Maybe you imagine the amphitheater of neon noise that surrounds Shibuya’s scramble crossing. Or a glistening temple rooftop poking through a serene morning mist in Higashiyama.
Both of these postcard-scapes can be witnessed in Japan’s two most famous cities—Tokyo and Kyoto—located on Honshu, one of the country’s four main islands along with Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu.
But Honshu only accounts for 88,020 out of the 142,000 square miles that make up Japan. So what about the rest? We’re talking about the thousands of stunning islands that dangle in an emerald chain from the windswept national parks in the north to the tropical Edens in the south; largely uncharted destinations home to some of Japan’s, if not the world’s, most unique travel experiences.
In partnership with Jeenie, a mobile app which provides live translation in Japanese and other languages, we’ve narrowed down five of the most remote yet rewarding islands you can explore in Japan.
From above, the coral reef that rings all the way round Yoron Island looks like a turquoise halo. On land, the island’s beautiful beaches, fascinating cave formations, and vivid rituals and traditions make this worth the extra flight to get there. About 600 kilometers south of Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu, Yoron is actually closer to Okinawa (22 km) and draws much of its colorful culture and laid back vibes from there. The disappearing beach of Yurigahama is Yoron’s star attraction but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty more in the way of marine sports and hiking. You should also spare time to explore Yoron’s rich history at the Yoron Folk Village and Yunnu Taikenkan Cultural Information Center.
Don’t miss: Yurigahama beach is visible only during low tide from April to October, popping up at random places along the sandbar depending on the day to unveil its ridiculously picturesque self.
Things to know: The inhabitants of Yoron Island have their own dialect, called Yunnu Futuba, derived from the Northern Ryukyuan languages spoken in Kagoshima, Amami, and Okinawa. Impress the locals by using “totuganashi” instead of “arigato” to say thank you.
Getting around: There is a public bus service that travels between the north and south of the island. Taxis are also available. Information is available at the Yoron Sightseeing Center next to the town office.
Where to stay: There’s everything from camping and hostels to private apartments on Yoron. If you want to go fancy, Pricia Resort is a swanky Mediterranean-style villa complex along the waterfront.
How to get there:
Not many tourists make it to Saga, the smallest prefecture on the island of Kyushu, but most will have come into contact with it in their travels across Japan thanks to the area’s prized—and pricey—pottery. Karatsu City is Saga’s pottery hub on a hill, overlooking the ocean and from where you can see the mysterious island of Madarashima.
Long a stopover for travelers heading to mainland Japan from China and Korea, Madarashima became a refuge for a family of persecuted Christians from nearby Nagasaki in the Edo period. They were later joined by other Christians from the surrounding Goto Islands and Hirado. Today, half of the island’s 1,000 or so residents are Catholic, holding mass every Sunday. Explore Japan’s oldest wooden church before climbing Mt. Banshonotsuji for a view as far as the Korean Peninsula.
Don’t miss: The live squid, prepped in under 30 seconds, is the freshest sashimi lunch you’ll ever taste.
Things to know: With an area of less than 2 square miles, Madarshima is ideal for a quirky day trip from the nearby city of Karatsu.
Getting around: There is no public transport on Madarashima, but the island is small enough that you don’t need it.
Where to stay: There is one ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and one guesthouse if you did want to stay overnight. You can book with the Karatsu Tourism Information Center before you board the bus to Yokobo Port.
How to get there:
Thirty subtropical and tropical islands make up the idyllic Ogasawara archipelago dubbed “The Galapagos of the East.” Of these, only Hahajima, along with the more developed Chichijima, is inhabited. While the island is technically under the jurisdiction of Tokyo, it’ll take you about 26 hours to get there from the city’s central Takeshiba Ship Terminal. Still, once you’ve traversed the 1000 kilometers or so of ocean, the view of forested mountains rising straight out of the jewel-blue waters—your very own treasure island—will be more than worth it.
Aside from gawping at the sheer beauty of its remoteness, Hahajima is also ripe for trekking, diving, cruising, fishing, whale watching, and star gazing, to name a few. With just a handful of shops around the small port, once you get inland it feels well and truly like a lost island adventure.
Don’t miss: Hiking Mount Chibusa in the north of the island for a panoramic view of the Pacific ocean.
Things to know: There is one ATM on the island (JA Postal which accepts international credit and debit cards) at Oki Port, where much of the island’s action is centered. Along with the ferry terminal building, here you’ll also find a few shops and a tourist information desk.
Getting around: Hahajima is a narrow island, stretching about 15 km lengthwise but just 3 kilometers in width. To really make the most of island life, rent a motorbike. Bicycle rental is also available if you’ve got the legs for it. There are even taxis, just don’t expect to be able to hail one, you’ll need to call for pickup. Information on island transport is available at the ferry terminal building at Oki Port.
Where to stay: Minpaku, or guesthouses, can be found and booked on the island’s official website. There are no large hotels or resorts. Camping is not allowed.
