This article was published in partnership with Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau
Tokyo is rightfully regarded as one of the great cities of the world. Japan’s iconic capital has dazzled countless visitors all across the globe with its traditional cultural charms, futuristic attractions, and top-rated culinary scene. When you envision Tokyo, chances are images of its technicolored cityscapes bursting with life start flooding your mind’s eye. But there’s a whole different side to this legendary destination that you probably didn’t even realize existed.
Tokyo proper is defined by its bustling wards and districts, each with its own unique lures, where you can find everything from world-class shopping and the latest tech gadgets to the best underground Japanese whisky bars. But Tokyo also encompasses an epic collection of islands just beyond the magnetic metropolis.
These stunning, unspoiled islands are grouped into the Izu and Ogasawara Islands. The Izu Archipelago includes more than a dozen islands and islets (although only nine are inhabited), and most can be reached in a few hours by high-speed ferry. Meanwhile, the Ogasawara Islands lie roughly 550 nautical miles south of Tokyo. Comprising more than 30 tropical and subtropical islands, the easiest way to explore these remote outposts is by overnight boat or plane.
No matter how you get there, each one of Tokyo’s islands is bursting at the seams with outdoor adventures and heart-racing thrills. With its idyllic beaches, sparking blue coves, and incredible marine life, it’s no surprise watersports are a huge draw. But there are also expansive forests, volcanic peaks, craggy bluffs, rolling lava fields, and restorative onsens (or natural hot springs) just waiting to be discovered. From soft adventures to extreme exploits, these are some of the can’t-miss island excursions to check out during your next trip to Tokyo.
Trek an Active Volcano on Oshima
Those looking to embark on an otherworldly adventure should catch a ferry over to Oshima. It’s the largest of the Izu Islands and, geographically speaking, it’s also the closest to Tokyo. Tucked away on the eastern end of the Izu Peninsula, this getaway is known for its mesmerizing moon-like landscapes. Mt. Mihara, one of the world’s largest active volcanos, covers a significant portion of the island. Thrill-seekers can hike up the jagged mountain face to explore its imposing crater, traversing layers of solidified lava sediment from countless eruptions over the past 20,000 years. But don’t fret—the last major eruption happened in 1986, and they typically occur at intervals of 100 to 150 years. Oshima is also home to Ura-Sabaku, Japan’s only natural desert. Instead of windswept golden dunes, this volcanic desert is blanketed in black sand as far as the eye can see, which only adds to the island’s ethereal vibe.
Surf the Waves off Niijima
If you were magically teleported to the shores of Niijima, you’d probably assume you were in Hawaii before guessing someplace in Japan. This postcard-perfect island is a true surfer’s paradise, marked by crystal-clear water and wide stretches of white sand beaches. Its pristine shores wrap around the elongated island, so no matter which way the wind is blowing, you’ll always be able to catch some solid waves. Head to Habushiura Shore on the island’s East Coast where you can link up with other surfers, rent a board, and even take lessons from a local pro. Looking for something more low-key? The island offers plenty of other laid-back options, like Mamashita Beach, which is perfect for swimming and paddle boarding. The nearby Mamashita Onsen hot spring is another popular spot. After soaking up the sun, unleash your creative side. Niijima is revered for glass production. Visitors can even take glassblowing classes at the Niijima Glass Art Center, or simply admire the masterpieces housed in the neighboring museum.
Go Off the Grid in Toshima
A visit to Toshima feels like a deep, restorative breath of fresh air. This verdant island may be small, but it’s certainly mighty. You won’t find any fancy resorts or supermarkets, but you will find a couple of cozy guesthouses and two (yes, two) restaurants where they’ll be happy to serve up some of the freshest seafood you’ve ever tasted. There are only about 300 people who live on the verdant island, but the “real” locals can be found swimming just offshore. Toshima is known for its pods of wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins that can be spotted from April through November. There are certain protective rules and regulations you’ll need to follow, but multiple outfitters provide opportunities to interact with the species responsibly. From boat tours and swimming sessions to full-on scuba diving experiences, you won’t want to miss an encounter with these playful creatures.
Hike the Forests of Mikurajima
There was a time when Mikurajima was (unfairly) overlooked by holidaymakers. Due to its lack of beaches, tourists would opt to visit its nearby island neighbors. However, it’s gained momentum in recent years and now draws loyal crowds eager to explore this rugged paradise. The entire island is a protected national park. In order to safeguard the native plant species and wildlife, most excursions must be led by an official guide. Your best bet is to book any adventure through the Mikurajima Island Tourist Association. Learn about the island while exploring its remarkable scenery. As you hike the volcanic peak of Mt. Oyama, you’ll cut through forests of giant chinquapin trees, soaring upwards of 150 feet with trunks measuring over 16 feet in circumference. With the glasslike Philippine Sea in the distance, you’ll feel like you’re trekking through a scene from Jurassic World. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the wild dolphin pods that frequent the coast from mid-spring through early autumn. You can book through Mikurajima Island Tourist Association to embark on guided dolphin swims, nature hikes, and even camp in bungalows.
