Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture of Japan; a subtropical island paradise with its own distinctive culture and traditions. Home to picture-perfect beaches, colorful coral reefs, rugged mangrove jungles, and a laid-back vibe you won’t find anywhere else in the country, it’s the ideal vacation spot.
The largest and most popular island in the chain is Okinawa island. However, there are over 100 more isles to explore, dotted across the ocean between mainland Japan and Taiwan. So if you dream of having a beach all to yourself — complete with flawless white sand and sparkling azure waters — head out to one of these four other fantastic islands, and your dream may well come true.
Ishigaki is the main island of Okinawa’s Yaeyama island group, and the gateway to many of the smaller, less accessible isles. Ishigaki city is lively enough that you won’t feel cut off from civilization, yet the beaches that line the island’s coast are among the best in the country. One of the most beautiful spots is Kabira Bay, an oasis of emerald ocean where black pearls are cultivated. A glass-bottomed boat ride is the best way to enjoy it.
For those who prefer a more active vacation, the mountainous area in the center of the island offers some great hiking trails. One of the best is a steep forest route up Mount Omoto, which at 1,722 feet is the highest mountain in Okinawa.
Ishigaki is also a world-class spot for snorkeling and scuba diving, thanks to the diverse marine life and excellent visibility. Whether you’re an experienced diver or a complete newbie, don’t miss the chance to dive with manta rays. Watching these huge, elegant creatures glide nonchalantly around you really is an experience you’ll never forget.
Getting there: You can fly to New Ishigaki Airport from Naha city on Okinawa island, or from Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, or Fukuoka in mainland Japan. International flights also run from Taipei and Hong Kong.
Just off the coast of Ishigaki lies Taketomi, a tiny island where the traditional culture and heritage of ancient Okinawa has been perfectly preserved. It’s home to an authentic Ryukyu village — Ryukyu being the old name for Okinawa — that you can explore either on foot, by bicycle, or on a water buffalo-drawn cart. There are no motor vehicles on the island.
The village’s single-storied buildings are roofed in red tiles and surrounded by low stone walls — completely different from the usual Japanese architecture. Keep an eye out for the multitude of distinctive shisa statues staring down at you from gateways and rooftops. These guardian animals look like a cross between a lion and a dog, and are believed to ward off evil spirits while keeping the good ones in.
Be sure to also visit Kaiji Beach on Taketomi’s west coast. This blissfully peaceful stretch of coastline is famous for its star-shaped sand, which is actually the skeletal remains of tiny sea creatures. Sift through the sand beneath you as you relax, because finding these stars is supposed to bring you good luck.
Getting there: There is no airport on Taketomi. Ferries run approximately every half hour from Ishigaki island, and the journey takes 10-15 minutes.
If beaches are what you’re after, Miyako is the place to go. The untouched, sugar-soft sand is almost blindingly white, and the sea is unbelievably clear thanks to the lack of rivers bringing soil into the water. The color of the ocean here is like something out of a painting, utterly transparent at the shoreline and blending into darker shades of turquoise, teal, and aquamarine as it gets deeper.
The purity of its waters also makes Miyako perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving. It’s possible to swim with sea turtles, marvel at stunningly beautiful coral reefs, or — for more experienced divers — explore the rugged arches, tunnels, and caves further below.
If you’d rather stay on land, the Botanical Garden is a picturesque place to walk and admire the tropical flora. Alternatively, head to the southeastern tip of the island and tour the historic Higashi Hennazaki lighthouse.
After dark you’ll see that the sky is just as pure as the sea, making Miyako one of the best places in Japan for stargazing. All in all, it’s not hard to see why this island is considered a paradise.
Getting there: You can fly to Miyako Airport from Naha city on Okinawa island, Ishigaki island, or from Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, or Fukuoka in mainland Japan.
Despite being Okinawa prefecture’s second-largest island, Iriomote is truly untouched. It’s almost entirely covered in lush mangrove forests and dense jungle foliage, which conceal all sorts of rare plants and animals. These include the elusive Iriomote wildcat, of which there are thought to be fewer than 100.
One of the best ways to see the mangroves is by river. You can take river cruises up the island’s two main waterways, or for a more adventurous experience try going by kayak. Some tours combine cruising or kayaking with hiking, allowing you an even closer look at the seemingly-impenetrable jungle.
The best hiking trails are those that take you to the island’s stunningly beautiful waterfalls. The tallest of these is Pinaisara Falls, which has a drop of around 180 feet. To reach them, you must first kayak upriver for about 30-40 minutes, and then hike a further 30-40 minutes into the jungle. The magnificent view is more than worth the effort though, and the plunge pool provides the perfect place to cool off after all that exertion.
Getting there: There is no airport on Iriomote. Ferries run every hour or two from Ishigaki island, and the journey takes 35-50 minutes, depending on which port you sail to.