Japan often conjures up images of bustling Tokyo streets, serene Kyoto temples, and majestic Mount Fuji. However, the land of the rising sun is a diverse archipelago, with thousands of islands offering otherworldly landscapes and unique cultures and cuisines. Discover tropical rainforests, flower fields, snow-capped mountains, white sandy beaches and colourful coral reefs. Explore sacred shrines, delicious cuisines, cultural festivals and unique wildlife. From Awaji to Hokkaido, here are 7 of the most magical Japanese islands to visit.
1. Miyajima Island
Also known as Itsukushima, Miyajima Island is most famous for the Itsukushima Shrine and “floating” torii gate. The gate appears to float on the water during high tide and is one of the most photographed sites in Japan. The island is also populated by friendly, free-roaming deer, considered messengers of Shinto gods. One of the best times to visit the island is the autumn season, when you’ll witness the beautiful maple trees that line Momijidani Park, turning all shades of red and gold.
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Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. Famed for its hot springs, snow festivals, flower fields, snow festivals, and endemic wildlife, it’s one of the most magical Japanese islands for nature and culture lovers. It’s extraordinary in any season. Visit in spring and see the colorful flower fields, with thousands of vibrant blooms. You can also try to spot unique animals like the red-crowned crane and the Hokkaido brown bear.
In summer, rent a bike and go cycling through farmland, mountain passes, coasts and cliffs, from the UNESCO-listed Shiretoko Peninsula route to the Furano and Biei trails to see the lavender patchwork hills. If winter is more your speed, you’ve got to experience the annual Sapporo Snow Festival and enjoy the natural hot springs. In any season, don’t leave without trying the island’s delicious seafood, including crabs, sea urchins, and scallops.
Set off the southern coast of Kyushu, Yakushima is a subtropical island that looks like something out of a fairytale. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its ancient forests, home to the Yakusugi, ancient cedar trees that are thousands of years old. The island inspired the Studio Ghibli film “Princess Mononoke”, and you’ll feel like you’re in a storybook as you wander past moss-covered tree branches, enormous tree roots, and bubbling streams. As you’re hiking, keep an eye out for the Yakushima macaque and the Yaku deer, two animals that are unique to this enchanting island.
4. Awaji Island
Awaji Island is set in the eastern part of the Seto Inland Sea, and we’ll cross the world’s largest suspension bridge over the sea to get there. Famed as the “Island of Flowers”. Awaji is home to spectacular flower gardens like those of the UNESCO-listed Awaji Yumebutai, an architectural complex built into the side of a mountain. When you visit Yumebutai, you’ll get to explore its incredible ‘100 Stepped Garden’, where 100 flowerbeds sit in small square gardens on an incline in terraced grids. You can also visit the Water Temple and descend the steps to the Buddhist temple beneath its waters, admiring the reflection of the surrounding mountains, rice paddies and bamboo groves.
Awaji Island is also known for its Naruto whirlpools, powerful tidal currents that can be observed from boats or special viewing platforms. Whether you want to relax in the onsen hot springs or visit the traditional puppet theater, Awaji is a remarkable blend of culture and nature.
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5. Okinawa Island
Located in Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa Island is home to a fascinating fusion of Japanese and indigenous Ryukyu cultures. You can visit the stunning red Shuri Castle to get a glimpse into the Ryukyu Kingdom that once ruled these islands. Okinawa is also a paradise for snorkelers and divers, with its clear blue waters, white sandy beaches, and vibrant coral reefs.
You’ve also got to savor the food, including dishes like Goya Champuru and Okinawa Soba. The island’s cuisine has been hailed as one of the reasons behind the unusually long lifespan of the island’s residents. Known as “the land of immortals“, Okinawans have less heart disease, cancer, and dementia than people in the US, while female Okinawans live longer than any women on the planet.
6. Omishima Island
Located in the Seto Inland Sea, Omishima is part of the Shimanami Kaido, a series of islands connected by one of the most beautiful cycling routes in Japan. The island is also renowned for its spiritual experiences and ancient Shinto shrines like the Oyamazumi Shrine, said to be over a thousand years old. This shrine is dedicated to the gods of the mountains and seas and is home to historic Samurai artifacts. Be sure to make the drive to Hiroshima via the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido Expressway. This 37-mile (60 km) highway links the islands of the Seto Inland Sea with nine individual bridges, and you’ll admire the islands as you travel across the sea.
It may be the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, yet Shikoku offers a myriad of rich experiences. You can walk the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, a spiritual journey that takes you through 88 Buddhist temples scattered across the island. Nature lovers can also enjoy the tranquil Japanese gardens, turquoise rivers, and lush waterfalls. If you’re after some thrills, Shikoku is also famous for its white-water rafting experiences, especially along the Yoshino River.