Japan is a timeless travel destination, blending ancient cultural traditions with a love of forward-thinking technology. You would be forgiven for thinking that the nation is one big landmass, but it’s actually a volcanic archipelago made up of 6,852 Japanese islands. Of these, only 420 are inhabited.
Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku are the four primary Japanese islands, which form the “mainland,” where the main population is concentrated. But there are many small outlying islands which are equally worthy of a visit. Some of them offer natural wonders such as active volcanoes, bubbling hot springs, tropical beaches, and virgin forests that are inhabited by deer, cranes, monkeys, bears, and other wildlife.
In short, Japan has a lot to offer beyond the metropolis of Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Kyoto. To inspire you to discover this beautiful country’s lesser-known treasures, we’ve put together a list of our picks for the best Japanese islands to explore.
Of the four main Japanese islands, Hokkaido is the second largest, but only 5% of the country’s total population lives there. It’s the furthest north and least developed of the main islands, beloved for its unspoiled natural beauty and wide open spaces.
Hokkaido is a place of untouched wilderness, with primeval forests, fields of alpine wildflowers, blue caldera lakes, and natural hot springs. Summer attracts nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts, who take advantage of the island’s hiking, cycling, and outdoor adventure activities. Winter on the island is a different experience entirely. The weather is harsh, as cold fronts from Siberia bring huge snowfall, sub-zero temperatures, and frozen seas. The island transforms into a paradise for skiers and snowboarders, and there are many international resorts with remote back country slopes.
There’s also an excellent seafood scene there, and most of the country’s remaining indigenous inhabitants, the Ainu people, call Hokkaido home.
The largest island in the Sea of Japan, Sado is a remote island with lush mountain scenery off the coast of Niigata Prefecture. Due to its isolation, it was historically a destination for political exile. The most prominent figures banished here were the former Emperor Juntoku, the Buddhist monk Nichiren, and the founder of Noh, Zeami Motokiyo. Sado is no longer a place for exile, but these forced residents created an aristocratic society, and traces of their unique culture and religious life remains today.
One of Sado’s biggest cultural attractions is the annual Earth Celebration, which is a music festival held each August by the world famous taiko group, the Kodo Drummers. While drums are their primary instrument, these performances include other traditional Japanese instruments, such as fue and shamisen, as well as traditional dance and vocals.
The island is also home to one of the world’s richest gold mines. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Sado was central to Japan’s economy, and drew samurai and tradesmen from all over the country. This left a unique cultural imprint on the island, including traditional artforms like Mumyoi-yaki (clay pottery), the Sado Okesa dance, Sado Noh (classic Japanese musical drama), and puppet plays.
Kyushu is the southernmost and third largest of the main Japanese islands, with an extensive history, modern cities, and rich natural resources. The mountainous island is known as “the land of fire,” where active volcanoes are lined up one after the other. The most notable one is Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in the world. Thanks to this volcanic landscape, there are great onsens (Japanese hot springs) virtually everywhere.
The Japanese mainland has been populated since ancient times, so there’s a lot of rich history here. The island was the gateway for trade with China and Korea, and many historic sites from as early as the 3rd century BC remain. Historic ruins, ancient tombs, and reproductions can all be found on Kyushu. One of the main attractions is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Yakushima, an ancient forest with Japanese Cedar trees up to 2,100 years old.
Today Kyushu also offers cosmopolitan cities, beaches, and farmland (crops include tea, rice, tobacco, and citrus fruits), and a small, isolated archipelago off the coast.
Located 50 km off the northwest tip of Hokkaido, Rebun is one of the most remote islands in Japan. Together with Rishiri Island, it forms the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park.
Rebun Island is best visited in summer (June to September). It’s most famous for its abundance of alpine flowers, which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The island’s signature flower is the usuyukiso (or Rebun edelweiss), but there are up to 300 different blooms here. You can see these flowers all over the island, including at sea level. Everywhere else in the world, alpine flowers are only found at altitudes of around 5,000 feet.
Cycling and hiking are popular activities on Rebun, and there’s an 8-hour hiking trek which leads from one end of the island to the other. This can be broken into two sections for a shorter 4-hour hike, but all trails include beautiful scenery and magnificent flowers. Rebun is also home to a Chasi—a hilltop fortification of the indigenous Ainu people.
Rishiri is the neighboring island of Rebun, and belongs to the same National Park. It also offers an alpine flower display in the summer. But Rishiri, which means “island with a high peak” in the Ainu language, is also popular during winter for its skiing and snowboarding terrains.
The island is dominated by the extinct volcanic peak of Mt. Rishiri, the summit of which you can hike to. The climb takes a full day and presents some challenging terrain, but overall, this is a scenic highlight of the Japanese islands, and the panoramic views from the top stretch over to Rebun and Hokkaido.
During summer you can also take the cycling road to circumnavigate the coastline (which takes roughly 5 to 7 hours). There are a number of bike rental locations across the island.
Teuri is a small island off the western coast of Hokkaido, and part of the Shokanbetsu-Teuri-Yagishiri Quasi National Park. This is a sanctuary for nesting seabirds, and the breeding ground for over a million birds of eight different species. Most notable among them are the common murre, which is currently facing extinction in Japan, and the black-tailed gull.
March is the best season for birdwatching, and there are four observation platforms set up across the island. The island offers an opportunity to see the spectacled guillemot, one of the world’s rarest birds, and the rhinoceros auklet. If you head to the viewing platform at Akaishi around sunset, you can watch the birds catch fish.
The entire colony was designated as a National Natural Treasure in 1938. Watching the huge flocks of seabirds is an incredible sight, especially around the soaring sea cliffs of the island’s west coast.
Tashirojima is informally known as “Cat Island,” because it’s a small fishing village where cats outnumber humans four to one! There are several hundred felines on the island, where they’re worshipped and cared for by its 100 human residents. The locals believe that feeding the cats will bring them good fortune.
The cats were originally brought over as pest control to keep mice away from the island’s silkworm farms. But when the silk industry left the island, much of its human population followed; and the cats continued to reproduce.
Now cat lovers from all around the world travel to Tashirojima to interact with the strays, which freely roam the streets and pose for photos for tourists. Note that the island is not very well set up for tourism: There are very few shops or public restrooms available, and no restaurants whatsoever. Visitors are asked to take their trash home with them, and dogs are not welcome.
Miyajima / Itsukushima
A small island located less than an hour outside Hiroshima, Miyajima is a popular day trip; more than 4 million tourists visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site every year! The postcard-worthy shot here is of the floating torii gate, which has been ranked as one of the best views in all of Japan. Built over the water, at high tide the gate appears to float.
Miyajima is Japanese for “Shrine Island.” This nickname has stuck, despite the fact that the island is actually called Itsukushima. It was historically considered a holy place, with many Buddhist temples, historic monuments, and shrines. One of the main sights on the island is the centuries-old Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, which is built over the water. Visitors can also hike through the virgin forest of sacred Mt. Misen.
The Japanese island maintains a traditional Edo-era look; wild deer wander freely, happy to mingle with tourists and chew on whatever might be lying around.
Megan Jerrard is an Australian journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.