Islands of Japan Worth Ditching the Mainland For

Man paddling in ocean under rainbow in Okinawa

Japan is an island nation. Now, please repeat with me – Japan is an island nation. And now once again but this time in Japanese – Japan is a “shimaguni”. David Shilling, in his wonderful book about Japan – Bending Adversity – refers to the term shimaguni (島国)- meaning island country in Japanese, as “incantation”, as a magic term to end all conversations about Japan.

In a country where the desire to be unique, not individually but as a nation, is cherished above anything else, the sense of isolation brought on by being an island is often the answer to both good – authentic and unique aspects of Japanese culture – and bad – let`s say Japan may not be one of the flag carrier countries in terms of certain aspects of the social progress. And I guarantee you, you will hear the word “shimaguni” at least once while you are in Japan.

The 14,000 islands of Japan

Well, Japan is indeed an island nation. In addition to its four main islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu – collectively referred to as the mainland, Japan is home to a total of approximately 14,000 islands (you might have read the recent news where it was reported that Japan just discovered another 7,000 islands forming part of its territory that it was not aware of the existence before).

While there are plenty of sites to see on mainland Japan, I have always been captured by the allure of its smaller islands where one can truly feel the enigmatic sense of disconnection that only a piece of land detached from the mainland can bring. These are some of my favorite islands in Japan, which stand out with their nature, history and culture.

Man walking on a beach in Tokashiki Island in Japan

Tokashiki Island: living my Robinson Crusoe dream

Tokashiki Island, belonging to the Kerama Islands group, is my favorite summer destination in Japan. Located merely 30-minutes off the coast of Naha, the main city of mainland Okinawa, Tokashiki Island is home to two main beaches and two very small settlements. Aharen Beach is where the action happens with a wide range of daytime eateries and water sport centers – whereas Tokashiku Beach is the place to go for a quiet beach time.

I try to visit Tokashiki every summer. I stay at the same hostel – old but very well maintained Kerama Backpackers, which charges around USD 25/night for a dormitory bed. Every morning I go to the same lovely and only breakfast place on the island to have my sandwich and two cups of coffee. I then walk to Tokashiku beach where i spend half of the day and then move to Aharen beach to catch the shuttle back to the hostel. In the evenings, I go to the same (and only) yakitori place on the island. I do this every summer for 4-5 days and I am looking forward to repeat it all over again this coming summer

Kayak facing beach on ocean in Zamami Island Okinawa

Zamami Island: where the divers go

Also a member of the Kerama archipelago, Zamami Island is a heaven for divers and snorkelers. Similar to Tokashiki, Zamami is also home to two main beaches, Ama and Furuzamami Beaches. Ama Beach is very popular for stand-up paddle (SUP) and there is also a beautiful camping ground right by the beach. You can also rent a kayak or join a guided tour and spend the day exploring island’s secluded coves and beaches.

Zamami Island, despite its small size, has a good range of eateries including food cart style ones, which pop up nearby the beach right before sunset.

Amakusa Islands: the islands of prayers

I visited Amakusa Islands many times for writing assignments. The group of 120 islands, also referred to as “islands of prayers”, lies off the coast of Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu island.

While the archipelago stands out as a unique nature destination – qualifying as geo-park – I have always been more intrigued by the islands’ history connected to the Hidden Christians of Japan as well as the largest civil conflict in the history of Japan – the Amakusa-Shimabara Rebellion.

In 1637-1638, the villagers who were imposed to overtaxing practices of the military rulers of the period and the Christians living in the fear of persecution (the Christianity was banned in Japan during that period) revolted against the government under the leadership of a native of Amakusa, who was only 16-years old at the time. The rebellion was eventually – with the help of Dutch – suppressed by the government but marks a milestone event in the history of Japan.

There are today many sites on the islands linked to the Amakusa-Shimabara Rebellion as well as the Hidden Christians of Japan.

Reflection of christian church on water in Goto islands in Japan

Goto Islands: intriguing history and mesmerizing nature

Another group of islands, which hosts many sites related to the history of Hidden Christians of Japan, is Goto Islands located off the coast of Nagasaki in the island of Kyushu. One of my favorite destinations in Japan, along with Nagasaki City, Goto is a group of five islands that each offers a perfect blend of nature and history.

Fukue and Nakadori Islands are the largest two islands of the group and each offers a rich variety of accommodation and eateries. Thanks to the ferry service, island hopping is possible but I highly recommend that you spend at least a few nights on each island. Both islands are home to many Christian churches with some of those being listed as UNESCO Heritage.

Two tori gates facing the sea in Ojika Island in Japan

Ojika Island: stay with the locals

While merely 35 minutes away from Nakadori Island, Ojika Island is not administratively a part of the group of Goto Islands and has a very different vibe.

Home to 2,300 residents, Ojika is a place to truly get in touch with the rural side of Japan. The island is very popular both among the Japan locals and foreign tourists for the homestay experiences offered by the islanders and also its kominka style accommodation where the guests can have the entire renovated old Japanese home to themselves.

On Ojika Island, I stayed at the wonderful Ya no Ya, run by a lovely young couple who renovated a century old Japanese house. We cooked and ate together. After a day of exploring and sightseeing, I was each evening looking forward to coming back “home”.

A wild deer looking at the camera in Nozaki Island in Japan

Nozaki Island: maybe a little eerie but a truly memorable island

Nozaki Island, administratively a part of Ojika Island, is a popular side trip from Ojika. The island is home to the picturesque Nokubi Church and the ruins of an old village, which are both registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of 12 Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region.

The island once home to 650 residents currently has only one (temporary) human resident. But do not worry, there are approximately 400 wild deers – usually hanging around in a savannah like part of the island – that will keep you company.

In addition to a Nokubi Church and the abandoned village, there is also a hiking trail that leads to a Shinto shrine.

Fog over mountains in Yakushima Japan

Yakushima Island: hikers heaven

Yakushima Island, one of the two first UNESCO Heritage Sites in Japan needs no introduction. An island which reached the height of its popularity as a place that has inspired Hayao Miyazaki for his famous anime, Princess Mononoke, is famous for its hiking trails, moss forests and ocean-side onsen.

My favorite hike in Yakushima, where I was once lucky enough to stay for almost three months, is the hike to Mount Miyanoura, the highest peak of Kyushu, that can either be done as a day or multi-day hike.

These are only a small group of islands in Japan that I repeatedly visit. If you happen to visit Japan for a long enough time to wander off the mainland, I highly recommend some of these islands for a memorable taste of truly rural Japan.