Rabbit Island, officially known as Okunoshima, is on the must-visit list for many people coming to Japan. And who can blame them? Hundreds of little balls of fluffiness hop around you soon after you arrive on the island—but there is more to Okunoshima than just their cuteness.
1 rabbit, 2 rabbits, 800 rabbits
The rabbit population on Okunoshima is massive and is even strictly protected by banning all other pets such as cats and dogs from the island. The rabbits, however, are wild and not your average pet rabbit that hops around in people’s backyard. What Okunoshima’s rabbits do share with their garden-exploring compatriots is that they are very friendly to people.
Something you should not expect though is that they will sit still on your lap or be particularly cuddly. Luckily, they will gladly eat some snacks out of your hand which allows you to get up close and make a new friend. Many people bring some snacks from the mainland but you can also buy a small pack at the visitor center.
The friendliness of the rabbits make Okunoshima a great destination to visit with the family. It is a joy to see children running around hopping after the rabbits with a big smile on their face. Be careful with children who are a bit timid as the sight of dozens of rabbits rushing towards you for a snack can be intimidating to a small child.
Finding the rabbits is not hard but particularly high levels of fluff are reported around the visitor center, Hotel Kyukamura (the only hotel on the island) and the nearby shrine. Which brings us to a very important question.
Where do the rabbits come from?
Well, there are two answers to this question and each of them could be the truth. The first is relatively innocent as it tells us the rabbits are descendant of 8 rabbits that were set out by a group of elementary school kids.
The other theory is far from innocent and reveals the island’s darker past. During the first World War, both sides of the war frequently used chemical weapons causing not only death but also severe harm that scarred the men who survived an attack for the rest of their lives. The end the atrocities nations, including Japan, signed the Geneva Protocol which prohibited the use of chemical weapons.
The Imperial Japanese Army, however, started developing chemicals weapons in a secret location in 1925. This location was Okunoshima. The island was removed from all official maps and the island became a military stronghold producing poison gas that would later be used in Japan’s war against China in particular.
Rabbits were brought over as test subjects to see the effectiveness of the gas. When the war came to an end, the surviving rabbits were set loose and began living their own life as the factories and labs were reduced to abandoned ruins.
For a long time, there were rumors that the rabbits were still exposed to certain chemicals and could be harmful, but there has not been any evidence supporting the rumor.
The Poison Gas Museum was opened in 1988 to share this story of Okunoshima’s past. Although it is, as you might expect, a small museum, it is certainly worth visiting to learn the island’s obscure history. The museum is open every day from 9:00 to 16:30 for a minor admission fee of ¥100 for adults and ¥50 for children and teens.
Apart from industrial buildings, there are also many shrines and small temples scattered around the island, so please do take your time to explore!
Getting to Rabbit Island and travel tips
The closest major city to Okunoshima is Hiroshima. From JR Hiroshima Station you will want to take the train to JR Tadanoumi Station from where you take a ferry to take you to the island.
The first trek of your trip will take about 2 hours. Luckily, the ferry terminal is just around the corner from the station and the ferry ride only takes 12 minutes. A return trip on the ferry costs ¥600 and leaves roughly every hour from 7:30 to 16:25 but the last return is 16:00.From the ferry terminal at Okunoshima, a free shuttle bus takes you to Hotel Kyukamura.
Where people go, vending machines follow. At least in Japan, as even Okunishima has plenty of vending machines to grab yourself a drink. Snacks, on the other hand, are rare so it is best to bring some along for yourself and your new friends of course. For those wanting to stick around a bit longer, you could opt to bring a tent as there is a camping site on the island.
It is best to go to the island during the week as it’s quite concentrated on weekends in the spots mentioned earlier!