Cycle, hike, fish and feast your way across Sakushima, Himakajima, and Shinojima—three fascinating, protected islands in Japan’s historic Aichi Prefecture
Japan’s Aichi Prefecture is quickly emerging as one of Asia’s most spectacular island-hopping destinations, thanks to its varied landscapes, easy access (there are regular ferry services from nearby ports) and the opportunities for total immersion in a region known for its rich history, traditions and culture.
This hat trick of islands is a brilliant destination in its own right, but fast, regular transport connections make it easy to incorporate the islands into wider explorations of Japan.
Aichi is bordered by the beautiful Chita and Atsumi peninsulas, and travellers short on time can fly into Chubu Centrair International Airport, which is just a 50-minute drive from the port which serves Sakushima island, and 30 minutes from the departure point for ferries heading to Himakajima and Shinojima.
In recent years, new accommodation options have sprung up on the islands, offering more choice for travellers. Despite their growing popularity, Sakushima, Himakajima and Shinojima retain their various charms, partly thanks to the islanders, who are fiercely proud of their traditions and culture – a passion which translates into the famously warm welcome locals are known for.
For the ultimate culture fix, look no further than Sakushima - the largest of the three islands which form the Aichi Archipelago, just off Aichi’s coastline. Despite this, it’s a relatively small island – visitors can hike its perimeter in around two hours – which means that it’s easy to admire the wonderful art installations Sakushima is famous for.
But first, a little look at its topography. This crab-shaped chunk of volcanic rock has three hills and thick tracts of lush forest, along with vast expanses of bamboo, camellias, plum tree groves and Japanese radish flowers (head to Camellia Road, in the island’s north, to see the most spectacular displays of flower power).
Sakushima’s landscape is wonderfully diverse, and it has several sandy beaches, too. We recommend Oura beach - a wide, family-friendly strip of sand with bathing facilities and calm, shallow water perfect for nervous swimmers.
And as for that art? You’ll find it all over the island, and many of the pieces are interactive. Take Yuki Minamikawa’s East House, where stairs lead from the sand to the top of the cube-like structure, providing not only a connection to the artwork itself but fantastic views over the ocean.
Or Kamome Chushajo, a flock of metal seagull statues positioned along a breakwater which move in the direction of the wind. Admire them from afar, or walk amongst these dainty, spinning sculptures.
Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to feast on delicacies perfect for fuelling explorations of the island. Octopus is the dish Sakushima is most famous for, and seafood reigns supreme here – you’ll find some of Japan’s best clams, oysters and shrimps.
Other delicacies include delicious dark red azuki-bean cakes and the island’s famous oyster burgers (trust us, beef burgers will look surprisingly plain after you’ve tried one of these).
Feeling thirsty? You’re in luck, because Aichi is one of Japan’s largest tea producing regions, and the island is famous for its delicious green tea. Don’t worry about working off those calories, either – alongside a network of hiking trails are some fantastic cycling routes, and cycling is a popular mode of transport for both visitors and locals.
Pitstops such as Café Uru provide great excuses to rest and refuel during bike-based exploration of the island’s galleries, many of which can be found in private homes.
There are two bicycle rental locations here, and large bike storage units on the ferries which connect Sakushima with the mainland cater to the growing number of tourists who are travelling around Japan with their own bikes in tow.
Finally, don’t forget to make time for a foray along the Kobo Daishi pilgrimage route, which connects the island’s roadside shrines, many of which are also art installations. The most beautiful ones include the Sankaku (Triangle) shrine, designed by architect Tsutomu Nagaoka. In the morning, when the sun reaches a certain height, beams of golden light hit the statue of a monk which sits in the centre of the temple.
Himakajima is a laidback island popular with free spirits, and it’s a brilliant destination to retreat to after explorations of Japan’s cities. It’s wonderfully accessible, and is the closest to Nagoya of all three islands.
We suggest making your first stop the information point in the West Port building near the ferry port. This is where you’ll find information about everything from fishing rod hire to accommodation, along with printed maps and information about opening times of key attractions.
Although the island is tiny (you’ll be able to cycle around it in 30 minutes) there’s plenty to do here. Fancy learning a new skill? Consider trying your hand at fishing – almost every resident owns at least one rod. There are plenty of places which will provide you with bait and a rod, and the island’s waters are rich with sea bream, greenling, rockfish and various species of mackerel.