Beach Hop and Deep-Sea Dive in Shikinejima
Shikinejima is another quiet island that provides a retreat for nature-lovers looking to escape the crowds. The densely forested island is bordered by dramatic cliffs and serrated outcrops that overlook sparkling cerulean bays. And while its serene beaches (like Tomari Beach, shown above, and Nakanoura Beach) lure visitors from near and far, the real draw can be found just beyond the shore. Shikinejima offers some of the best diving experiences in Japan. Underwater wonders range from colorful coral reefs to diverse marine life, including sea turtles. Don’t leave without discovering the island’s natural craggy hot springs. The rocky pools of Jinata Onsen are the most famous. Visit during high tide, when the salty seawater cools the scolding-hot springs to the perfect temperature for soaking.
Enjoy Birdwatching by Day and Stargazing at Night in Miyakejima
For anyone who prefers an off-grid getaway, Miyakejima has a lot to offer. This humble island provides a convenient escape, accessible by boat or plane from Tokyo. It boasts a unique appearance, marked by sprawling jet-black lava fields formed by a series of massive eruptions from Mt. Oyama. In 2007, dedicated locals constructed boardwalks that bisect the lava fields, giving visitors the chance to get an up-close glimpse of this alien landscape. The volcanic activity also created sulfur gasses, which famously halted local flights in the area for eight years. Although Miyakejima has been declared safe since 2005, many tourists still skip over the island, making it a tranquil place to rest and rejuvenate without the crowds. Despite its past, the island’s flora and fauna are thriving. In fact, it’s one of the best birdwatching outposts in the region. More than 250 species of rare birds can be found on Miyakejima, most notably the Akakokko (Izu thrush) bird. For the best birding experience, visit the Miyakejima Nature Center Akakokko Hall facility, where you can observe the wildlife via high-tech telescopes.
Soak in the Hot Springs of Hachijojima
Mother Nature blooms across Hachijojima, thanks to its nutrient-rich volcanic soil. And with its rugged mountainous terrain, rambling grasslands, and impressive diving spots, there’s no shortage of ways to get your blood pumping. Looking at the subtropical hideaway, it’s hard to believe this lush slice of paradise once served as a penal colony for exiled criminals. In recent decades, it rose to prominence as a romantic retreat for honeymooners, and it’s remained popular ever since. Hachijojima features favorable weather all year long and its glimmering waters benefit from the warm Kuroshio current. The destination is blessed with several renowned natural hot springs, each heated by geothermal energy. Many of them can be found on the southwest side of the island. Some of the coastal onsen even flaunt panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Relax in the open-air baths and thermal spas at Miharashi-no-yu, or soak in the Uramigataki Onsen free of charge. Visitors can also purchase special passes that provide unlimited access to certain hot springs on-island. Just be sure to check the rules and familiarize yourself with onsen best practices beforehand. Some require bathing suits while others do not—and you probably wouldn’t want to mix that up.
Peep Otherworldy Views on Aogashima
In the mood for a challenge? Mysterious Aogashima has gained a cult-like following thanks to its borderline-unbelievable views and extremely remote location. What makes this destination’s topography so unique is that it’s actually a volcano within a volcano. Since the entire island is a volcanic crater, the landscape is encircled by a border of rising cliffs that sink inward, creating an expansive ringed bowl. As the most distant island in the Izu Archipelago, Aogashima is only reachable via local ferry service from Hachijojima (unless you can bankroll a private helicopter transfer). Because of this, it remains largely untouched by tourists. Less than 200 people live on the far-flung island, which touts a small school, a singular store, one post office, and zero proper restaurants (although there are two bars). All of that translates to virtually no light pollution, positioning Aogashima as a top-tier stargazing spot. For an unplugged experience, check out the free island campsite and experience some of the best astronomic conditions on the planet.
Explore the Ogasawara Islands
Apart from the Izu Islands, the Ogasawara Islands are an archipelago of more than 30 tropical and subtropical islands that are administratively part of Tokyo. You may have heard them referred to as the Bonin Islands, a derivative of the Japanese word bunin, which translates to “no people.” Only two of the Ogasawara Islands are currently inhabited: Chichijima (Father Island) and Hahajima (Mother Island). In total, the island chain covers just over 30 square miles. Since they’ve never been connected to the mainland, many of the endemic plants and wildlife species have experienced unique evolutionary developments over the millennia. And that’s exactly how this unspoiled archipelago earned its nickname as the “Laboratory of Evolution.” In 2011, the Ogasawara Islands were officially inscribed as a natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This outdoor playground offers an endless array of exploits, including diving, snorkeling, whale watching, sea kayaking, hiking, and more. The isolated setting means there’s limited credit card usage and spotty Internet service, but the breathtaking nature, outdoor adventures, and warm hospitality more than make up for it. After all, we could all use some time to unplug.