Island Hopping

09/08/2022

Beyond Japan’s four main islands sit wonders waiting to be discovered. Islands of majestic natural beauty invite both exploration and deep appreciation. Impressive art collections, vibrant coral reefs and serene beaches await those who venture out just a little further. Exploring the islands of Japan may be the perfect opportunity to express pent-up wanderlust while experiencing a unique aspect of Japanese history and nature.

Islands of Art in Seto Inland Sea
The idea of “islands of art” is both exactly what you imagine, and so much more. There are 727 islands located in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, but 12 make up the Art Islands — which are each host to their own dynamic and various forms of art. From large-scale sculptures nestled amid lush flora to rotating installations from modern icons and museums hosting the work of classics, these islands enrapture visitors through the power and beauty of art.

The idea of the Art Islands came as the result of a change in population in the 1980s. These breathtakingly beautiful islands were losing young folks to larger cities and needed a way to invite both citizens and travelers to visit and appreciate their bountiful forests, coastlines and communities. With the installation of public art came renewed interest and the islands found a new sense of purpose — sharing and hosting art for the world.

Perhaps the most iconic of the Art Islands is Naoshima. Contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, who is known for creating especially vibrant sculptures and installations, has a red kabocha (pumpkin) featured on the island. Whimsical and bright, it is large enough for people to step inside and greets visitors upon their arrival on the island.

Yayoi Kusama’s red kabocha (pumpkin)

For those who want to immerse themselves in art in an entirely different way, there is the Chichu Art Museum — a work of art itself designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. To avoid changing the island’s landscape, he built the museum mostly underground. The museum’s permanent collection includes artworks by Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria.

Numerous sculptures and galleries dot the islands. Some are easily accessible while others are tucked away on forest trails, awaiting the most curious of art connoisseurs. The Art Islands immerse visitors not only in the genius of man-made creations but in the beauty of the land.

Uninhabited Islands of Okinawa
In a world filled with bustling cities, it can be hard to imagine a place that is truly uninhabited. And yet, Japan’s Okinawa prefecture consists of over 160 islands — of which only 47 are inhabited. Known for sandy white beaches, lush forests, excellent snorkeling and a subtropical climate, these serene islands are ripe for unhurried exploration of nature’s artistry.

To visit these islands, travelers fly into Naha, Ishigaki or Miyako. From there, access to the more remote islands is possible by a brief ferry or boat ride.

If soaking in natural beauty is the main reason to visit the uninhabited islands of Okinawa, snorkeling should not be missed. Many of the islands have shallow waters off the coastline that offer pristine snorkeling opportunities amid vibrant coral reefs. Most notably, the Keramashoto National Park offers underwater experiences so beautiful that they feel otherworldly. While most snorkeling happens off the popular beaches of inhabited islands like Aka, Zamami and Tokashiki, your options don’t stop there. To help adventurers safely snorkel the waters of uninhabited islands, many local dive shops offer tours.

The coral reefs off the islands are home to more than 200 of the world’s 800 coral species — making it one of the world’s most coral-rich regions. Additionally, over 1,000 known species of fish dart through the waters. Clear waters immerse divers in the wonder of this vibrant underwater paradise.

Ogasawara  Islands

A beach in Okinawa

An underwater view of the Okinawa sea

Nestled between the shoreline and the coral reefs are ino, or lagoons, which have a unique habitat of verdant seaweed. Ino host everything, from young fish before they make their way to open water, to the dugong, a mammal related to the manatee.

The islands of Okinawa offer a wanderlust all their own. Their abundance of natural beauty and the wonder of uninhabited land met with unspoiled waters is a wonder not to be missed.

Volcanic Islands South of Tokyo
Like something out of a movie, the volcanic islands of Tokyo are majestic and a little mysterious. Perhaps it’s the mere knowledge of how they were formed — rushes of lava creating land where once there was sea. Perhaps it is their lush forests and the extra effort it takes to experience their beauty. Either way, these mesmerizing islands belong on the adventurer’s itinerary.

More than thirty volcanic islands make up the Ogasawara Islands, which are located about 1,000 km south of Tokyo. Their cinematic landscapes are rich with life — from plant species both native and from across Asia, to 195 endangered bird species. With their wealth of plant and animal life, the Ogasawara Islands are a designated UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

Just two of these islands are inhabited, Chichijima and Hahajima. Remote and surrounded by pristine clear blue waters, the island of Chichijima can only be reached by the Ogasawara-maru — a special boat that operates from the Takeshiba Passenger Ship Terminal every few days. After 24 hours of sailing, the island appears and the real adventure begins. Snorkeling and diving are popular on Miyanohama Beach, where coral reefs and vibrant tropical fish are plentiful. Climb the steps to Ogamiyama Park for an observation deck, panoramic views and the Ogamiyama Shrine.

The Ogasawara-maru on its weekly journey

For those looking to experience even more of the volcanic islands, from Chichijima there are guided tours to the uninhabited island of Minamijima. Unspoiled and breathtakingly beautiful, the volcanic island is only accessible by boat and offers views of the other islands, serene beaches and still more impressive snorkeling.

Exploring a volcanic island may not be an expected form of Japanese tourism, but the experience of hiking, sailing and swimming in a place that appears prehistoric will become a memory like no other.

The islands of Japan have much to offer those who are willing to step out and explore.