Five unusual island escapes in Japan, from fairytale forests to tropical retreats

The four main islands — Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku — are home to the vast majority of the nation’s population, but away from those behemoths, there are some fascinating options including Okinawa, Teshima and Yakushima.

Sunday, June 21, 2020,
By Jamie Lafferty
Naminoue Beach and Naminoue Shrine, Naha, Okinawa.

Naminoue Beach and Naminoue Shrine, Naha, Okinawa.

Photograph by AWL Images

1. Best for cycling: Shimanami Kaido

Linking Honshu and Shikoku, the Shimanami Kaidō is a 48-mile road and bridge network that stepping-stones its way over the Seto Island Sea. Most people choose to drive or take the train across this impressive feat of engineering, but those looking for more adventure and a considerable amount of legwork can cycle instead. Several bike hire companies offer one-way options for anyone undertaking the route, while each of the seven islands along the way has accommodation and dining options.

2. Best for Bond fantasies: Gunkanjima

Fans of 007 will instantly recognise abandoned Hashima Island. Of course, it was never originally built to be a supervillain’s lair but it did the job admirably in the 2012 film Skyfall. A genuinely spooky place, it was once a hive of activity — as a seabed coal mining facility, it was home to over 5,000 miners and their families — until being abandoned in 1974. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and makes for a fascinating day trip, a rocky, half-hour boat ride from the city of Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu.

3. Best for contemplation: Teshima

A dozen islands in the Seto Island Sea host the Setouchi Triennale art festival. While some stage temporary exhibitions, a few also have permanent art installations and exhibitions. The latter include the Teshima Art Museum. Resembling a droplet of water, the one-room concrete space has been designed for contemplation and meditation. Be sure to save at least half a day for a visit, perhaps after seeing the more traditional artworks on permanent display on the neighbouring island town of Naoshima. 

4. Best for Hawaiian vibes: Okinawa

Visiting the sun-soaked, divers’ paradise that is Okinawa today, it’s hard to believe it was the site of some of the Second World War’s most ferocious fighting. Comprising more than 150 islands in the East China Sea between Taiwan and Japan’s mainland, it was once its own separate kingdom. Today, it’s often compared to Hawaii, with a similarly laid-back, ocean-focused vibe. From its super-early cherry blossom to its fixation with pork, everything is just a little bit different down on Japan’s southernmost territory. 

5. Best for Fairytale forests: Yakushima 

The legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki was inspired to create his 1997 classic Princess Mononoke — a cautionary tale of man versus nature — after visiting Yakushima. Many of the island’s trees were felled during the timber-hungry Edo period. Today, however, the island is carpeted with forests, which can be explored via a network of misty trails dotted with giant, moss-covered trunks. These are yakusugi — the island’s most ancient cedars (by definition over 1,000 years old). The oldest and largest is Jōmon Sugi.  

Published in the May/June 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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