Japan is a hugely diverse country, especially when it comes to its thousands of islands. There are approximately 6800 to choose from, so you don't have to go far to find mountains, beaches, coral reefs and quaint little villages. Many of the islands are almost untouched by tourism so make for an exceptionally traditional experience. From the Rough Guide to Japan, here are 20 of the best.
Kagoshima’s most stirring sight, the volcanic cone of Sakurajima grumbles away just 4km from the city centre, pouring a column of dense black ash into the air. The island is a great place to head for an onsen (hot spring): unlike most facilities around the country, the island’s smouldering cone provides tangible proof of just how its water has been heated.
Once the centre of the Ryuku kingdom, Okinawa-Hontō, or Okinawa Main Island, is a strangely ambivalent place. Locals are fiercely proud of their Ryuku heritage, and yet the competing cultures of Japan and America are far more prevalent. To some extent, the island still feels like occupied territory, especially central Okinawa-Hontō, where the American bases and the nearby “American” towns, with their drive-ins and shopping malls, have become a bizarre tourist attraction for mainland Japanese, who come to soak up a bit of American culture.
A knot of three large, inhabited islands and numerous pinpricks of sand and coral, the Keramas offer some of the most beautiful and unspoilt beaches in Okinawa, and superb diving among the offshore reefs. The island of Zamami is a sleepy place home to mere hundreds of people, yet has recently become hugely popular with international tourists.
From craggy mountain peaks to wave after wave of dripping, subtropical rainforest, towering cedar trees which predate the Roman Empire and the all-pervasive scent of moss and flowers this is an exceptional island. The beautiful Yakushima greedily gobbles up almost every passing cloud, resulting in an average annual rainfall of at least four metres on the coast and a staggering 8-10m in its mountainous interior.
Centered around Miyako-jima, this small cluster boasts some of the best beaches in all of Japan, but these are graced by precious few international visitors. Long overshadowed by Zamami-jima and the Yaeyama group, its appeal took another knock with the closure of ferry services to Naha and Ishigaki, making Miyako an expensive add-on to an Okinawan tour. However, it remains a time-out favourite with mainland Japanese, some of whom stay for weeks or months on end, chalking off beach after beach and dive after dive.
Star-sand beaches to pad along, waterfalls tumbling down emerald mountains, and not a soldier in sight… it’s no wonder that even Okinawans go misty-eyed when talking about the Yaeyama Islands. Japan finally fizzles out at this far-flung spray of semi-tropical islets, 430km south of Okinawa-Hontō and almost 3000km from northern Hokkaido, and those lucky enough to make it this far are in for quite a finale. Yaeyama life revolves around Ishigaki-jima, the islands’ main transport hub and population centre. The rest of the island is a predominantly rural and mountainous landscape, fringed with rocky peninsulas, stunning beaches and easily accessible reefs.
Sun-kissed Ikuchi-jima, covered with citrus groves, attracts plenty of tourists each summer to its palm-fringed beaches, in particular the sweeping man-made Sunset Beach on the west coast. The island can comfortably be toured by bicycle in a day, as can the islet Kone-shima, which is linked by bridge to Ikuchi-jima’s main settlement, the quaint Setoda on the island’s northwest coast.
Tied to the mainland by a 600m-long bridge, the tiny, sacred island of Enoshima has a few sights – some shrines, a botanical garden and a couple of missable caves – but its main attraction is as a pleasant place to walk, away from motor traffic.
The big draw of Omi-shima is one of the oldest shrines in the country, Oyamazumi-jimga, dating back to the end of the Kamakura era (1192-1333). The interior of the island is hilly, but there is a decent 5km, mainly downhill, cycle track from Inokuchi, the ferry port closest to Ikuchi-jima, across the island from Miyaura.
For centuries, the rugged, S-shaped island of Sado-ga-shima was a place of exile for criminals and political undesirables; though even today it has a unique atmosphere born of its isolation and a distinct cultural heritage that encompasses haunting folk songs, nō theatre and puppetry, as well as the more recently established Kodo drummers. It’s a deceptively large island, consisting of two parallel mountain chains linked by a fertile central plain that shelters most of Sado’s historical relics.
Just 5km up the road from Matsuzaki, is west Izu’s prime tourist trap, with hotels, souvenir shops and cafeterias catering to a steady stream of punters. The focus of all this activity is a collection of picturesque limestone outcrops lying serenely offshore. You can admire these islands from various viewpoints around the bay or, better still, from one of the tour boats run by Dōgashima Marine which set off from a jetty in front of the main car park to putter round the bay or along the coast.
