Japan has four main islands, but away from the well-trodden tourist path between Tokyo and Kyoto are more than 400 other inhabited islands (not to mention thousands of uninhabited ones) that make up the archipelago. So extend your trip and see more of the country with a detour to one of our top six.
What In the Seto Inland Sea, tucked between the main islands of Honshu and Shikoku, small Naoshima is the island that art built. Once largely rural it’s now home to some of the country’s top contemporary art museums, such as the Chichu Art Museum and the Lee Ufan Museum, both part of the Benesse Art Site and designed by the pre-eminent Japanese modern architect Tadao Ando.
Time to go Naoshima is a year-round destination, and 2019 is a great time to go as the Setouchi Triennale arts festival is taking place for the first time in three years and runs throughout the whole year. While you’re there, don’t miss neighbouring Teshima, another island full of site-specific art attractions.
Getting there Ferries for Naoshima depart from Uno and Takamatsu, both an hour-and-a-half flight from Tokyo.
What Yakushima, off the southern coast of Kyushu (the most southwesterly of Japan’s four main islands), is one of Japan’s last bastions of raw forest, a primeval wonderland of ancient cedars, gnarly roots and mossy boulders. It’s often cited as a source of inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s dreamy aesthetic captured in 1997 animation classic Princess Mononoke. There are epic hikes here through the subtropical landscape.
Time to go Summer is the best time to visit, when you can also opt for a tour to see sea turtle hatchlings at night on the beach.
Getting there Ferries depart from Kagoshima, a two-hour flight from Tokyo.
What The largest of Japan’s southern island chain, Okinawa’s main island offers a cultural experience truly different from the other major islands. It has a subtropical climate due to being 400 miles south of the rest of Japan, and was an independent kingdom until the late 19th century (and even now there’s an ongoing dispute between China and Japan). In the capital, Naha, see the restored castle of the Ryukyu royalty and sample local seafood and other delicacies fresh from the market or in one of the island’s raucous izakaya (Japanese pubs), such as Tobarama where there’s traditional folk music most nights of the week. Then rent a car to explore the beaches that fringe the island, or take a jetfoil to the pristine Kerama islands, a short journey away.
Time to go Summer is peak season but typhoons can be a problem; spring and autumn are excellent for a blast of sun (and they’re less crowded).
Getting there Fly direct to Naha from Tokyo (three hours) or Nagoya (two and a half hours).
What At one point in history, S-shaped Sado-ga-shima was considered so remote, in the harsh climes of the Sea of Japan, it was used as a place of exile for dissidents. It’s still dramatically rugged and underdeveloped – the kind of place that attracts photographers, hikers and off-the-grid homesteaders. One of the island’s unique attractions is its proliferation of outdoor noh stages, where the centuries-old style of Japanese performing arts is acted out in the evenings by torchlight.
Time to go Summer is when most noh performances are held, along with the blockbuster Earth Celebration, a three-day music and arts festival featuring Japan’s famous Kodo drummers.
Getting there Ferries for Sado depart from Niigata, a 75-minute flight or three-hour train ride from Tokyo.
What Itsukushima, or Miyajima (shrine island) as it’s commonly known, is famous for its prized photo-op: the tiered, vermilion gate of its shrine, rising from the sea. The shrine is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, and has been a sacred site for almost a millennium. The island is also home to a sizeable population of deer, also considered sacred (and thus allowed to roam freely).
Time to go Year-round, but you’ll want to time your visit with the tides in order to see the shrine gate in the water rather than standing on sand. Stay over to see the shrine illuminated in the evening.
Getting there Ferries depart from the outskirts of Hiroshima, a two-hour flight from Tokyo.
What Most of Izu Oshima is an active volcano, Mount Mihara, whose gentle slopes of black earth, leading to the central, hollowed-out crater, can be hiked in a couple of hours (don’t worry, it’s closely monitored for volcanic activity). Afterwards, soak in the hot springs by the port. This is the most accessible island from Tokyo and is an easy day trip if you feel like escaping the city. You can also use the jetfoil service to visit some of the other nearby islands, like Nii-jima (famous for its white sand beach and surfing) and tiny Shikine-jima (where you’ll find seaside hot springs).
Time to go Summer is the main season, but in winter Izu Oshima is known for its vibrant camellia blossoms.
Getting there It’s the easiest island to get to from Tokyo, taking less than two hours via jetfoil.