shochu, too.
Aogashima’s residents have also come up with a more family-friendly treat. Torinabe, a type of chicken broth, is the island’s most celebrated delicacy. And it’s perhaps not quite what you would expect. Instead of being filled with juicy cuts of poultry, Torinabe is in fact predominantly made of chicken bones, belonging to hens whose laying days are behind them. This apparently gives the concoction a superior flavor.
With so few people choosing to live on Aogashima – no doubt put off by its deadly reputation – its residents are incredibly tight-knit. Daub described the islanders’ unified outlook in his video, saying, “The community on the island is small and close. When one student left the island for summer break, she was given a wonderful send-off.” But would they be so welcoming to an outsider?
Well, according to trained nurse and island newcomer, Moemi-san, the islanders’ hospitality is excellent. In an interview with Daub, you see, Moemi-san described her transfer to Aogashima. And moving to the island certainly hadn’t come as a shock to the young professional, who revealed her reason for wanting to move to such a dangerous place.
The young nurse had been desperate to come over, you see, as she’d lived on another of Tokyo’s islands before: Hahajima. “I was there until I was three years old,” she said. “After that I lived in different areas in Japan, but the island life is something that I love. When I became a nurse, there was a chance to come live and work here, and I thought it was a great chance.”
The young nurse had faced some hardships, however, since relocating to Aogashima. “When you work on an island like this, there aren’t a lot of medicines. There’s always a small amount of everything. On the island, there’s me and one doctor. We have to do everything ourselves, so it can be a real challenge,” she confided to Daub.
And there’s one reason in particular why working and living in Aogashima is so difficult. You see, the isle is not at all as it seems. Instead of being a secluded paradise, Aogashima is, in fact, an active volcano – and its inhabitants have built their homes right on top of it.
Indeed, labeling Aogashima “a” volcano may be an understatement. The island is comprised of the remnants of no fewer than four submarine volcanoes – oceanic vents that emit magma. And Maru-yama, the smaller cone that sits within the island’s massive crater, is also a volcano itself.
The volcanoes have existed here for thousands of years. The oldest volcanic part, known as Kurosaki, is situated in the north-west region of Aogashima and is believed to have formed first. Subsequently, a second volcano developed on the opposite side of the island and is now the larger of the two. Even the isle’s cliffs were forged by volcanic activity: they’re the result of previous eruptions.
Aogashima’s volcanoes are classified as stratovolcanoes, or composite volcanoes. Volcanoes of this type typically appear cone-shaped, and they are formed from sheets of various volcanic products such as cooled lava and a volcanic rock called pumice. Other notable stratovolcanoes include Mount Vesuvius, which infamously obliterated the Roman town of Pompeii.
As well as the volcanoes themselves, Aogashima is also home an impressive caldera called Ikenosawa. This geological phenomenon is more commonly known as a crater, and it’s a relatively common feature of a stratovolcano. The hollows typically form immediately following a volcanic eruption. At this point, the crust that covers the magma chamber is at its weakest and can subside into the cavern below – resulting in a huge surface crater.
As Aogashima has been formed from the fiery outpourings of volcanoes, its geology is decidedly volcanic in nature. The island is primarily composed of basalt, a black rock that’s formed by cooled magma. And another igneous rock called andesite is also prevalent. Generally lighter in tone than basalt, andesite is mainly associated with stratovolcanoes.
As the island comprises so many volcanoes, it’s unsurprising that Aogashima has been rocked by a number of eruptions over the centuries. Indeed, the most ancient is believed to have taken place in approximately 1800 BCE. And from then on, the island has continued to erupt sporadically. It wasn’t until the end of the 1700s, though, that Aogashima’s explosive nature became a truly terrible problem.
In the 1780s, you see, Aogashima was rocked by a number of earthquakes in quick succession. According to official records housed at Hachijo-jima, this phenomenon – called an “earthquake swarm” – began in earnest in the summer of 1780 and resumed the following year. But after the first round of tremors had subsided, something potentially more worrying happened: steam could be seen coming off the lakes in Ikenosawa.
