Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world
Bunnies everywhere! Japan's Rabbit Island
by Lucy Hornberger
Back in the early 1970s, so it is said, an elementary school class travelled to Okunoshima, a small island in Japan's Inland Sea, and released eight domestic rabbits. Those eight ancestor rabbits thrived in their new home - free from terrestrial predators and uninhabited after some unsavoury wartime activity
. Today there's a hotel on the island, and plenty of encouragement for the tourists who flock to visit those original bunnies' many hundreds of cute, furry descendants.
The ferry to the island takes just 10 minutes or so, and it's easy to distinguish the tourists from locals (who are going on to an outlying island) not only by their cameras, but by their bags of carrots, whole cabbages and even pull-along trollies loaded with cartons of hay and meadow grass. We thought that we were well prepared with a couple of kilos of carrots, but the Japanese tourists put our meagre preparations to shame!
Few self-respecting bunnies hang around the small port area, so it's better to head across the island (there's a free shuttle bus, or it's a 15 minute walk) where the hotel is fronted by an expanse of meadow that is the main rabbit-feeding area. Choose a spot, get out some food, and they will come! You'll get more interest in the morning, but at no time of day will a proffered carrot or cabbage leaf be completely ignored.
The official story is that there are about 700 rabbits on the island, but it feels like there are more. Many more! Wherever you go there are rabbits, the variety of colours - tan, black and white and even pure white - betraying their ancestors' origins as pets. There are also a gratifying number of adorable baby bunnies, although you'll have to look a bit harder to see them as they are much more timid than the adults and stick close to the bushes. Take a walk in any direction from the central meadow, and although the numbers thin out a little, there are still plenty of rabbits, approaching you on the sandy paths, or eyeing you hopefully from the undergrowth.
The rabbits are generally in pretty good condition, although eye injuries - mostly healed over - are rather common and a reminder that although these lucky rabbits have no terrestrial predators (foxes, weasels, martins) to worry about, there are still aerial ones around, hawks and crows by day and owls by night. We also saw a few rabbits with deformed jaws, possibly from over-grown teeth. It's not clear if there is any veterinary care provided - although the visitor centre staff provide and fill the large number of water bowls around the island, and presumably deal with any more serious injuries - ill rabbits being bad for business). In the end though, these are not pampered pet rabbits, but wild rabbits whose interest in humans simply extends to them providing a handy food supply. Indeed, although the rabbits will flock around you and even climb on to you to get food, few of them like to be touched or will tolerate being stroked (although we did meet exceptions to this rule).
It's all a bit like a fairy tale - an island where rabbits rule. The human visitors are simply courtiers. If you have a liking for rabbits, or simply an interest in Japan's more unusual attractions, then Rabbit Island will certainly prove memorable.
Rabbits are firmly on the map on Okunoshima Island, in Japan's Inland Sea.
Tadanoumi station, on the JR Kure line, is the station you need for Rabbit Island
The little ferry port is well prepared for foreign visitors.
If you haven't arrived prepared then buy your rabbit food supplies here at the port - strangely there is no rabbit food available on the island itself.
Approaching Rabbit Island.
Okunoshima 'Rabbit Island' is around 4km in circumference, so it's easily walkable. If you prefer to cycle, bikes can be rented at the hotel.
Rabbits in the main feeding area - the grassy meadow in front of the hotel.
Food? Do I smell food?
Meadow grass, cabbage, carrots… Visitors supply a healthy diet.
Visitors with food quickly gather a rabbit fan club.
New best friends.
No pushing. Please form an orderly queue!
Commercial rabbit food is not as popular as veggies, but receives a small but dedicated following.
Resting after lunch.
Off to explore again.
Patrolling the island's 19th century fortifications.
A picture of fluffy good health.
A shy baby rabbit.
Baby bunnies sleeping in a pile in a tree trunk.
This rabbit has its favourite spot by the umbrella stand in front of the hotel.
The bachelors gather by the hotel in the evenings.
The hotel staff get into the rabbit island spirit! (the netting protects the only flower bed on the island).
Article & photos posted April 11th, 2016
Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.