How to get there:
A volcano inside of a volcano (yep, you read that right), Aogashima boasts the sort of unbelievable landscape you’d expect in a CGI rendering of some lush alien planet. Its extraordinary topography does attract visitors from far and wide, meaning that tourism is slightly more developed here than on Hahajima. You’ll find several accommodation options, including camping, which can be combined with bathing in the volcanic hot springs under a starry sky.
Aogashima also has a Tokyo address, this time as part of the closer Izu Islands chain — a collection of volcanic islands between 100 and 700 kilometers from the city. However, its relative proximity doesn’t make it any easier to reach and access to the island requires a separate boat or helicopter ride from nearby Hachijojima.
Don’t miss: A chance to sample the locally brewed Aochu, a potent potato liquor that will put a carpet of hair on your chest.
Things to know: Aogashima is fondly thought of by locals as the most difficult island to reach in all of Japan. Whether or not the boat (actually a cargo ship) runs depends on the weather, potentially leaving you stranded on Aogashima Jurassic Park-style for several days, so you need to plan for this possibility.
Getting around: A rental car is available on the island by applying at the village office. Bicycle rental is not available.
Where to stay: Most visitors choose to stay on the island’s free campsite. You must apply to stay at least two weeks in advance by emailing to email@example.com (in Japanese). When you arrive on the island, you’ll also need to head straight to the village office to notify them that you are staying on the island. Locals do not speak any English and the tourism association requests that you bring somebody who can speak Japanese (like Jeenie!) with you.
How to get there:
Domestic flights are available to Hachijojima, in addition to the overnight ferry from Takeshiba Passenger Ship Terminal.
50 kilometers off Hokkaido, Rebun Island is a botanist’s dreamscape, abundant with rare alpine flowers — some of which can only be found here. But even if you’re not super into flowers, this section of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park serves up exceptional hiking. The most comprehensive, and rewarding, is the Hachijikan Haikingu-kosu, literally the “Eight-Hour Hiking Course,” which traces the entirety of the island’s eastern edge.
Peak time to visit Rebun is in the summer when it’s practically overrun with flora and fauna, while spring is perfect for bird watching. Although Hokkaido’s long, frigid winter gets a bad rap, snow-shoeing across Rebun’s rolling hills, the ocean churning in the distance, doesn’t seem a bad way to spend it.
Don’t miss: Eating the island’s melt-in-your-mouth specialty, uni-don, which is raw sea urchin served on rice.
Things to know: Aside from the Eight-Hour course, there are several different hiking trails across the island appropriate for all levels of walking. Plus, unlike the rest of Hokkaido, you won’t have to worry about bears.
Getting around: There is an infrequent bus service that shuttles visitors between the main town Kafuka to the island’s northern and southern tips. Car and motorbike rental is available on the island but it’s cheaper to rent a vehicle while you’re in Wakkanai and bring it over on the ferry. Information is available at the Rebun Island Tourist Association in Kafuka.
Where to stay: Rebun has quite a few large hotels to cater for the busloads of Japanese tourists that come for summer sightseeing tours, as well as few guesthouses and a youth hostel.
How to get there:
With the help of Jeenie’s global network of multilingual interpreters, available anytime with a video call, you won’t have any problem making the most of your adventure.
Jeenie is a mobile app that lets travelers get instant access to a Japanese speaker and culture expert. Think “Uber” for language and culture assistance. You can download the app and get connected with real, live humans who can assist with the local language and in cultural situations, too.
The Jeenie app connects you to live interpreters on the screen of your smartphone (or iPad) for a Skype-like call in less than 60 seconds. The service is available 24/7 in any time zone.
Traveling in Japan is a challenge language-wise. Though locals are always ready and willing to offer help, it can still be a huge leap to get past language barriers. Yes, this is true even in Tokyo if you want to go to local places. And who doesn’t want to go to the local gems?!
What’s cool about Jeenie is that it is not a translation machine. You can have real-time conversations and video chats, and the “Jeenies” can help you communicate with local people and act as a virtual guide who not only knows the language and but also the cultural do’s and don’ts. Especially in Japan, it can help you easily communicate with people who very likely have never had an experience with a non-Japanese person before.
The kind voices on the other end of the line help you figure out some of the more strict rules of the culture like the protocol for onsen, or figuring out transportation options and ryokan stays, for example. Plus, Jeenie is not just for English speakers. You can choose your native language and the language in which you want to find a concierge.
Available on Android and iOS. The first 5 minutes are free so there is no risk to trying the service.
If you are fluent in more than one language, you can become a “Language Jeenie.” You don’t need insurance or special equipment — just a smartphone, a data plan, a professional attitude, and fluent language skills. Work remotely and help customers directly via video chat or audio to navigate through any experience they are having impeded by language barriers.
Jeenie aims to bring global awareness to the value of language and language speakers. Join the global Jeenie community and become part of the network of people who utilize their international language and culture competencies as an income source.
Sign up to be a Language Jeenie here.
This article was sponsored by Jeenie. Note: The five island destinations were chosen by GaijinPot Travel based on editorial standards.