The other day, a couple new friends took me hiking up Heart Rock. To hike Heart Rock, you must be accompanied by a tour guide with an entry pass. This is to protect the endemic flora and fauna that call this island home. The trail leads to the Chihiroiwa mountain and is named after the heart shape of the cliffside when viewed from the sea. The hike is peppered with historic relics and vibrant endemic species: rusted jeeps leftover from WWII, bomb shelters, ancient power plants, parasitic yellow nobbins peeking out from the red-clay soil, parthenogenetic geckos sunning on decayed logs, taro, shrimp, and ferns galore.
Along the Gajumaru forest pathway, there are vestiges of an old farm where my friend’s teacher had grown warabi, taro, and grapes. If you peer into the space beside the bamboo, you might spot his old well, and the clear space next to the stream the runs down the mountainside where he must have lived. Before he passed away, he had taught Chieko the ways of the forest: how to cut giant palm leaves into makeshift raincoats, to tell the difference between spored ferns, furry ferns and ferns good for lei-making, and to dwell near bamboo groves and running streams for a steady supply of bamboo cups and edible shoots. Chieko told me that in his youth, her teacher had walked down the mountain path, which had once been used to shuttle WWII jeeps, to attend the elementary school near Ogiura Beach.
At several points along the hike, there are the rusted remains of a few old jeeps from WWII. At other points, there is a thick cement bomb shelter, a huge hole dug into the side of the mountain in case soldiers needed shelter to protect themselves from gunfire above, and two derelict power plants now nearly covered over by soft green lichen.
Halfway to Heart Rock, we spotted four goats grazing across a ravine near the Gajumaru forest. In a post about Heart Rock and the Gajumaru forest, Ludy, an acquaintance of mine who has lived on the island for a few years, says “These goats were brought by the Japanese army during World War II for food since the Ogasawara Islands didn’t have any animals on land that could be hunted for food. After the war they were left to roam free and became wild.” Chieko informed me that there are usually two large herds that roam around the cliffside but that recently most of them had been gunned down, for they are a pest. There are no predators to keep the wild goat population in check so they gobble the endemic species and scamper about, increasing exposed bare soil and causing greater soil runoff, endangering coral reefs and marine ecosystems.
If you walk around Chichijima, you will see feral goat fences installed along the highway to keep goats at bay. Unfortunately, eating goats is banned since not too long ago many islanders were hospitalized after getting food poisoning from eating goat that had not been properly cooked. (Side-note: although eating goat is prohibited, islanders eat green turtle and chicken sashimi.)
Farther on down the hiking path, I spotted a wire cat cage and a few rat cages lying in wait. Since Ogasawara was made a UNESCO heritage site in 2011, greater efforts have been made to reign in the feral cat population. Originally, cats were brought to Ogasawara to keep rats at bay, but over the years the feral cat population has increased, endangering endemic bird species. They pose a risk to the endemic Bonin honeyeater (Apalopteron familiare hahasima) and brown bobby (Sula leucogaster) populations. Trapped rats are killed while feral cats are resocialized and put up for adoption at a cat shelter in town. If you are curious about island history or endemic and invasive species, check out this website assembled by California university students.
The very same leaf-umbrellas that Totoro’s minions use in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro sprout from this mountainside (I have to admit that, like a total anime nerd, I walked a long way back down the mountain holding one above my head). There are giant palm leaves that drape themselves over the hiking path. Chieko told me that in the old days, if suddenly beset by a rainstorm, hikers and farmers would take a knife and cut one of these huge leaves into a makeshift rain-jacket and umbrella. Chieko taught me the Japanese and English names for all the endemic species we encountered along the path, including a half-dozen varieties of ferns.
Eating a bento atop Heart Rock is a wonderful experience. Minajima was clear as day to the right, and the horizon beyond seemed to go on and on: the bonin blue ocean and the clear blue sky seemed to meld into one another. I saw a few whales breach in the distance and if I squinted hard enough, I could see a very faint outline of Hahajima in the distance.
This is a full-day hike, and hikers must stop at cleaning stations set at the foot of the mountain to remove invasive seeds and parasites from one’s shoes and clothes. I wouldn’t recommend hiking during the summer since it can get dangerously hot and humid. If you are moved to visit Heart Rock, then be sure to bring along a big jug of water, some sun protection, a camera, and a bento. Don’t count on phone reception!
There are few English speaking tour guides available to take foreigners up this breathtaking and historically rich site. My tour guide and new friend, Chieko Itoh, is a certified tour guide who speaks a little English and she might be willing to guide you as well (pm me for Heart Rock tour inquiries).