If you ask a group of people, “How many islands does Japan have?” you’ll get a variety of answers. The most common answer you’ll get from non-Japanese though is “Oh that’s easy it's 4.” The smarter ones in the group may even name them. “Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu,” they will say. “Oh but wait a minute, you forgot Okinawa!” someone will butt in. “That’s got to be at least another 3 or 4 islands.” “Hang on, what about those disputed islands with China, Korea and Russia? If we count those, that’s got to add another 6 or 7.” So, assuming there aren’t any fiercely patriotic Chinese, Koreans or Russians in your group, the consensus is usually about 10-15 islands.
Of course, they are not even close!
Japan’s territory takes in more than 6,000 islands. Now, of course, the majority of these are uninhabited rocks in the middle of the ocean that nobody cares about (unless, of course, they suddenly think there might be oil or natural gas nearby!) However there are far more inhabited islands in the Japanese archipelago than you may think. Give or take a few disputed territories, the current number is around 430. Today we are going to take a look at some of the lesser known of Japan’s islands. Who knows? You might even find one that you would like to visit sometime.
Let’s start in the north, with a trip to Rebun Island.
Landscape of Rebun Island. Photo by nachans on FlickrAt the Northernmost tip of Hokkaido, which is itself the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, you will find the twin islands of Rebun and Rishiri. Rebun is the outermost of the two, sitting about 50 kilometers off the coast of Hokkaido, approximately 10 kilometers further out than its twin, Rishiri. Collectively they form the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park.
Photo: houroumono on FlickrRishiri is best known for its alpine flora and fauna as well as its hiking courses. These courses can be broken into two 4-hour treks or, if you’re feeling especially adventurous, tackled as one 8-hour course. The hiking trails take in much of Rebun’s 72 kilometers of coastline, as well as Mount Rebun, the island’s highest point at an elevation of 490 meters.
Rebun Island. Photo by houroumono on FlickrHistory and culture buffs will also want to check out the “Chashi”, an ancient hilltop settlement on the island created generations ago by the indigenous Ainu people. Getting to Rebun can be a little tricky. The best way is by boat from the more populous nearby Rishiri Island although air links are also available from Wakkanai Airport. Wakkanai has the distinction of being the northernmost jet aircraft capable airport in Japan. However given its arctic location it is often prone to sudden closures during the winter months.
Heading south to Niigata prefecture, a couple of hours northwest of Tokyo, you’ll find Sado Island. As far as Japanese islands go, Sado is one of the biggest, with a population of almost 65,000 people and an area of 855 square kilometers. It is Japan’s 6th largest island, after the four main islands and Okinawa island.
Sado’s role in Japanese society has changed significantly since its recorded history began in the 6th century. Formerly, Sado was a harsh, isolated land to which people who had committed and affront to Japan’s ruling classes were banished. In pre-feudal society, being sent to Sado was regarded as a fate second only to death in severity. Among those exiled there included the former Emperor Juntoku, who found himself sent off in disgrace after losing the Jokyu War in 1221. Today the former emperor’s contribution to Sado in the 20 years he spent there is honoured. He was given the posthumous title “Sado-no-in”, which loosely translates as “the Honoured Person of Sado”.
Photo by Ann Lee on FlickrSado was the site of one of Japan’s earliest gold rushes in the early 17th century, which set the scene for far greater integration with the mainland, contributing in no small part to what Sado is today. Sado today has a number of attractions for tourists. Its colourful contribution to Japan’s history gives it many temples and shrines the most famous of which is the Myosen-Ji. This five-story pagoda took more than 30 years and two generations of workers to build. Like most of Sado’s cultural artefacts, it was largely unaffected by Japan’s wartime activities and remains exactly as it has been since it was built in 1825.
If you’re looking for a bit of culture, Sado is also home to one of Japan’s best known examples of wooden Noh Theatre. This summer there is more, join the Earth Festival, 2015 right here and enjoy summers at this outdoor festival.
If Sado isn’t quite the island retreat that you had in mind then perhaps you’ll better enjoy my final suggested destination: The Izu Islands.
Located to the south west of Tokyo Bay, traversing the Pacific Ocean and the Philippine Sea, these dozen or so islands, nine of which are inhabited, are about as isolated as you can get. The Islands didn’t even have electricity until 1953. However, in a testament to Japan’s post-war resurgence buy the mid-1960s more than 98% of the region had power.
Oshima's coast. Photo by Daisuke K on FlickrThe biggest of the islands, Oshima is famous for its volcanic activity and also its great biodiversity. Possibly the second most popular of the Izu Islands, Hachijojima is also the southernmost and therefore most isolated from regular Japanese society. To that end, up until the Meiji era it was widely utilized as a prison colony, similar in some ways to Australia of 200 years ago. From the 1950s onwards the Japanese government has sought to promote Hachijojima as a tourist destination. The year round warm climate, volcanicity and tropical flora and fauna prompted some to dub Hachijojima as “The Hawaii of Japan”.
Photo by 8 go on FlickrA very small island of only 63 square kilometers, it does none the less retain a population of more than 8,000 people and remains a popular tourism destination. The warm currents of the Kuroshio Current (similar in many ways to the Gulf Stream) make the island a great destination for surfers and fishing enthusiasts. The island’s volcanic heritage is also explored in great detail at the free to enter Geothermal Museum. You may even want to try your hand at learning the Hachijo dialect. Apparently it is the modern Japanese dialect most removed from standard Japanese. As someone from Glasgow, I can certainly appreciate what it feels like to be misunderstood by my fellow countrymen!
Oh well, all this talk of tropical climes has me getting restless. Time to go and book a vacation!