Most people come to Rishiri-tō to hike up of the central 1721m volcano Rishiri-zan. The island is sometimes called Rishiri-Fuji because its shape is said to resemble the famous southern volcano; in reality it’s spikier and a lot less symmetrical. Even if the weather is unpromising, it’s still worth making the ascent (which takes ten to twelve hours) to break through the clouds on the upper slopes and be rewarded with panoramic views from the summit, which is crowned with a small shrine.
Some 110km south of Tokyo, Izu-Ōshima, or simply Ōshima, is the nearest and largest, at 52km in circumference, of the Izu-Shotō, a chain of seven volcanic islands stretching over 300km of ocean. While the others are now dormant, Ōshima’s Mihara-yama (764km) has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most active volcano after Italy’s Stromboli and Kilauea in Hawaii. Ōshima’s other main raw is its forests of camellia, particularly in early spring when the blossoms of an estimated three million trees colour the lower slopes a dusky red. Try if possible to come midweek – spring and autumn are best – and stay at least one night, to experience the slow pace of island life.
Idyllic Naoshima, 13km north of Takamatsu, is home to three stunning Ando Tadao-designed galleries as well as several large-scale installations and outdoor sculptures from major international and Japanese talent. In the island’s main town and ferry port, Miyanoura, is an amazing bathhouse, while around the southern Gotanji area there are sheltered beaches with glorious Inland Sea views – all making Naoshima a blissful escape.
Shaped like a crab’s claw adrift in the Sea of Japan, Rebun-tō is most famous for its wildflowers – from May to September the island’s rolling green slopes are said to bloom with three hundred different types of alpine plants. At the island’s southern end is its main port, the small and attractive settlement of Kafuka, which spreads uphill from the coast. In the north is the small fishing village of Funadomari, which makes a good base for hikers out to the northern cape, Sukoton Misaki.
Shinkō island was reclaimed about a hundred years ago as part of Yokohama’s then state-of-the-art port facilities. The slowly revolving Cosmo Clock 21 here is one of the world’s largest Ferris wheels, with a diameter of 112m; one circuit takes around fifteen minutes, allowing plenty of time to take in the view, which is particularly spectacular at night.
Brooding darkly some 20km west of Ishigaki, Iriomote-jima is an extraordinarily wild place for Japan. Rising sharply out of the ocean, some ninety percent of its uncharted, mountainous interior is covered with dense subtropical rainforest, much of it protected as the Iriomote National Park. Rumour has it that Iriomote often plays host to disaffected Japanese, living rough in the jungle. A more substantiated inhabitant, though equally elusive, is one of the world’s rarest species, the yamaneko or Iriomote lynx, a nocturnal, cat-like animal. The island and its surrounding waters are also home to a splendid array of flora and coral reefs shimmering with tropical fish. There are plenty of opportunities for snorkelling, diving, kayaking and hiking through the rainforest.
This large, sheltered bay of islands has a myriad coves and deep inlets. For centuries, divers have been collecting natural pearls from its warm, shallow waters, but things really took off when Mikimoto started producing his cultured pearls in Ago-wan islands in the twentieth century. Nowadays, hundreds of rafts moored between the islands trace strangely attractive patterns on the water, while in the nets beneath thousands of oysters busily work their magic.
It may not have quite the same idyllic appeal as its smaller Inland Sea neighbour Naoshima, but thanks to its splendid natural scenery and a collection of worthwhile sights, Shōdo-shima should still be high on any list of places to visit in Shikoku. The mountainous, forested island styles itself as a Mediterranean retreat, and has a whitewashed windmill and mock Grecian ruins strategically placed in its terraced olive groves.
Just before six o’clock each evening, the tiny island of Taketomi-jima undergoes a profound, magical transformation. This is the time of the last ferry back to Ishigaki-jima – after that, you’re marooned, but there are few better places to be stuck. Just over 1km wide and home to fewer than three hundred people, the island’s population swells during the day with folk eager to see its traditional houses, ride on buffalo-drawn carts and search lovely sandy beaches for the famous minuscule star-shaped shells. When the day-trippers are safely back in Ishigaki, those who have chosen to stay on will have Taketomi almost to themselves – it’s possible to walk its dirt paths at night for hours on end without seeing a single soul.
You can explore more of these islands with the Rough Guide to Japan.
Top image: Cityscape with Sakurajima mountain, sea and blue sky background view from Shiroyama Park Observation park, Kagoshima, Kyushu, Japan © Kitinut Jinapuck/Shutterstock