With a whopping 6,852 islands, only 416 of Japan’s islands are populated — a number that is declining due to aging populations and centralization. Although there are many islands that could make this list, we have chosen to focus on islands in Okinawa and Kagoshima prefectures because of their globally unique biodiversity and natural beauty.
One of the Osumi archipelago islands in Kagoshima, Tanegashima is most famous for its space center where Japan launches rockets — it is often said to be the world’s most beautiful rocket launch site. However, Tanegashima has much more to offer: an uncountable number of sea caves, lush rainforest, idyllic beaches and coral reefs with clear blue water. Often overshadowed by neighboring Yakushima’s lauded woodlands, it doesn’t receive many tourists — although it is popular with surfers — making it an ideal secret getaway.
2. Okinoerabu Island
Okinoerabu is one of Kagoshima Prefecture’s Amami Islands. It’s a subtropical island formed by raised coral beds. It has vast underground limestone caves and gorgeous white sand beaches sheltered by lush coral reefs with abundant tropical marine life. Okinoerabu is also known for its large population of sea turtles — up to about 50 green sea turtles can be seen at the same time at one spot — as the beaches are important nesting sites for three types of these beautiful ocean animals. The water clarity is so high that coral colonies as deep as 30 meters receive enough sunlight to thrive.
Kikaijima is another island in Kagoshima’s Amami archipelago, also entirely made up of emerging coral reefs. These coral reefs are still rising, boasting the second fastest rate in the world. Even though Kikaijima has a tiny airport, it doesn’t have a single convenience store and only one intersection with traffic lights. Many lagoons hug the shoreline, making it great for snorkeling, especially at high tide. There are not many sand beaches here, but the coral lagoons are simply paradise. We recommend staying at Villa Kikai, both for its location overlooking the ocean and the accommodation style. This brand-new modern premise is just a few steps away from a beautiful beach and lagoon.
Located about 19 kilometers from Ishigaki Island, Kuroshima is a charming, sparsely populated cattle ranch island accessible by ferry. As wagyu beef fans may know, Kuroshima is famous for producing calves for top brands like Matsusaka beef. Only about 200 people live on Kuroshima, but there are over 2,000 cattle.
With a picture-perfect 12-kilometer perimeter, this flat coral island invites visitors to explore it with a slow-paced cycle on a rent-a-bike. It’s a great place for those who want an escape without dealing with cars. A few days here is usually enough for most people, but it works as a great snorkeling and diving tour base.
Most tourists visiting the Kerama Islands only go to Zamami or Tokashiki. Akajima, on the other hand, is a lesser-known paradise. While increased international tourism has impacted the former two islands greatly over the last decade and a half, Akajima remains mostly the same. Even now, with its population of less than 300 people, Akajima feels like a sleepy village. Sparse island-hopping day trippers and scuba divers bring the island to life during the day, but the numerous hidden beaches and hilly geography make it a real challenge to spot anyone even during the busiest times outside the main areas.
Most tourist beaches within the Kerama archipelago have lifeguards and safety nets. They ask everyone to wear a life jacket while snorkeling. For experienced snorkelers who want to snorkel without restrictions, Akajima has plenty of easily accessible non-tourist beaches for a great snorkeling experience.
If you are in the northern part of Okinawa’s main island and want to experience beautiful coral islands even further off the beaten path, Izenajima is the place to visit. The island has limited tourist infrastructure, but in return it gives a glimpse into the way these islanders truly live. It boasts spectacular white sand beaches and colorful coral reefs in pristine condition, despite the gradual onslaught of climate change. If you make the trip here, take a daytrip to neighboring uninhabited Yanaha and Gushikawa islands for a private escape with stunning beaches and crystal-clear seas.
Photos by Ippei and Janine Naoi.
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