And this ominous steam proved a portent of what was to come. In the spring of 1783 Maruyama erupted, and the subsequent sprays of molten lava meant that Aogashima had to be evacuated. At the time, the island was home to over 60 families: all of them fled. But the islanders’ prudence wouldn’t save them two years later.
In 1785 Aogashima rumbled once more – and this time, a number of the islanders weren’t so lucky. In that year, over 300 people called Aogashima home, but the population was almost halved by the volcano. As a result of a mammoth eruption, around 140 people who had lived on the island tragically lost their lives.
Surprisingly, the terrible events that had befallen the people of Aogashima didn’t stop the surviving islanders from returning to their homes. A scant 50 years on, former residents began to return to Aogashima’s shores. And the population continued to swell over the coming years. By 2009, more than 200 people were permanent residents.
And although the volcanoes have been silent since 1785, the threat is far from gone. After all, Aogashima is still classed as active by the Japanese Meteorological Agency – even though it hasn’t erupted for hundreds of years. Despite centuries of inactivity, the organization believes Aogashima is likely to spew lava again: it’s simply a matter of when.
The islanders have seemingly got used to Aogashima, though, and they’ve adapted their lifestyles to suit their unusual home. Many of the locals drive around the small island, for instance, rather than opting to cycle or walk. But their preference for getting behind the wheel isn’t to do with escaping the wrath of a volcano. It’s actually Aogashima’s wet and windy climate that makes bike rides an unpleasant prospect.
Still, living atop an active volcano has certainly benefited the islanders in at least one way. Residents have put the volcanic island’s naturally occurring steam to good use, it seems: it heats the locals’ homes, boils their water and cooks their food. And this innovative method of meal preparation has yielded some unusual foodstuffs, including volcano-steamed potatoes and eggs.
Travelers from further afield have also been visiting Aogashima to experience its unusual lifestyle. A great many of the tourists who are drawn to the island are day-trippers, presumably unwilling to spend the night huddled down on an active volcano. Nevertheless, there are some unique draws for holidaymakers.
For one, the island’s town boasts a very special bathhouse. That’s right: travelers who brave Aogashima can pamper themselves with steam from an active volcano. The geothermal sauna certainly isn’t for everyone, though. When YouTuber John Daub ventured inside, for example, he didn’t have a relaxing experience.
Once exposed to the volcanic steam, Daub commented, “I can hardly breathe, it’s like I’m breathing water.” And the YouTuber soon announced, “I’ve gotta get out. It’s just too hot.” However, after leaving the sauna, Daub came across another island quirk that suited him better.
Outside the facility, people can whip up a meal in pots positioned over the volcanic vents. Daub tried his hand at this and described the geothermal cooking process. “[The food] will be in [the steamer] for around 30 to 35 minutes,” he said. “There’s a lever under the steamer to turn it on and off, [and it harnesses] …all the steam that comes naturally from the ground.”
Aogashima also offers some incredible opportunities for hikers: how many people can say they have scaled an active volcano? The views afforded from its heights aren’t to be scoffed at, either. Travelers can head up to the Oyama View Park, for instance, to enjoy breathtaking views of the island. Meanwhile, other travelers opt to swap their hiking boots for flippers and go scuba diving.
Perhaps one of Aogashima’s biggest draws, though, is its serene atmosphere. And although you wouldn’t expect an active volcano to inspire calm in its inhabitants, visitors to the island have noted its relaxed aura. In 2016, for instance, one traveler who had been to Aogashima wrote in Japanzine magazine, “There’s not a lot of action on Aogashima, but it is a great place to unwind and experience Japan’s unspoiled nature.”
And it’s easy to see why. At night, the locals can stare up into a starry sky unblemished by the glare of city lights; in daylight, the quiet island is in stark contrast to the intensity of Tokyo and urban life. But still, no matter how attractive Aogashima appears, it remains dangerous. In 2007, the Japanese Meteorology Agency declared another eruption could be imminent. Only time will tell, then, when the volcano will awaken again.