horses grazing on Nishinoshima Island

5 Reasons Why the Oki Islands Should Be in Your Japan Bucket List

Many people who travel to Japan for the first time head to Tokyo to walk through its vibrant, bustling streets and experience the most modern conveniences. Or they go to Kyoto and Nara to see the iconic temples, shrines and gardens. But if you’re looking for something completely different — something remote, wild, and unspoiled — look to the cluster of islands on Honshu’s west coast, the Oki Islands, and let Japan surprise you.

1. The Oki Islands are Japan’s Best Kept Secret.

Shimane, of which the Oki Islands are a part of, is the second least populous prefecture in Japan. If you decide to go (how can you not after seeing all these breathtaking photos?), you will have visited a place even many Japanese will probably never set foot on. There are four main islands that are inhabited — the biggest, called Dōgo (Okinoshima), and three Dōzen islands (Nishinoshima, Chiburijima, and Ama) — and about 180 smaller uninhabited islands scattered in the area. There are no convenience stores, and in Chiburijima, there are as many cows as people, and twice as many tanuki as people.

small wooden bridge and building in the forest
On the way to the twin waterfalls, Dangyō-no-taki at Okinoshima

There are no people to photoshop out of your Instagram-worthy photos. Many of the spots you will visit are so isolated, you can’t help but feel you are in a place forgotten by humans. Take Dangyō-no-taki, for example. To get here, you walk deep into the forest along a clear stream. Nestled in the gorge is a shrine behind misty waterfalls, a scene straight out of Spirited Away.

2. The Dramatically Beautiful Land and Seascapes of the Oki Islands Will Take Your Breath Away.

This trek in Nishinoshima ranks top in my list of “Walks you have to absolutely do in Japan”. It also ranks top in the list of “Walks you have to do when you’re tired of Japan”. We started out at Akao Lookout point to get a stunning view of the coastline and a teaser on where we will be hiking.

view of the ocean and green hills from Akao Lookout
Akao Lookout

Then we were dropped off at Matengai Cliff, one of the highest sea cliffs in Japan at 257 meters above sea level (about a 70 floor building). We walked along the rolling clifftop, winding our way amongst the grazing horses and black haired cows. There are no fences, no concrete walking paths, no instructions or billboards on what you can and cannot do — just the gloriously wide sweeping views exactly as they should be enjoyed.

horses grazing on Nishinoshima Island
Are we on the real Emerald Isle?
black-haired cow lying on the grass, looking to the ocean
Deep in meditation.

It is a fairly easy downhill trek. Before we knew it, the path curved and took us right up to that stunning rock formation we saw from Akao Lookout. The Tsūtenkyō Arch was carved by wind and waves. This trek is a photographer’s paradise. You could easily spend half a day leisurely walking down and appreciating the Sea of Japan and the inner sea from different angles.

Tsutenkyo Arch with starkly contrasting rock layers
Tsūtenkyō Arch

3. You Will Redefine What Ancient Means.

The Oki Islands were a result of volcanic activity about six million years ago. Everything else that’s only a couple of hundred or thousand years old seem new in comparison. You can see the story of the land written on the vertical stacks, arches, cliffs, and caves. The sometimes rough wind and waves continue to change the shape of the coastline. This geologic heritage earned the Oki Islands a designation as a UNESCO Global Geopark, though it has already been part of the Daisen-Oki National Park even before that.

The most impressive geological story to experience is the Sekiheki red cliffs. Located in Chiburijima, the red cliffs is reason enough to go to the smallest of the inhabited Oki Islands. Like the Matengai Cliff, there are no fences or guardrails at the viewing point, nothing between you and the pure energy from millions of years ago.

the Sekiheki Red Cliffs

4. You Will Encounter the Sacred.

Legend has it that a thousand years ago, three balls of fire shot up from the sea and landed inside this cave. The local people believed that it was a sign from the gods decreeing this place a sacred ground so they built a shrine partly inside the cave. A lantern kept the sacred fire burning and served as a lighthouse as well. People come here to pray to the deity for safe sea voyages. The hike up to the Takuhi Shrine is steep and ridden with snakes (revered by the Japanese as gods) so take one of the walking sticks provided at the bottom of the trail. Once you reach the top, you will be filled with the wonder of the shrine’s timeless beauty and historic and religious significance.

Takuhi Shrine, partially built into the rocky cave
Takuhi Shrine in Nishinoshima
Chichi-Sugi old Japanese cedar
Chichi-Sugi in Okinoshima

The Takuhi Shrine is just one of the Oki Islands’ many spiritual spots. The mysterious Chichi-Sugi in Okinoshima is another such place. Estimated to be about 800 years old and with unusual drooping roots, this very old cedar tree and the surrounding forest feel otherworldly especially after the rain.

5. Feast on the Freshest Seafood, the Most Premium Beef, and Comfort Food Like no Other.

The seas surrounding the Oki Islands are where the warm southern current, cold northern current, and rain water running off nutrient rich land meet, creating an ideal environment for marine life. Dining in the Oki Islands ought to be the holy grail of every sashimi and sushi aficionado. When you choose to have lunch at a local cafe or restaurant, or when you relax at your accommodation for dinner (and even for breakfast), you will be offered the freshest seafood of the season.

Kaisendon dish and two small side dishes
Kaisendon, fresh seafood on sushi rice at Ajinokura, in Okinoshima.

The prized delicacy of the islands is sazae, or turban shell. The restaurant Conseil specializes in sazaedon (turban shell on rice) and sazae curry rice. If turban shells are not your thing, try Conseil’s fresh super-sized fried prawn in the same sumptuous curry sauce instead and you won't be disappointed.

fried prawns in Japanese curry over rice
Fresh, super-sized ebi fry or fried prawn in a sumptuous curry sauce blended with chutney at the restaurant, Conseil, in Nishinoshima.

Remember the black-haired cows fearlessly grazing in the steep cliffs? Every year, a little more than 1,000 cows are born but only 10% of these are deemed good enough to enter the market as Oki beef. Born and raised in the Oki Islands where they freely feed on mineral-rich grass, Oki beef is one of the highest quality beef in the world. Lightly grilled, this beautifully marbled meat is extremely tender and rich in flavor.

raw Oki beef and raw vegetables on a grill
Oki beef yakiniku set at Okigyuten, Ama Town, a steal at ¥1,700 (lunch price).

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