The best islands in Japan to visit, from Okinawa to Aoshima Cat Sanctuary
(CNN) – Perhaps surprisingly, less than 10% of the 6,852 islands that make up the Japanese archipelago are inhabited. But among these 400 or so, travelers enjoy a rich tapestry of natural treasures, deep-rooted mysticism, thriving cultural assets, and stretches of extensive urbanity.
Covid’s restrictions mean most of us can only dream of visiting them for now, but here are 10 of the best ones to help you plan this post-pandemic trip.
The heart of Japan is said to be in the countryside, and in Hokkaido, at the northern end of the archipelago, there are plenty of fields. Several national parks stretch inland, from the Akan Mashu caldera lakes to the bear-infested Shiretoko revered by the Ainu indigenous people. Combining them with pit stops in the small villages scattered through the forests and wetlands of Hokkaido, it becomes an epic road trip.
The island’s winter climates also attract large numbers during the snow sports season, with resorts such as Niseko, Furano and Kurodake hosting some of the coolest dust on the planet.
To live in the city, head to Sapporo, where you can drink noodles on its steamy “Ramen Alley,” survey the snow-smelling Odori Park from the Sapporo TV Tower Observatory, or drink until late in the morning. Susukino’s death. While you’re at it, check out the Sapporo Beer Museum and the brewery to find jugs of beer and jingisukan (“Genghis Khan”) lamb served in hot Mongolian warlord-shaped headdress pans.
Honshu is the largest and most populous island in Japan.
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If the heart of Japan lies in the countryside, then the main island of Honshu is its pacemaker. It is a region still embodied by the bubbling post-war economy; an era of materialism, decay, and massive urban sprawl.
Most travelers want to go in and out of Tokyo, and there is no better place to book your stay. Whether it’s the electrified Shibuya Pass, the Shimokitazawa hipster subcultures, the Kabuki-cho entertainment district, the Akihabara pop culture center, or the city’s more than 200 Michelin-starred restaurants. Mount Fuji is a couple of hours from the capital by train, ideal for hikers or night hikers.
Other major cities occupy parts of Honshu further west. These include Kyoto, the ancient capital and a world treasure with 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites; Osaka, the harsh antidote to the most pretentious capital where gluttony and indulgence are equal, and Hiroshima, a vibrant city that has risen from the ashes of World War II atomic bomb atrocities.
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Sado Island, the sixth largest in Japan, is located on the northwest coast of Honshu in Niigata Prefecture. Although excavated pottery artifacts indicate that Sado has been inhabited since the Jomon period (14,000-300 BC), it has spent much of the earlier period as an island of exile and imprisonment.
Among the most famous exiles sent to the remote island were the poet Hozumi no Asomi Oyu (8th century), who criticized the then emperor, and Emperor Juntoku (13th century), for his role in fomenting war. . The remains of the latter were cremated in the Mano Goryo Mausoleum, which is now open to the public.
Sado also housed convicts in the Aikawa Detention House between 1954 and 1972. You can explore this sprawling wooden building that contrasts with the backdrop of its lush surroundings.
Alternatively, if you feel like an excursion, head to the steep rock formations of Senkaku Bay or the grassy slopes of Mount Kongo and Mount Shiritate.
The Chichu Art Museum, created by “The King of Concrete”, Tadao Ando, celebrates the interaction between space, light and shadow (it also houses works by Claude Monet and Walter De Maria). For local art icons, head to the Benesse House Museum, featuring pieces by Shinro Ohtake, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Yukinori Yanagi. While the Museum Restaurant Issen is the perfect place for the elegant kaiseki (seasonal cuisine) in view of Andy Warhol’s originals.
Oshima means “big island” in Japanese.
There are few islands in the world like Oshima, the only island leper colony in Japan, an island inhabited almost entirely by leprosy victims.
Located off the coast of the city of Takamastu, Oshima owes its history to the policy of segregation of lepers, much slandered and defeated from Japan (which, incredibly, lasted until 1996); the leprosarium still exists, however, simply because the remaining inhabitants have nowhere else to go.
