14 islands not to miss in Okinawa

With over 160 isles under its belt, you can basically pick and choose your own ultimate island experience in Okinawa. Whether you’re looking to enjoy myth-rich culture, rare and exotic wildlife, or completely escape and have a beach all to yourself, with Okinawa’s island itinerary you’re guaranteed to find at least one island that is your perfect fit. Here are 14 favourites to get you started.

Best for history: Kume Island

One of the larger outposts in Okinawa’s collection of islands, Kume Island is just as close to China and the tiny independent Ryukyu Kingdom as it is to Japan, so it offers a unique cultural lineage. You can tour castle ruins, shrines, lost villages and historic houses, or learn about the ancient art of silk weaving. But its natural attractions offer equally diverse exploration—from caves and waterfalls to rocky peaks—all lit by fireflies come spring. And then there’s the coast. Try Hateno beach, an off-shore swipe of sand accessible by boat that’s a favourite nesting ground for sea turtles.

Kume Island

Best for untouched landscapes: Iheya Island

Iheya Island is Okinawa’s northernmost territory. With about 80% of the land dominated by a 200-meter-high mountain range, its main attraction is nature at its most untouched and pristine. Large sand dunes, emerald seas and endless white-sand beaches—this island is beauty distilled. Far from any crowds, its coral reefs are almost immaculate, and you might easily spot humpback whales just a few minutes from the fishing port or find yourself surrounded by schools of dolphins.

Iheya Island

Best for island strolling: Aka Island

If the idea of car or bike rental doesn’t appeal then head to Aka-jima, one of the Kerama Islands, where everything you need—and by that we mean glorious beaches, friendly people and water activities—is within walking distance. When you hit the water, choose between snorkelling, kayaking, whale watching and of course swimming. Hiking here is wonderful too and you will be richly rewarded for your efforts with incredible views.

Kerama Islands

Best for adventurers: Minami-Daitō Island

Uninhabitable until 1900 due to its sharp cliffs, this is one for the more adventurous traveller. Ferries to Minami-Daitō Island are few, but the fascinating nature, culture and hospitality of the place can easily make it worth the effort, even just for a weekend visit. Swim in its natural pools, explore underground caves, gaze across the island from the Hinomaru observation tower, and keep a lookout for mammals big and small: you’re in with a chance of spotting both whales and Okomori bats.

Whales Okinawa

Best for nature lovers: Aguni Island

Aguni Island, about 60km north west of Naha on the main island of Okinawa, is famous for its rows of beautiful garcinia trees and cycad (king sago) palms. It is an island of contrasts, with a picturesque sandy coastline on the eastern side and sheer cliffs along the west. It’s hard not to fall for its charm. For those that prefer adventure underwater, the diving here is also well-lauded.

Diving in Okinawa

Best for beaches: Miyako Island

What sets Miyako-jima apart is its intriguing array of beaches. One favourite is the privately owned yet publicly accessible Shigira Beach, where you can rent a sun lounger and sip on a freshly made juice concoction from the beach house. It’s also one of the best spots to swim with sea turtles.

Miyako Island

Best for a time-warp: Taketomi Island

Taketomi lies just off the coast of Ishigaki Island and is the site of a beautifully preserved, traditional Ryukyu village. As Taketomi is fairly small, it is often visited as a day trip from Ishigaki, made worth it by beautiful beaches such as Kondoi. With its crescent-shaped leaf-lined bay and shallow aquamarine waters, Kondoi is arguably one of Okinawa’s best beaches. During low tide a small island of sand is revealed around 100 metres from the shore. Wade out to this sun spot and enjoy the view of Iriomote and Kohama, emerald green interruptions on an otherwise sapphire-filled distance.

Taketomi Island

Best for cycling: Kuroshima Island

For those looking for a pedalling paradise, Kuroshima is it. Small, with few cars, cycling is by far the best way to get around and if you arrive before midday, you’ll have time to tour the island’s main sights and beaches before the last ferry departs. When you get tired, make sure you head to Undouya café, renowned for its coconut crab noodles.

cycling okinawa

Best for a Robinson Crusoe experience: Aragusuku Island

The only way to reach this island is by private ferry and the lack of regular public services mean you’re likely to have much of the island to yourself: just the way we like it. The sea is a truly stunning shade of turquoise, inviting you in for an afternoon of snorkelling under azure skies.

Fish in Okinawa

Best for postage-stamp experiences: Hatoma Island

This miniscule island is less than 0.96 km2, with only 50 residents. The postage-stamp size means that whatever direction you walk in, you’ll reach the sea. But if you have to choose one direction in particular, head to tiny Shimanaka, a tucked-away beach on the northern end that’s ideal for whiling away an afternoon.

Hatoma Island

Best for wildlife: Iriomote Island

Iriomote is known as Japan’s last frontier—an island of tropical jungles blanketed by mangrove forests and encircled by pristine waters. It’s been called the ‘Galapagos of Japan’ thanks to its myriad of wildlife. As you make your way through the wilderness, via pure waterfalls, keep an eye out for the island’s elusive yamaneko, its rare native wildcat. With its particularly beautiful coral, Iriomote is also famous for its scuba diving; head to the Manta Way in spring and summer to see schools of manta rays.

Iriomote Island

Best for island gardens: Yubu Island

The entire island of Yubu-jima–reached from Iriomote Island by a swaying water buffalo-drawn cart— is a subtropical garden paradise. It features ten varieties of palm tree peculiar to the subtropics, fruit trees such as guava and papaya, and thirty varieties of the well-loved hibiscus. Once you have strolled through the Bougainvillea Garden, the Shell House and the Butterfly Garden looking out for fruit bats and other wildlife, take a break on the eastern beach of the island, which affords a wonderful view of the neighbouring isles.

Fruit Bat Okinawa

Best for stargazing: Hateruma Island

The southernmost inhabited spot in Japan is an isolated haven with scores of gorgeous beaches to lounge on during the day. But the real show starts after dark. As the light dwindles and the blue starts to fade, you’ll be treated to a spectacular sunset as you relax on the beach. And then real jewels reveal themselves: the stars here are as clear and bright as you can possibly imagine.

Hateruma Island

Best for divers: Yonaguni Island

At the westernmost point of Japan, Yonaguni is so far-flung it has its own local dialect evolved in isolation for centuries. It’s also a bucket-list diving spot for the intermediate to advanced. Attractions include caverns, caves and underwater rock formations such as Daiyati and the Temple of Light, and most famously the mysterious underwater ruins which lie off the southern coast of the island—which some claim are the product of the Lost Continent of Mu. Shark lovers will also relish the opportunity to see hammerhead sharks, and occasionally whale sharks on their underwater travels.

Yonaguni Island

Tom Marchant is Co-founder of Black Tomato.

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Comments (3)

  1. StanP says:

    It is probably worth to mention that Okinawa is the prefecture of Japan that is located in subtropical zone. Well it is actually tropics for us… or at least provides fine weather to visit the place throughout the year.

    That is beautiful archipelago with interesting history form which many of us knows only the last XX-century part.

  2. Oliver says:

    Hi StanP and Tom,

    I’ve not visited Japan before and don’t speak Japanese. Would this be a problem? I would love to spend some time getting to see the local dryland wildlife – I don’t scuba dive yet! Might I join an organised wildlife spotting tour?

  3. Bill Quinn says:

    These islands are everybit as beautiful and pristine as your photos reveal and then some. I know, having lived on Okinwa for nearly three years.

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