It’s a well-established reality that Japan is a wildly popular travel destination, and rightfully so! The country is packed with the most remarkable, awe-inspiring natural features that include magnificent mountains, thick forests, and picturesque islands. While most landscapes in Japan are common knowledge, a few remain under wraps, even if unintentionally. And among all such off-the-beaten-track features, the Islands in Japan lie on top of the list.
Japan is a massive cluster of almost 7000 islands! The exact number of said landmasses is supposedly 6852-but these are just the ones that were discovered. What if there are more undiscovered isles in the part of the world that makes Japan? You never know, one day you might wake up to learn that geologists have unearthed an exotic island in Japan!
Whether the field experts explore a new island in Japan or focus on inhabiting the ones already known, there are enough lesser-known islands in Japan at present, so travelers needn’t worry about running out of places to explore in the Land of the Rising Sun.
If you want to learn more about the islands in Japan (than you already know) to include new places in your itinerary, here is a short rundown about a few of the islands, to pique your interest.
Iriomote is one of the most remote islands in Japan, though it's starting to get some well-overdue attention from tourists. That said, the secluded landmass remains mostly uncrowded, offering untouched peace and serenity amid lush landscapes. Iriomote is one of the many (150 to be exact!) Okinawan islands in the East China Sea close to Japan’s mainland.
According to the geographical archives, 90% of Iriomote’s territory is covered in dense mangrove forests and mystical woods. In other words, wandering around on Iriomote is nothing less than being in a fairytale.
Besides the mangroves, spell-bounding exquisite beaches encircled with lofty mountains rest on the Iriomote. Calm waves of crystal-clear water wash the coast under blue skies while the cool tropical breeze caresses the wavy boulders sitting on the shore.
The woodlands on Iriomote are speckled with raging waterfalls, creating an enthralling sight for the few hikers treading their way through the dense vegetation. If you wish to take in the spectacular beauty Iriomote has to offer, plan a trip to the Japanese pocket of paradise soon! But keep in mind that the Okinawan Island is primarily uninhabited and underdeveloped, so you can run into wildlife anytime, particularly the indigenous mountain cat known as Iriomote Yamaneko. This native creature is a large feline that resembles the Bengal cat but only comes out at night.
Despite being relatively more popular than many other lesser-known islands in Japan, Hokkaido remains unbelievably under-appreciated. The seemingly unending natural features on the blessed Island deserve much more acclaim than they receive. And that is why we have included Hokkaido in this list of Japanese Islands that globetrotters must visit.
Hokkaido, also fondly called the Island of nature, is packed with breathtakingly beautiful sceneries interspersed with some modern cities, making up an ideal holiday destination. From pristine azure-shaded beaches and gorgeous flower fields to lush greenery and thick snow blankets, all forms of nature are present on the Island of Hokkaido. But that's not all! The lively, happening cities in this part of Japan offer all the neon-lighted glamour associated with the buzzing metropolises of the world. That said, of course, the glimmer in the cities of Sapporo and Hakodate isn't as blinding as Tokyo, but it's enough to keep travelers entertained.
All four seasons in this region of Japan bring their share of enchanting sceneries and recreational avenues. In the summer, the vibrant flower fields bloom in full force, with long swathes of different brightly colored flowers swaying at the slightest nudge of the scented breeze. Aside from the vivid blossoming fields, the greenery in the area gets much greener and denser, forming massive stretches of thick forests. All these stunning sights plus the pleasant weather make hiking in Hokkaido on balmy days that much more delightful!
In contrast to the pleasant summers, winters in Hokkaido are pretty harsh, with piercing gales howling over snowcapped towns. Snowfall in the region is rather relentless, covering most things in thick blankets of powdery-white snow, which works well for those who enjoy skiing or snowboarding.
Besides the mesmerizing sceneries, a touch of cosmopolitan lifestyle, and outstanding recreation avenues, Hokkaido is recognized for its fresh and absolutely delectable seafood. Sushi, oysters, prawns, crabs, salmon, you name it, and the Island of Nature has it in the freshest and juiciest state to appease the taste buds.
Sado Island is another tragically remote island in Japan that also happens to have an incredibly rich and riveting history and breathtaking beauty. Resting across from the coast of Nigata Prefecture, Sado Island is the largest landmass in the Sea of Japan but remains significantly unpopular despite all that it has to offer.
Some popular cultural events and traditional art forms exclusive to Sado Island are Mumyoi-yaki (day pottery), Sado Okesa Dance, Sado Noh Dance (Classical Japanese Musical Drama), and puppet plays.
One of the most popular celebrations in the locality is the Earth Day festival-organized by an ingenious group of people, taiko drummers known as Koto. The many artistic demonstrations showcased at the carnival include traditional drama-dances choreographed to the beat of drums. Aside from drums, a few other musical instruments are also played at the event, such as Fue and Shamisen.