The tranquil sandy shores of Oshima and the lush bush-stricken forests juxtapose with the gray, splattered buildings that once imprisoned lepers. To avoid the dark tourist voyeurism, it is recommended to visit only during the Setouchi Triennial. This festival presents works of contemporary art on the island every three years, both in commemoration of Oshima’s dark past and in celebration of his renewed freedom.
On the small island of Aoshima, off the coast of Shikoku’s Ehime prefecture, cats outnumber humans by at least six to one, although some estimates say it’s still a much bigger factor. As such, the approximately one-mile-long island has long been the object of desire for cat enthusiasts across the country.
That said, there is not much to do in Aoshima other than watching the more than hundreds of felines lodge, flaunt, purr, and occasionally furnish. But if you’re a cat person, that’s probably enough.
Shikoku is made up of four prefectures: Ehime, Kagawa, Kōchi and Tokushima.
Takumi Harada / AP
Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, but is now well and truly on the traveler’s radar.
Iya Valley should be your first stop; a series of steep-sided gorges in Tokushima Prefecture presented to the world by Japanese author Alex Kerr. In the 1970s, Kerr renovated a thatched-roof house in Tsurui Village called Chiiori, where visitors can stay and volunteer.
Henro’s Buddhist pilgrimage, which connects 88 temples previously visited by monk Kobo Daishi, is another great way to experience the shame of Shikoku’s natural riches. This circular trail travels 750 miles through the four prefectures of the island and guides pilgrims through the forests that resonate with the song of birds, the cobbled mountain passes and the lively coastal towns. It may take several weeks to complete on foot, but finalists will be rewarded with purification of mind, body, and soul.
Cycling enthusiasts can also embark on one of Japan’s great two-wheeled road trips from Shikoku. The Shimanami Kaido meanders through the islets and suspension bridges that connect Shikoku and Honshu, never straying far from the panoramic views of the Seto inland sea.
Kyushu, the third largest island in Japan, is one of the vibrant city life juxtaposed with still burning volcanoes.
Fukuoka and Nagasaki are to the north. The first is a cosmopolitan center for the arts, entertainment and startups, and the cradle of ramen tonkotsu. The latter is a city for history lovers; visited by Jesuit priests in 1500, Dutch merchants during the Edo period (1603-1868) and an atomic bomb during World War II.
Mount Aso, a volcano in the middle of the rolling prairies of central Kyushu, is surrounded by the largest caldera in Japan; the trail that weaves around its outer edge is a hiker’s dream. While Kagoshima, a southern subtropical city, is known for its relaxed atmosphere, surfer culture and love of satsumaimo, Japanese sweet potato and shochu (a distilled Japanese spirit).
Yakushima has a subtropical climate.
The subtropical and biodiverse island south of Kyushu is one of the last stretches of Japan where industrialization has barely left its mark. Yakushima’s primeval forest, choked with moss, dissected by frothy rivers, and covered with ancient yakisugi cedars, is the epitome of traditional Japanese animist beliefs. The forest is not just the residence of the kami (spirits); it is his earthly incarnation.
The UNESCO-protected forest should be the focus of your trip to Yakushima: walk to the 7,000-year-old Jomon Cedar, examine its misty valleys from the Taiko-iwa (drum rock) and spy on the macaques that they walk through the forest above.
Okinawa (main island)
Once known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa was observed with wandering eyes by the imperial powers of Japan and China for centuries, before the former was annexed in the late 19th century. Okinawa today bears the signature of these two cultures, with Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and striking Chinese iconography strewn across the island.
Its sunset, adrift in the subtropical Pacific, makes it an ideal summer getaway. Head to the sandy shores of Manza Beach for a salty swim and bright views of the seascape from nearby Cape Manzamo. Man-made Emerald Beach is one of the most stunning in Okinawa and is within walking distance of Okinawa’s famous Churaumi Aquarium. While diving isolated, Sesoko Beach is connected to the main island by a road bridge to the northwest.
Okinawa is also the number one diving region in Japan, thanks to sea turtles, manta rays, whale sharks and tropical fish hovering in its deepest waters. Check out Honu Honu divers in the capital, Naha, for English diving guides.