The Japanese archipelago is made up of literally thousands of islands to explore
Japan is made up of 6,852 islands. The country stretches from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north all the way down to the Philippine Sea in the south. Japan's north-to-south geography allows for great diversity in climate and ecosystems. The northern islands are known for snowy winters, cooler summers, and forests, hot springs, and breathtaking views. Down south, the islands are tropical, with calm, blue waters and warm temperatures. The southern islands of Okinawa are a perfect beach destination year round. Japan's transportation infrastructure is second to none and transport between Japan's many islands is quite easy. Between trains, buses, ferries, and airplanes, you have access to all of the nooks and crannies of Japan's many islands.
Okinawa, the Ryukyu Kingdom
Before Okinawa became part of Japan in 1872, it was an independent country known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. Ryukyu culture is alive and well and is one of the reasons Okinawa is so distinctive. This distinction is perhaps most evident in its incredible food culture which is quite different from that of mainland Japan.
Okinawa's beaches are beautiful year round, with clear waters filled with tropical fish. It is Japan's premier destination for relaxing on the beach, snorkeling and hiking. Naha, the capital of Okinawa, can be reached by plane from anywhere in Japan. From Naha , you can get around the various islands by boat, bus or plane. The Kerama Island chain is 32 kilometers southwest of Okinawa Island and can be accessed by a one-hour boat from Aharen Port in Naha. If you're looking to get even further away from the big city, visit Ishigaki or Miyakojima Islands by plane. Miyakojima is home to some of the most idyllic beaches in Japan. Explore Ishigaki, one of the larger islands in the Okinawa Island chains, by rental car. From Ishigaki , you can take a high-speed boat to Hateruma , the southernmost island in Japan.
Tropical Island Hopping from Tokyo
If you're visiting Tokyo, island hopping is still an option. Odaiba is a man-made island and entertainment district, home to plenty of shopping and dining. There's even a tiny beach where you can take in pretty views of the city. For a tropical getaway, take a boat or plane to the Izu Islands, sometimes known as the Tokyo Islands, as they are part of the administration of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. There are nine islands in the chain with Oshima being the largest. The islands are 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo and have year-round warm weather, beautiful beaches and some of the best snorkeling in Japan.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), the islands were a place where criminals and ronin—masterless samurai—were exiled. You can access them by plane or overnight ferry from Tokyo. Ogasawara Island , or Bonin Island, is famous for the scale of wildlife in the waters around the island, including whales and dolphins. The Izu Islands have some of the most beautiful beaches and mountains in Japan.
Islands around Kagoshima and Kyushu
Yakushima Island is a tiny island that is part of Kagoshima Prefecture, famous for dense cedar forests and incredible hiking. The island is home to Nagata Inaka-Hama , a beach with seasonal loggerhead turtle nesting grounds. Walking on the Arakawa Trail, which winds through the island, is a great way to explore. Flights from Osaka or Fukuoka depart to Yakushima daily. From other parts of Japan, fly to Kagoshima and then take a combination of bus and ferry to the island.
Neighboring Tanegashima also has plenty to explore. Unlike mountainous Yakushima, Tanegashima is flatter and is a great spot to enjoy the beach. This island is where the first firearms were introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders. The guns are on display at the Tanegashima Kaihatsu Sogo Center. To see some of Japan's modern technology, visit the Tanegashima Space Center , the largest rocket-launch complex in Japan. The island can be accessed from Kagoshima or Tanegashima by ferry.
Much more than sandy beaches
Not all of Japan's islands are beach destinations. Hokkaido is Japan's northernmost island and the least developed. In the winter it sees snowfall, freezing temperatures, and frozen seas. In the summer it is cooler than other parts of the country. It attracts tourists, cyclists, skiers and snowboarders with its unspoiled beauty. Off the coast of Okayama is Naoshima. This tiny island is the artistic heart of the Seto Inland sea. It is home to three museums designed by acclaimed architect Tadao Ando. The neighboring islands of Teshima and Inujima also feature museums and outdoor sculpture parks. Ferries between the islands run daily.
Off the coast of Niigata is Sado Island whose most prominent attraction is the Earth Celebration, a music festival hosted by a local Kodo Taiko group. Ferries depart from Niigata terminal daily. Lying off the coast of Nagasaki is the uninhabited island of Hashima, known as Gunkanjima , or battleship island. The island's now-depleted undersea coal mines were a key factor in Japan's rapid industrialization. Access to the island reopened in 2009 exclusively to tour groups. Tours depart daily by ferry from Nagasaki.
Navigating Japan's many Islands
While many of these islands are in remote locations, you can reach them easily from major cities. Flights to Naha depart daily across Japan. From Naha, ferries, high-speed boats and planes give access to the many smaller islands of Okinawa. Reach the islands of Kyushu using ferries departing from Kagoshima. Get to Kagoshima by shinkansen (bullet train) or plane from most major Japanese cities. The islands of the Seto Inland Sea can be reached from Okayama by ferry daily. Take the shinkansen or an airplane from a major city to get to Okayama. Sapporo is the principal city in Hokkaido, and there are many domestic and some international flights. Get around Hokkaido by train, bus or rental car.