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A bunny abundance on Japan's Okunoshima

AAP logoAAP 11/01/2017 Michael Wayne

It's midnight and I'm sitting on the shore of a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan. Aside from a man performing a silent kata on a nearby jetty, I'm alone with my thoughts.

Until a rabbit emerges from the darkness to sit with me. Despite myself, I begin to share what's on my mind with my cute, fluffy companion.

It's not the first rabbit I've seen today, nor the first I've seen this past hour. I'm on Okunoshima, better known as Rabbit Island (Usagishima). And it's full of them.

It was quite a shock to arrive here, despite the pictures of cartoon and actual rabbits at every train stop along the way to prepare us. By the time you reach the ferry station at Tadanoumi Port, you think you know what's coming.

Except you don't. Nothing can really prepare you for a visit to Rabbit Island. It's only as the ferry approaches the island's dock and you can see the locals lined up on the shore to greet you, that it finally sinks in: it's an island full of rabbits.

You don't have to have a passion for rabbits to come here. The island, with a circumference of four kilometres, features nature trails, hikes, campsites, a six-hole golf course and an enticing mix of history and mystery.

And bunnies. Lots of bunnies.

For the Japanese, it's just another animal-centric location. There's Deer Village in the city of Nara, Fox Village in Miyagi Zao and Tashirojima, a former fishing island home to hundreds of cats. Even worldwide, Rabbit Island stands alongside Pig Island in the Bahamas, Pony Island in the US, Monkey Island in Puerto Rico and the ever-popular Snake Island in Brazil.

Given that rabbits reproduce at the drop of a hat, an island full of them might not seem like much of an achievement. Luckily, it's the chequered history of the island itself that makes Okunoshima unique.

During the Second World War, the island played host to a manufacturing plant for poison gas. The market for chemical warfare bottomed out after the war, so the island was abandoned, and has remained so ever since. Walk around Okunoshima and you'll pass buildings left to rot, stray photographs of smiling workers, cheering soldiers from decades past. Eerie reminders that nothing lasts forever.

It's unclear how the bunnies came to Okunoshima. Some accounts suggest they're the descendants of rabbits used as test subjects for the gas. Others say pet rabbits were dumped on the island in the 1970s. However it happened, they're here now, and they're not going anywhere.

Especially if you've got food. The rabbits are feral but friendly, and will stop at nothing to get treats from travellers. Tadanoumi Port sells bags of pellets, but once you're on the island, there's nothing, so stock up. Your reward will be a fuzzy army that will follow you to hell.

No official number exists, but there are hundreds of rabbits on the island. They're not studied or analysed; they're simply allowed to roam free.

Wherever you go on the island, the bunnies are there. It's almost like walking through gang turf. Each outfit sports different colours and behaviour. In my two days on the island, I don't think I see the same bunny twice. And I'm really looking.

Even at the summit of the island's mountain, I'm approached by a pair of hillbilly bunnies who clearly aren't as loved as those on the shore. As I kneel to feed them, one of them launches himself at my jacket, tearing the pocket apart to get to the pellets.

No wonder you're up here, fella.

Bunnyphiles who just can't get enough can stay at the Okunoshima Holiday Village, a beachfront resort featuring traditional Japanese rooms and a communal bathhouse. It's nice, but I can't escape the feeling of reversal: back in the world, we lock our rabbits up at night.

During my night-time bath, I look out the window to see a few bunnies leering at me from the dimly-lit courtyard below.

What strikes me most about Bunny Island is its purity. Despite the poison factories, the environment is unspoiled. The staggering views of the ocean and other islands are almost primeval. The rabbit's are instinctive, just trying to survive. No lies, no deception, no mistrust, no malice.

To travel is to free yourself from routine, to try and restore some balance. In a place like this, so wild and so primal, I feel my mind shaking off the shackles of humanity.

Okunoshima makes a good case for life without humans. The bunnies don't need zookeepers or custodians. They don't need us. Yes, it's weird and a bit of a novelty. It's a place where we can lie down, smother ourselves in pellets and get covered in bunnies if we so choose.

But on this island, in their world, we are the novelty. We're walking sources of treats. We sleep in the cage.

They live, love, eat and die on their own terms. They've established their own equilibrium with the planet.

Why can't we?

Back on the shore under the midnight moon, it's chilly and I pull up the collar of my jacket. The cold doesn't bother the locals, though; they're all wearing fur coats 24/7.

Feeling selfish, I turn to give my thinking companion a pat in thanks for listening, and a pellet for his thoughts.

He's already gone.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Okunoshima is only accessible by ferry. The nearest city is Hiroshima, where you can catch a bus or train to JR Tadanoumi Station. From there, it's a short walk to the ferry station. Visit qkamura.or.jp/en/ohkuno/access/ for more details.

STAYING THERE: The 65-room Okunoshima Resort is the only accommodation on the island. Day trips are possible, but if you want to spend the night, rooms start from around $A106.00 per night. Visit qkamura.or.jp/en/ohkuno/rooms for further info.

PLAYING THERE: Bicycles are available for hire at the resort, and bags of pellets are on sale at Tadanoumi Port on the mainland.

* The writer travelled at his own expense.

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