Sado Island is home to surreal sceneries that you can explore to their deep depths. That is, you can ride a boat to roam around the beaches on the Island and go into the depths of rocky shores. One local boating experience on the Island involves riding a washtub boat or tarai-bune. As the name implies, a washtub boat is essentially a large wooden bucket, ordinarily used for washing and cleansing purposes. But in Sado, it is used for scaling the sea. Locals dressed in traditional Japanese attire and conical straw hats navigate the unconventional ride while the people on board enjoy the cool gales of fresh air and look at the enthralling greenery all around.
The northern tip of Sado Island is a tropical piece of turtle-shaped land called Futatsugame. It is the perfect spot for sunbathing and swimming. Experts tout this inland area as one of the top 100 sea-bathing spots in Japan, and with good reason! Futatsugame is one of the few places in the world that have the most transparent seawater, making swimming that much more pleasurable.
Last but certainly not least, Sado Island has a thriving brewery industry. It is particularly known for brewing exquisite rice wines. One peg of the spirit concocted at the local brewery, Hokusetsu, and you will keep going for more!
If you ever wanted to explore an island that feels like a lost paradise, Yakushima is the island for you, with a tangled jungle of mysterious moss-coated trees, delightful white waterfalls tumbling down into bubbling streams over smooth rock, and a small variety of charming local wildlife. The island is particularly celebrated for its Sugi cedar trees, which earned it a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1993. Yakushima is in Kagoshima prefecture, and can be reached by air or high-speed boat.
Wilson Stump is one of the island’s chief must-sees – once the tallest Sugi cedar on the island (estimated at 44 meters, or 144 feet tall), with only a hollowed-out stump remaining of its former magnificence. Yakushima was rediscovered by English botanist Ernest Henry Wilson, and the stump is named in his honor. Visitors can even walk inside the stump!
But the more famous landmark on every visitor’s bucket list is the Jomonsugi. The massive tree is a Sugi cedar from the Jomon period and estimated at most to be over 7000 years old! Its splendid canopy reaches up to about 25 meters, standing atop a massive trunk. The tree presents an ancient, almost fantastic appearance, as though fairy creatures could have made their homes inside.
Taketomi is a small island in the Okinawa chain, and nationally protected as a bastion of preserved Ryukyuan culture. The Ryukyuan people are natives of the Okinawa islands, and their culture is strongly felt by visitors in everything from the rustic aesthetic of the single-story buildings to the carts pulled by water buffalo through the sandy streets of old Taketomi Village. The village features roofs of red tile, stone walls overgrown with bright island flowers, and streets paved in sand.
Some of the aforementioned water buffalo pull sightseeing carts, which can be ridden around the village in a half-hour tour. The cart is one of the best ways to see the sights of the village, as the drivers point out the various points of interest, as well as play songs accompanied by sanshin (an old Okinawan instrument). The water buffalo are gentle and slow, and don’t take much handling on the driver’s part.
The island also has a few beaches of note, particularly Kaiji Beach and Aiyaru Beach, where, if you look closely at the sand, you’ll find the grains resemble tiny stars. These grains of star-sand, or “Hoshizuna” are actually dead shells of tiny single-cell organism called Foraminifera. Kondoi Beach is also stunning for its pale white sand, refreshing shallows, and dreamy emerald waters.
The island is easily accessible from nearby Ishigaki Island, which is next on our list.
Ishigaki is a gorgeous island in Okinawa’s Yaeyama archipelago, a central hub for travelers looking to reach the nearby islands including Iriomote and Taketomi.
The island is an idyllic place for seaside activities, like snorkeling, swimming, diving, and enjoying the breathtaking sunsets from the shore. It has a number of picture-perfect beaches for lazing in the sun, including Sukuji Beach, which is ideal for families with children, as it features broad shallows and netting to ward off the jellyfish. Another is Yonehara, a delightful beach for snorkeling, with its bright coral reef and array of colorful fish. Then there is Sunset Beach which, as the name suggests, is one of the chief places on the island to behold the sun sinking into the rippling blue beyond.
If you’d rather not swim, I’d suggest a boat ride through Kabira Bay, which features nine little green islands sitting atop an azure sea loaded with vibrantly colored fish. Glass-boat tours give the best chance to see the sea-life while remaining dry. Or if you are looking for sweeping views of the island’s nature, enjoy the sights from Tamatorizaki Observation Platform.
There are also a number of cultural landmarks related to the Yaeyama archipelago on the island, including a Yaeyama Museum and the Ishigaki Yaima Village, which features relocated houses from various islands in the archipelago.