If you’re keen to improve your angling expertise, you’re in luck – several places offer masterclasses in rod or net fishing, and you can also learn how to dry and preserve fish, too.
For further proof of the islanders’ love of fish, visit Marutoyo, a whitebait specialist which is famous for its whitebait-topped vanilla ice cream, as well as its green tea ice cream topped with tsukudani – a type of seafood which has been simmered in soy sauce. Yes, it’s a million miles away from a scoop of Ben and Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, but the combination of sweet, fragrant flavours and the saltiness of the seafood is surprisingly moreish.
Octopus is incredibly popular here too, a reminder of which is the octopus statues you’ll see dotted around the island (the cutest ones can be found at the island’s two main ports, and even the post office is shaped like an octopus) and on sale in Himakajima’s souvenir stores.
If you fancy sampling some octopus but you’re not sure which dish to go for, ask for the tako teishoku, which is an octopus set menu – most of the island’s restaurants will serve these.
Other great places for a seafood fix include Kitchen Macha with its fabulously retro décor and spicy fish curries, and the Haigee Beach House for cocktails, fresh fruit juices and fabulous views – particularly at sunset.
Another reason to head here? It’s where you’ll find Heidi’s Swing, built by locals and inspired by the swing which appeared in the Japanese anime series Heidi, Girl of the Alps, which aired in Japan in 1974. The swing dangles from an ancient tree – take a seat on it to soar over the ocean (and to snap the obligatory selfie).
When it comes to accommodation, book one of the island’s minshuku – cosy, privately-owned bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Most of these can be found at the eastern and western tips of Himakajima. As with the other islands, there are no chain hotels here, and a stay in one of these beautiful inns is a great way to explore a more authentic side of Japan – one which is surprisingly accessible, but which feels a million miles away from the bright lights and bullet trains of its urban centres.
Visitors flock to Shinojima, a small island in the Ise Bay, for many reasons, although it’s especially popular with photographers, thanks largely to its famously spectacular sunsets.
The most popular locations for photographers can be found on the island’s pine tree-covered southwestern side, where the most sought after shot is one showing the sun sinking behind nearby islets such as Matsushima, Togamejima and Hirogamejima.
Shinojima is an island with a rich history, and one which was referred to in 759, in the ancient collection of Japanese poems known as the Manyoshu. In remnants of the book discovered in Nara, poems referenced islanders paying tribute to Emperors with gifts, including dried shark. And given the popularity of seafood here, it’s hardly surprising.
The island is especially well known for the delicacy of fugu, otherwise known as blowfish, although seabream is just as popular – an annual seabream festival has taken place for over 2,000 years, and a huge billboard, near the port where visitors arriving from Nagoya disembark, proudly declares the island to be the home of salted seabream.
So how did it earn this reputation? Legend states that many years ago, the daughter of Emperor Suinin, Princess Yamatohime no Mikoto, visited the island and loved the delicacy so much that she decreed Shinojima should be the sole supplier of the seafood – a decree which might not have stood the test of time, but which put the island on the map as one of the best places to sample the fish. It’s also the reason that, every year at the annual seabream festival, 508 seabream – of a specific size – are prepared and dedicated to the island.
Despite its size – Shinojima’s perimeter measures just eight kilometres – there’s a lot crammed onto this island.
There are various reminders of its historical importance, including its coastline’s deep gouges, which offer a nod to the era when the famously impenetrable rock was carved out and shipped to the mainland to help construct fortresses such as Nagoya Castle.
Keep an eye out for the so-called Kiyomasa no Makuraishi (or Kiyomasa’s pillow stone), a huge stone which was carved out but then proved too heavy to lift, and was left in place.
A hike across Shinojima’s hilly, shrine-dotted interior is one of the best ways to gain a deeper insight into the destination, although we also suggest following the island’s clearly marked Kobo Daishi route, created for pilgrims visiting Shinojima’s shrines. No two shrines look the same either, courtesy of creative locals who sew colourful kimonos and bibs for the statues inside.
Tamara is a former snowboard instructor who's been a freelance travel writer for 12 years. She loves snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking and scuba diving, and the regions she knows best are Asia, America and Africa. Europe-wise she knows Germany and France very well. In normal times she does two or three trips a month. Follow her on Twitter