There are so many amazing things to do, see and experience on Batanes, my new favorite place in the world. For those of you who have never heard of Batanes, don’t feel bad, as this remote and wild island is a best-kept-secret even among travelers in Southeast Asia or even those visiting the Philippines!
The location itself is remarkable, as the island sits far north of the Luzon mainland, the furthest and northernmost island out of the entire archipelago. That means when you stand on the shore of Batanes and face north, you’re looking directly at Taiwan and then China (hundreds of kilometers off), with all 7,500 (or so) Philippines islands at your back! Astounding!
Furthermore, the landscape is literally jaw-dropping. I’ve described Batanes as equal parts Scottish coast, Novia Scotia, and Northern California’s Lake Tahoe, with just enough tropical Philippines sprinkled in. There is virtually no crime on the island, with only one town of any size (Basco, with 8,000 of the island’s 18,000 residents, and a quiet, bucolic, fish-village vibe.
On the first afternoon I arrived in Batanes, I decided to take advantage of a crystal clear day (in the middle of typhoon season) and took a several-hour tour of the northern portion of the island, with its rolling hills, scenic café, lighthouse, and stone churches. We also visited some remarkable man-made caves.
Known officially as the Dipnaysupuan Japanese Tunnels (but simply called the “Japanese Tunnels”), this series of human-constructed inner earth caves has an interesting history that juxtaposes the peaceful landscape.
When World War II first broke out in the Pacific theater, one of Japan’s first movies was an invasion of a small series of islands far to the south and so unnoticeable that most maps didn’t even show them. The Japanese army came to Batanes in 1942 and encountered little resistance by the small group of indigenous clans and fishermen there. The Japanese set up small naval and airforce outposts there, a high-value sortie thanks to the island’s strategic position equidistant to China, Japan, the Philippines capital of Manila where U.S. forces were stationed, and points.
But the Japanese also knew that they were extremely vulnerable to attack at any time from the U.S. forces, either by sea or by air. So, they conscripted (forced!) the local residents of Batanes to dig them a series of tunnels in the Tukon hillside, perched perfectly to spot any oncoming vessels approaching, or as a natural bunker where the Japanese troops could hide in the event of an attack.
While there were no reports of torture or killings during the construction, the implied fear of death made it, so the locals dutifully dug – including children – to finish the tunnels without protest.
The result is still the tunnels we see today, which almost look like Bilbo Baggin’s little house from the outside, with four interior chambers, a bunker, guard post, and steep (and slippery) steps carved into the stone that descends to a water reservoir. There are also five entrances and exits, some just round holes in the rock face disguised by vines and growth, with others cement slabs with small openings you’d have to nearly crawl to get through.
It’s worth a visit to the Japanese Tunnels if you ever are blessed to go to Batanes, both for the tour through the caves and the history lesson!