Ōkunoshima, Japan’s Rabbit Island, is home to an ever-growing number of incredibly cute bunny rabbits. Ever since a few YouTube videos showing tourists being swarmed by the hungry critters went viral, it seems like everyone is heading to Okunoshima to explore this kawaii hotspot. However, is this increased tourism helping or hindering the furry locals? And what grim truth lies behind the island’s dark history?
A bullet train, a local train and a ferry transfer from Hiroshima and we had arrived. Rabbit Island.
As soon as you step off the ferry, little ears and whiskered noses poke up as far as you can see and you are forced to agree that this island is accurately named.
It’s estimated there are over 1,000 adorable rabbits on Okunoshima and they have quickly learned that people = food. Immediately, a group of young Japanese girls started to take selfies with the nearest flock of rabbits while a man with a giant bag of mini carrot batons was quickly surrounded. Armed with a few paper bags of rabbit food, brought from the ferry station on the mainland, we ventured out into the land of the bunnies.
It was an unseasonably warm December day and the rabbits were hungry. You don’t have to look long online to see videos of people covering themselves in rabbit food, which provokes rabbits to mob the person in question. Kasha and I admittedly both did this, enjoying the delicate way the rabbits used us as a table while trying not to giggle when a whisker tickled our ears. Check out the video below to see what its like to get covered in rabbits!
Looking around the island, it’s clear why the rabbits are so hungry: there’s simply very little natural vegetation left for the rabbits to eat. In fact, its obvious from the way their behaviour that the rabbits depend on the visitors bring them food. Though the population appears to be growing, according to scientists the rabbits here often suffer from malnutrition, caused in part to visitors bringing unsuitable food like cabbage with them – bunnies need more fibre for a healthy diet. Though the rabbits here have no natural predators, they are purported to live an average of just two years, eight years shorter than the average lifespan.
Moving away from the small crowd of tourists at the dock, we walked around the outer edge of the island. The feel of Okunoshima is a little spooky. We passed long abandoned tennis courts complete with mouldy umpire seat. It feels almost like the scene of a nuclear evacuation site. However, it’s the eerie buildings of this island that tell the true gruesome story of this place.
The history of Rabbit Island
In 1929, the Japanese government started bringing rabbits to the Okunoshima for top-secret chemical weapons testing. Yes, you read that correctly. This tourist island was once the factory centre for Japan’s poison gas production, specifically mustard gas, of which it produced six kilotons until the end of Second World War. Much of the gas would have been tested on the rabbits and historians have estimated that it could have killed approximately 80,000 people during Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s. The island was so renowned that it was dubbed “Poison Gas Island” by the locals and it was even wiped off official maps.
After the war, Allied forced demanded that Japan completely dispose of the chemical weapons factory. After disinfecting with even more chemicals and dumping equipment into the sea the island was finally incinerated using flame guns. The island was abandoned and became a local legend.
But how on earth this island become so full of adorable Bugs Bunnies? No one knows for sure how the rabbits came to Okunoshima, but a popular rumour is that the 1970s some Japanese schoolchildren released a handful of bunnies on the island and the population grew exponentially due to a lack of natural predators.
Should people visit Rabbit Island?
What’s fascinating about Okunoshima is that while it markets itself as a place to see cute animals, it’s also a chilling dark tourism site. Behind the fluff, visitors can delve into the island’s sinister past at the Okunoshima Poison Gas Factory Museum.
The small, independently-run museum goes into detail about the conditions for those who worked on the island and the effects of the gas produced here. The museum’s curator, Hatsuichi Murakami says of the museum, “If you ask why America dropped the atomic bomb, Japan should also ask why it made chemical weapons at Okunoshima.”
The other reason that it’s important to visit is for the rabbits themselves. The rabbits are considered wild and as such, no one actually feeds them. Considering the absence of natural vegetation as I previously mentioned, bringing food to feed them helps the population to stay healthy and lead happy lives. If an increase in visitors causes harm to the population then any restrictions could cause many of the rabbits to die from a lack of food brought in by visitors. So if you are interested in visiting please do follow some of my tips below for responsible travel so that we can keep this unique island of bunnies going into the future.
Tips for visiting Rabbit Island
- Bring food: specifically, fibrous rabbit food. Don’t bring cabbage, human food or leftovers as this is not good for the rabbits.
- There are water pans all over the island that you can refill with fresh water, these are crucial to the survival of rabbits in the area.
- Make sure to buy any rabbit food and water on the mainland or at Tadanoumi Port: they don’t sell anything on the island.
- Explore wider than the dock area and make sure to share out your food evenly to the rabbits that don’t benefit from the abundance of food by the docks.
- Don’t pick up the rabbits. They are a friendly bunch, but as they are essentially semi-feral they will be scared or stressed if you try to pick them up.
- Do explore all across the island. There are a number of walking trails you can enjoy that offer incredible views of the natural surroundings. There are beautiful beaches, a lighthouse and many panoramic viewpoints to discover.
- Don’t miss out on a chance to visit the Okunoshima Poison Gas Museum, it may be dark but it’s a chapter in history that is important to remember.
- Your journey to Tadanoumi Port is covered by the JR Pass, if you have one.
- There is only one place to eat on the island, the Usanchu Cafe at the Holiday village Ōkunoshima hotel. The food is nothing special but reasonably priced, but you can always bring your own packed lunch if you’d rather save some cash.
How to get to Rabbit Island
Getting to Okunoshima is actually quite simple. As with most of Japan, the transport is incredibly efficient and well signposted in English. The official website offers a detailed guide of how to get to Tadanomi Port and a ferry timetable to plan your 15-minute crossing to Rabbit Island.
You can purchase your ticket from the machine, which clearly indicates the cost of a ticket to Rabbit Island, return. What’s more, the port has a little shop where you can buy souvenirs and rabbit food as well as a place to store your bags for the day while you go exploring. They even have Wi-Fi so you can instantly upload your cute rabbit pics straight away!
Have you visited Rabbit Island? What was your experience of the island like? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear!