When most travelers imagine fleeing to one of the Japanese islands, they turn to Okinawa. Or at least to a paradise island they imagine is Okinawa— one without military bases, horrendously slow traffic, and wary locals. But as lovely as the fringe islands surrounding Okinawa are, they are distant from the mainland. Often expensive to reach. And not always up to par.
If you desire a tropical escape, do not fear. Japan isn’t necessary a massive country in terms of land area, but there are tons of obscure seas, inlands, and territory that Japan has claimed as its own. (Even if some of them are controversial… think the Senkaku and Kuril Islands). Case in point, you don’t need to jump a flight to the south to find your own little utopia close to Hokkaido, Osaka, or even Tokyo. Read on and find yourself away from the guidebook fodder and amongst what some might consider the “real Japan.”
1. Japanese islands: Hachijojima
I do happen to have a love affair with the Izu Islands (that’s why there are two on my list). But my reasons are justified. Few travelers and locals venture out to the Izu Islands, a volcanic chain which extends from Tokyo Bay into the southeast Pacific Ocean for more than 1,000 kilometers. Still considered part of Tokyo Prefecture, these island gems see little tourism despite their proximity to the mainland, hence off-the-beaten-track potential. I’ve never had a bad experience or bad weekend venturing out to the islands, either by ferry or airplane. Hachijojima is no exception. Abandoned beaches. A superb yet adventurous hiking circuit—wear long pants and prepare to hold on to shit— around Hachijo-fuji, a lush green crater. And scuba diving under blackened volcanic arches and tunnels. There’s even some wicked abandoned structures to explore, including a derelict resort. If you’re into that… because I am.
2. Japanese islands: Sado
Every August, mainlanders make the trek out to Sado, a ferry ride away from Niigata. They come for the Earth Festival… to witness the power, the sweat, and the glistening thighs of a group called Kodo. Kodo is an internationally acclaimed taiko (Japanese drumming) ensemble. They’ve performed at the World Cup and a Nobel Peace Prize concert. Cause they’re that good. The Earth Festival is a three-day chance for you to see them in action. And there’s a lot of action going on. In the form of sexy rippling muscles. The members live communally and maintain a strict physical routine, and are only chosen after a super competitive apprenticeship program. As a witness to Earth Festival, I can attest it was one of the most exhilarating and awe-inspiring performances I’ve ever seen. Eye candy doesn’t hurt though. See what I mean in the video below?
3. Japanese islands: Okunoshima
Rabbit Island, also known as Okunoshima in Japanese, has become a popular tourist attraction and day trip from Hiroshima. The island is known for its population of bunnies, an ever growing one as outside animals are not permitted on the island. Okunoshima is also known for its dark history during World War II, as the island was used as a base to produce and store poisonous gases. At first, these gases were tested on rabbits. They were then used as chemical weapons during the war. Today’s rabbits are either the descendants of the test subjects or ones that were released by school children in the 1970s. Visitors now come to the island to spend time feeding the wild rabbits, or to explore the abandoned WWII remains. One of the best ways to see the island is to walk the 2.5 miles around it.
4. Japanese islands: Yonaguni
Yonaguni island is a lot closer to Taiwan than to Japan, making it a bit of a trek to get there. But it’s worth the natural wonders, especially underwater. Schools of hammerhead sharks congregate there in winter months. Think sharknado. One consisting of hundreds of shy, sleek, and beautiful hammerhead sharks (if you need a shark education on why this endeavor is safe, I would be happy to comply). I just missed peak season but was still thrilled to see several lingering about. If you’re a dumbass that’s scared for no reason, try out the actual dangerous dive skirting Yonaguni Monument. This underwater structure was discovered in 1986 and it’s up for debate whether or not it’s a sunken city or only clever natural formations. Swift current make it an advanced dive but it’s a thrill to see it in person and decide for yourself.
5. Japanese islands: Shodoshima
Shodoshima is plopped down in middle of the Seto Inland Sea, a short ferry ride from Himeji, Okayama, and Shikoku. Like olives? How about soy sauce? Monkeys? A Mediterranean feel to your Japanese experience? Then maybe Shodoshima is for you. Especially on bike… which you can drag along with you on the ferry (make sure you bag the thing if using the train first). And if none of this appeals to you, maybe the island’s kabuki shows would. The Farming Village Kabuki Stage is over 300 years old and a bit more old school than the ones you’ll find in the cities. As a foreigner, the novelty of my presence was so startling that I was quickly invited in the private presidential suite of sorts. The Real Japan has a lovely guide to the island with all the logistics.
6. Japanese islands: Rebun and Rishiri
The northern islands of Rebun and Rishiri are truly off the beaten path, way up north in Hokkaido, requiring a traveler’s serious commitment to reach. For me, hiking on Rebun was one of the most magical experiences during my time in Japan. The 32km hike takes 8 hours (thus the name) and it weaves down the coast from Cape Sukoton. Besides the fabulous views, Rebun blooms with flowers and alpine plants during the “tourist” months. And you may just be able to spot a sea lion or two. Backpacking Man has some great photos of the island hikes.
7. Japanese islands: Iriomote
Yup, this one is rather south. It’s in the picturesque Yaeyama island chain, the postcard-friendly sister chain of Okinawa. The journey to little visited Iriomote— an island comprising of 90% jungle and mangroves— requires a stopover in Ishigaki before moving on. Upon arrival, it’s obvious that the island is especially famous for its endangered and very elusive Iriomote cat, of which there are only about 100 left. You’ll see signs around the island begging drivers to proceed with caution as many of the cats have been victims to cars. But you’ll probably never see one… unless it’s the stuffed one in the museum. Instead, spend your time snorkeling alone (see The Travel Tester’s amazing turquoise pics!). Canoeing through mangroves alone. Hiking to cave systems with your hitchhiker alone. On Halloween. Things like that.
8. Japanese islands: Gunkanjima
Known affectionally as Battleship Island thanks to its appearance from a distance, Hashima or Gunkanjima was evacuated in 1974. It once supported a coal-mining community of 5,000 people on its tiny shores of only 6,300 square meters. In its heyday, the people lived with all the comforts of the mainland— movie theater, church, pachinko parlor. When gas became Japan’s primary source of fuel, the residents rushed off Hashima in search of jobs, leaving behind the very intact remains of their community. These days, you can boat out to see Hashima in its decaying state… but only select areas as many of the structures are crumbling.
9. Japanese islands: Shimanami Kaido
Okay, this one is more of a blob of islands than a singular entity. But they are all connected by a series of bridges and a glorious bike trail that ends all bike trails. The Shimanami Kaido is a 76 kilometer jaunt over five islands. Most sane people do it in two days, but we decided it was feasible to do it in one. Possible. Yet painful on the bum. Either way, it’s a challenge but worth the scenic views, the long bridge segments, and the small town charm of the locals living on these islands. Make sure to pad your butt well, bring along enough water and snacks, and maybe your swimsuit. If you’re lucky, the weather will be in your favor for a clear sight line out to the mainland. The Occasional Traveller offers some great advice in terms of logistics.
10. Japanese islands: Ogasawara
All of the Izu Islands have their special flavor, but the islands of Ogasawara are a marvel due to their sheer distance from the mainland (about 1,000 kilometers). It takes 25 hours to reach them via rocky boat (lots of puking on our voyage), this being the only transport in. While the island chain is most famous for its involvement in WWII (Iwo-jima is one such island), travelers are drawn here because of the otherworldly nature. Chichijima in particular is the “popular” destination, likened to the Galapagos thanks to its biodiversity. Think 100 indigenous plants and 14 species of animals unique to the islands. Scuba diving is exquisite (just don’t touch the sea snakes). And at night, you can venture out and spot the glow-in-the-dark mushrooms called “green pepe” to the locals. Here’s a nice guide by Macha to getting there and all that.