The islands of Okinawa are quickly becoming popular with overseas visitors. And even though Japan is not necessarily known as a beach resort destination, locales like Miyakojima and Ishigaki are making a name for themselves outside the domestic market. And while it’s wonderful that Okinawa is finally getting the attention it deserves, the islands directly to the north are a different matter. Technically part of Kagoshima Prefecture, these isles are still something of a well-kept secret, even among Japanese people.
Yakushima: Walk in an Ancient Forest
Situated directly to the south of mainland Kyushu, Yakushima is a subtropical island home to a primeval forest lost to time. Many of the cedar trees here are more than a thousand years old, and some are thought to be several thousand. Affectionately referred to as yakusugi, a portmanteau of Yakushima and sugi (cedar in Japanese), the sheer majesty and incredible age of the trees will leave you speechless.
While all of Yakushima is worth checking out, two places really stand out. The first is known as Shiratani Unsuikyo. The spot can be reached by car in around 30 minutes from Miyanoura Port or alternatively on a painfully infrequent bus. The second standout is the so-called Jomon-Sugi, a spectacularly old tree that allegedly dates from the Jomon period (14,000–300 BCE) and is thought to be the oldest tree in Japan. You’ll need a decent pair of walking shoes though — the tree is a good 10-hour hike round trip through the forest.
Amami Oshima: Bliss Out on the Beach
Amami Oshima is the largest island in the chain that runs from Kyushu to Okinawa. Along with its adjacent sub islands, this part of Kagoshima benefits from a temperate climate, great beaches and exotic fauna and flora (including some magnificent mangroves). Due to its diverse ecosystems, this island chain was officially added to the World Natural Heritage List in July of 2021. Of all the isles here, the Amami Oshima experience is the most Okinawa-like, with beautiful white sand beaches, great snorkeling, wonderful resorts, and more.
But Amami Oshima has one up on Okinawa: it’s generally a lot less crowded. While popular spots like Miyakojima’s Yonaha Maehama Beach in Okinawa are often packed, Amami Oshima is far more secluded — while offering many of the same aquatic activities found in Okinawa.
If you do plan to visit Amami Oshima, I’d suggest you spend a night in the island’s main city of Naze. I was told that it’s home to the second highest number of watering holes in all of Kagoshima Prefecture, so you’re bound to have a great time with the locals!
Tanegashima & Okinoerabu: More Hidden Gems
Compared to both Yakushima and Amami Oshima, the islands of Tanegashima and Okinoerabu are not well-known travel destinations, even among Japanese locals. Simply put, while everyone can appreciate the ancient trees on Yakushima and the white sand beaches of Amami Oshima, Tanegashima and Okinoerabu cater to more niche interests. Though there are indeed some luxurious resort hotels here, you should visit this pair of islands for their unique attractions.
Let’s begin with Tanegashima. The island’s historical claim to fame is that it was where firearms were first introduced to Japan in 1543 (don’t miss the gun museum on the island). These days though, it’s JAXA’s Tanegashima Space Center that is the island’s main draw. The Center can be found on the southern side of the island and is Japan’s largest space development facility. The nearby Space Science and Technology Museum has fascinating displays on rocket history and technology in Japan.
Okinoerabu is a remote coral island to the south of Amami Oshima. It is home to over 300 stunning limestone caves that glitter with emerald hues. Of these, the Shoryudo Cavern is perhaps the most well-known. Found on the western half of the island, this 600-meter-long cave is considered a national treasure. It’s open to the public and can be easily explored without any special gear (unlike many of other cave systems on Okinoerabu). If you’re a fan of spelunking and looking for something off the beaten path, definitely check out Okinoerabu!
Making an Itinerary for Your Visit to Kagoshima
If you’re looking to explore one of Japan’s southern islands but would prefer somewhere less crowded and off the beaten path, any of the islands mentioned here will tick all the boxes. In addition to scratching that topical itch, they also combine well with a visit to Kagoshima City.
If you choose to visit, be sure not to miss out on Sengan-en, where you can learn about the Shimazu clan, which for centuries ruled all of Kagoshima Prefecture. While you’re there, make sure you also check out the fascinating traditional craftsmanship at Shimadzu Satsuma Kiriko Glassworks and try some local Kagoshima specialty sweets at the Jambo Mochi Shop.