The lingering sulfur has made the remote island even more inaccessible. Flights linking Miyake to the mainland are canceled frequently because winds carrying volcanic gases threaten to damage airplane engines. Most islanders rely instead on a six-hour ferry ride to Tokyo. Four medical residents run the only clinic, forcing residents to go to Tokyo for any serious illness or injury.
Yuichi Okiyama said he had never thought about returning to Miyake after going to college in Tokyo. However, after the evacuation order was lifted in 2005, Okiyama, 44, visited the island to clean up his ancestral home. The ceiling leaked, the garden was overgrown with weeds and a family truck had rusted from volcanic ash.
After the visit, he decided to quit his job in Tokyo and move back to Miyake. He now operates a souvenir shop.
The recovery of Miyake, Okiyama said, could not be left to his parents’ generation, people who are in their 70s.
“I had to stand up,” he said, adding, however, that his wife and two daughters have remained in Tokyo for the sake of the girls’ education.
One of Okiyama’s sisters, Michika Yamada, 40, happened to be visiting the island from Tokyo. In 1983, the volcano erupted and the flowing lava overran her school, home and neighborhood.
“Everything was gone,” she said. “I don’t have any pictures of my childhood. All my memories are buried under the lava.”
“I miss the island sometimes, but it always stops me from returning when I think of the risk that I may lose everything again,” she added.
Another person who returned is Kenichiro Kikuchi, 36, who owns a bar here. As a child, he said, he had been obsessed with Tokyo.
“I really believed that Tokyo was above the clouds, because the airplane from Miyake flew up into the sky,” he said. “When a ferry from Miyake approached the jetty in Tokyo, I caught the whiff of Tokyo.”
To a child growing up on the island, he joked, the exhaust fumes of Tokyo represented “the most advanced and fresh smell.”
Still, after the evacuation was lifted six years ago, he chose to return here.
Asked why, he smiled shyly and said: “It’s simple. I was born here, so this is where I come back.”