photo by Stuart Rankin
When it comes to popular tourists destinations of Japan, historic cities like Kyoto and Nara, or Hokkaido with great wildlife may be the first things you think of. Most of such Japanese sightseeing spots are located in the main big islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu. However, highlight of travel to Japan should not be limited to just tourist’s cities. As you know, Japan is the island nation that consists of many large and small islands. Naturally, Japan is full of minor but fascinating islands that have interesting land forms and history.
Okishima (Shiga Prefecture)
photo by Alpsdake
Shiga-ken is well known for Lake Biwa, the largest lake of Japan. On the east of Lake Biwa, there is Omi-Hachiman city that was developed as a mercantile town in old days. The historic streets with old mercantile houses and moats are reserved as the Groups of Traditional Buildings, reminding us of how they used be in the Edo Period. Okishima is in the water of Lake Biwa, 1.5km away from Omi-Hachiman town centre. This little island is known as the only inhabited island in a fresh-water lake of Japan. There is no bridge connecting Okishima and Omi-Hachiman, therefore the ferry is the only way to get there. Also, no cars running on the island and people just walk or ride a bike there. The small village which is full of small alleys and old-fashioned houses crowded together just like any old townships in Japan used to be a few decades ago, making you feel as if you have slipped through time. Omi-Hachiman is a good place to visit after sightseeing in Osaka and Kyoto: one and half hour away from Osaka, and about half an hour from Kyoto, both by train.
Iwo To (aka Iwo Jima, Tokyo Prefecture)
About 1200km south from Tokyo, Iwo To is one of Ogasawara Islands (Bonin Islands) far off in the ocean. The name of Iwo To comes from “Sulphur” which is often seen on the island because of volcanic activities. This islands is commonly known as one of the bloodiest battlefield during the Second World War and became a subject of 2009 American film. In modern days, the base of the Japan Self-Defense Forces is placed there and no one other than former residents and members of JSDF are permitted to set foot on this island. However, there is the cruising tour which is held only once a year, going around Iwo To as well as Kita-Iwo To and Minami-Iwo To. Early contact is recommended as this is the only chance throughout a year and just 200 guest can go aboard a ship.
Minami-Daito Jima（Okinawa Prefecture）
Minami-Daito Jima is located 360km east from Okinawa Main Island. From a bird’s-eye view, the shape of this island looks a distorted oval and quite flat, but the altitude of land is slightly decreasing toward the centre. It may looks like a volcanic island at a glance, however, Minami-Daito Jima is actually a coral atoll which is formed with elevated lagoon. This type of land form is very rare worldwide. This island is gradually moving toward East by 7cm a year still now, and destined to collide to other land 2.5 million years’ time. There is no elevation such as mountains or hills on this island, and the entire land is well utilized. The most of the land here is used for sugar fane farming. There are many activities available such as snorkeling, camping, visiting the calcareous cave and observing wild beach plants. To access Minami Daito Jima, it takes about an hour from Naha by airplane, or about 13 hours by ferry. There is no public transportation on the island, a rental push bike or motor bike will be the main tool to travel.
Aogashima (Tokyo Prefecture)
Photo by Soica2001
Locating 360km south from Tokyo, Aogashima is one of those little islands of Izu Island chain. The population on this island is only 160, recognized as the smallest “village” of Japan. Its land form is quite unique with double caldera, a volcano formed in a volcano. Aogashima is known as the best place for stargazing, because only little manmade lights exist there. It is also such a great place to enjoy great wildlife, but the number of tourists visiting Aogashima remains less than 2000 per year. This is because accessing this island is so hard due to its land form surrounded very steep cliff. There is no direct transportation from Tokyo therefore visitors need to transit at Hachijojima which is 60km away, to get on a ferry or helicopter. The helicopter carries only 9 passengers, and the ferry service get suspended 50% of times because even a little higher waves makes the ferry unable to dock the port of Aogashima. So, it is very important to allow plenty of time when you are visiting Aogashima. Once you make it, you can enjoy the beautiful nature and locally produced liquor “Aochu”.
Hashima (aka Gunkanjima, Nagasaki Prefecture)
photo by dice_sotg
17km off shore of Nagasaki Prefecture, Hashima is commonly called “Gunakanjima” meaning Battleship Island as its appearance resembles the former battleship “Tosa”. This island was developed in order for the operation of its undersea coal mine, and extended by recurring reclamation to accommodate mining workers and their families. During its peak period, 5300 residents lived in only 6.3 hectare land, and the population density far exceeded that of the capital city. However, the demands for coal fell into a decline in 60’s, and the island was abandoned to be uninhabited in accordance with the closure of the mine in 1974. Visits to this island had been banned for a long time, but reopened in 2009. In 2015, Hashima was approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many ferry companies provide cruising tours to the island. A group of abandoned buildings with a trace of former residents gives you a slightly eerie atmosphere.
But no man is an island
All these islands introduced in this column have unique features such as land forms and history. Some of them are very isolated and hard to access. The islands other than Okishima are located very far from Tokyo, Osaka or any other cities. Therefore it is recommended to plan well ahead and allow plenty of time in your schedule. Also, there are many more interesting islands in Japan. Why not visit one of those little islands next time you visit Japan.