Japan’s best islands to visit, from Okinawa to cat sanctuary Aoshima

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Perhaps surprisingly, fewer than 10% of the 6,852 islands making up the Japanese archipelago are inhabited. But among those 400 or so, travelers are treated to a rich tapestry of natural treasures, deep-seated mysticism, thriving cultural assets and stretches of sprawling urbanity.

Covid restrictions mean that most of us can only dream about visiting them for the time being, but here are 10 of the best to help plan that post-pandemic trip.


They say the heart of Japan is in the countryside, and in Hokkaido on the archipelago’s northern tip, there is countryside aplenty. Several national parks sprawl across the hinterlands, from the caldera lakes of Akan Mashu to the bear-infested Shiretoko revered by the indigenous Ainu population. Combining these with pit stops at the small villages peppered throughout Hokkaido’s forests and wetlands makes for an epic road trip.

The island’s wintry climes also draw huge numbers during the snow sports season, with resorts like Niseko, Furano and Kurodake home to some of the freshest powder on the planet.

For city living, head to Sapporo, where you can slurp noodles in its steamy “Ramen Alley,” survey snow-kissed Odori Park from the Sapporo TV tower observatory, or drink till the wee hours in the Susukino entertainment district. While you’re here, check out the Sapporo Beer Museum and brewery for steins of lager and jingisukan (“Genghis Khan”) lamb served on hot skillets shaped like the Mongol warlord’s headdress.


Honshu is Japan's largest and most heavily populated island.

If the heart of Japan is in the countryside, then the main island Honshu is its thumping pacemaker. It is a region still embodied by the bubbling post-war economy; an era of materialism, decadence and massive urban expansion.

Most travelers will fly into and out of Tokyo, and there is no better place to bookend your sojourn. Whether it’s the electrified Shibuya crossing, the hipster subcultures of Shimokitazawa, the Kabuki-cho entertainment district, pop culture hub Akihabara, or the city’s 200-plus Michelin-starred restaurants. Mt. Fuji is a couple hours from the capital by train, perfect for day trippers or overnight hikers.

Other major cities occupy stretches of Honshu further west. These include Kyoto, the former capital and a treasure of the world with 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites; Osaka, the gritty antidote to the more pretentious capital where gluttony and indulgence are par for the course, and Hiroshima, a vibrant city that has risen from the ashes of the atomic bomb atrocities of World War II.


Sado Island, Japan’s sixth largest, sits off the northwestern coast of Honshu in Niigata Prefecture. Though excavated pottery artifacts indicate that Sado has been populated since the Jomon period (14,000-300 BCE), it has spent much of the proceeding era as an island of exile and imprisonment.

Among the most famous exiles sent to the remote island were the poet Hozumi no Asomi Oyu (8th century), who criticized the then-emperor, and Emperor Juntoku (13th century), for his role in fomenting war. The latter’s remains were cremated at the Mano Goryo Mausoleum, which is open to the public today.

Sado also housed convicts in the Aikawa Detention House between 1954 and 1972. You can explore this eerie wooden building contrasting with the backdrop of its lush surroundings.

Alternatively, if you’re in the mood for a trek, head for the rugged rock formations of Senkaku Bay, or to the grassy slopes of Mt. Kongo and Mt. Shiritate.


Thanks to the checkbook of billionaire Soichiro Fukutake and the vision of architect Tadao Ando in the 1980s, Naoshima went from a provincial land of disrepair to a prized open-air contemporary art museum in a matter of years.

Pop art trailblazer Yayoi Kusama’s kabocha (pumpkins) are among the top works on the island; one protruding from a pier on the south coast (currently under repair); the other, red and black, submerged in concrete by the western shores.

The Chichu Art Museum, created by “The King of Concrete,” Tadao Ando, celebrates the interplay between space, light and shadow (it also houses work by Claude Monet and Walter De Maria). For local art icons, head to the Benesse House Museum, with pieces by Shinro Ohtake, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Yukinori Yanagi. While the Museum Restaurant Issen is the go-to spot for elegant kaiseki (seasonal cuisine) in view of Andy Warhol originals.


Oshima means "big island" in Japanese.

There are few islands in the world like Oshima, Japan’s only island leprosarium – an island inhabited almost entirely by victims of leprosy.