Japan is breathtakingly beautiful and 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 they offer a purely traditional experience. Here is our pick of the best Japanese Islands.
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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. They have become a bizarre tourist attraction for mainland Japanese, who come to soak up a bit of American culture.
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 island is among the exceptional Japanese islands. 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.
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.
Yaeyama's 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.
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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.
You can admire these Japanese 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 around the bay or along the coast.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Top image: Cityscape with Sakurajima mountain, sea and blue sky background view from Shiroyama Park Observation park, Kagoshima, Kyushu, Japan © Kitinut Jinapuck/Shutterstock