Ogasawara is a collection of over 30 islands relatively near Tokyo and can be accessed from there via a comfortable 25-hour cruise. The Ogasawara Islands are also known as the Bonin Islands, and its captivating natural splendor has given it the nickname “the Galapagos of the Orient” and earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Many of the islands have quaint names like you’re visiting a big family: there’s a Father Island, a Mother Island, Bride and Groom Islands, Older and Younger Brother (and Sister) islands, even a Grandchild Island!
There are a number of excellent ways to immerse yourself in gorgeous landscape of Ogasawara. Discover the vast variety of flora and fauna on a guided tour through one of the island’s lush forests. Take a birdwatching tour to see if you can spot one of the region’s over 190 species of birds (including the Bonin flying fox). Go underwater with snorkeling, diving, or kayaking activities – and even swim with dolphins! Charter a boat through the surrounding seas to look for sperm whales and humpback whales, and perhaps catch sight of the fantastically rare giant squid!
The Ogasawara Islands
Sitting just off the coast of Hiroshima, Miyajima Island is another one of the Three Scenic Views of Japan. The island is easily accessible from Hiroshima by ferry. Miyajima is a picturesque gem of mountainous forests and beauteous coastline where cute little Sika deer freely roam. For all this island’s natural beauty, undoubtedly the crown jewel of Miyajima is Itsukushima Shrine, a charming vermillion-colored Shinto shrine so respectful of the island’s nature that it stands halfway out at sea. Itsukushima’s chief attraction, the “Floating Gate”, is a massive traditional torii-style gate that seems to rest atop the water at high tide. It forms one of Japan’s most romantic scenes – a definite must-visit for visiting couples.
Other popular sights around the island include Mount Misen, Miyajima’s tallest mountain, providing spectacular views of the island, the Seto Inland Sea, and even as far as Hiroshima City on clearer days. It’s an ideal destination for a moderate hike, which, depending on the course, could take between 1.5 to 2 hours. Another alternative is to take the ropeway, which is the preferred option on rainy days. Various trails wind around the town for even more ways to admire the island’s beauty. There are other little shrines and temples to discover along the way.
Also known as Naoshima Art Island, Naoshima is the destination of choice for traveling creatives and artists looking to get inspired. The island is a paradise of modern art design, with stylish art museums, outdoor exhibitions with sculptures, even an art museum / hotel you can rent a room in!
Many of the art museums on Naoshima were the brainchildren of famed Japanese architect Tadao Ando. A genius of artistic concrete designs, Ando constructed the Chichu Art Museum, which features underground architecture built into a hill, yet it uses natural light to illuminate the galleries. The aforementioned art museum / hotel, the Benesse House, was also designed by Ando, and features a broad array of art pieces assembled from collections all over the world. As beautiful as the galleries are, many guests say that the most spectacular art piece at Benesse House is the delightful ocean view. Other buildings designed by Ando include a gallery dedicated to Korean artists Lee Ufan, the Naoshima Gallery of Contemporary Art, and the Ando Musuem – which features photo collections of his work.
Other popular sights include I Love Yu – the tongue-in-cheek name of the local hot spring bath (Yu means “hot water”), where patrons can bathe surrounded by an eccentric collage of various quirky and provocative artworks. In addition to the curious bath house, the nearby town features divers artsy yet relaxing restaurants and cafes.
Kyushu Island is arguably the least talked-about island of Japan’s Big Four (the other three being Honshu, Hokkaido, and Shikoku), with abundant countryside that makes traveling there feel like you’ve entered a more secluded and secret part of the country. The island is big enough to hold nine Japanese prefectures, yet small enough to feel kind of cut off from the rest of the country.
The truth about Kyushu is that there is so much to do there it could fill a blog all by itself. The landscape is nothing short of breathtaking. The island has much landscape that is rugged and wild, with hiking opportunities at Mount Aso (one of the world’s largest volcanic calderas, the Kirishima Mountain Range. Historic wonders of the region include Kumamoto Castle and ancient shrine town of Takachiho.
In addition to fantastic countryside and cultural treasures, Kyushu boasts modern destinations like Fukuoka, the largest city on the island, known for its nightly street food culture and former castle. There is also Nagasaki, with attractions including a magnificent Peace Park, the first cathedral in Japan, and a former Dutch trade district. The city of Beppu is one of Japan’s finest hot spring resort towns, starring the enigmatic “Seven Hells of Beppu” – a series of roiling hot volcanic pools of various colors and properties.
Apart from the islands introduced above, there are plenty of similar lesser-known islands in Japan for a traveler with a heart for adventure. If you plan a trip to Japan, don’t forget to squeeze in a visit at least one of Japan’s smaller islands for a more off-the-beaten-path, unforgettable travel experience.