Photographer: Ippei Naoi/Getty Images/Flickr RF

Why You Need to Go to Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, in 20 Unexpected Photos

This sun-soaked archipelago offers centuries of culture and off-the-beaten path adventures—plus some of the world's best beaches—for travelers seeking a Japan beyond the Tokyo-Kyoto tourist axis.

April’s twin earthquakes in the Kyushu region may not have directly affected Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, but the tourism industry still feels the aftershocks. Which makes now a prime time to visit—and support—the country’s lesser-explored southern region.

The 55-island chain stretches in an arc from the southwest of Japan’s main islands to within 68 miles of Taiwan and is divided into three groups: Amami, Okinawa, and Sakishima. Historically, most of the archipelago was part of an independent kingdom, and it continues to show in Ryukyu architecture, music, food, and a certain independence of spirit.

There’s also a laid-back vibe that goes hand-in-hand with a beach-y location. With some of the world’s best sands and diving, few visitors are in a hurry to get back to Tokyo’s daily grind.

  1. Shurijo Castle, Shuri
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    Shurijo Castle, Shuri

    Sitting pretty in lacquered vermillion on a hill overlooking Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa, Shurijo Castle was the center of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom—a meeting of Chinese and Japanese culture that dominated most of these islands during the 15th century. The red-and-white striped courtyard looks like contemporary design but was originally intended to make it easier for servants to line up in order of precedence. Arrive early to the clanging of a brass bell, followed by the opening of the Hohshinmon Gate at 8:25 a.m., then tour the meticulously restored royal rooms and gardens before taking tea in the prince’s rooms. 

    Photographer: Fotosearch/Getty Images/Fotosearch RF

  2. Kabira Bay, Ishigaki
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    Kabira Bay, Ishigaki

    Kabira Bay on Ishigaki Island is a constant on Japan’s “most scenic” lists, with vibrant turquoise waters that require no enhancement. Glass-bottomed boats ferry passengers up and down the bay, revealing the magnificent coral reefs and sea life below (you can’t swim here because of strong currents and large numbers of jellyfish). The bay is also home to Okinawa’s black pearl cultivation, the world’s first, with another on Iriomote. Visit the nearby black pearl showroom to find out more about the process.

    Source: Saori K/JNTO

  3. Taketomi Village
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    Taketomi Village

    This traditional village of 160 Ryukyu houses is as charming as it is historically interesting. Narrow, sandy streets wind around low walls and perfectly kept gardens surrounding the single-story properties. Each building is topped with red tiles and protective shisa to ward away disasters and evil spirits. Most visitors explore the small, flat island of Taketomi and its beaches by bicycle, easily done in a day.

    Photographer: Glowimages/Getty Images/Glowimages RF

  4. Okinawa's Island Centenarians
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    Okinawa's Island Centenarians

    Elderly cheerleaders show some vigorous support for the participants in a dragon boat race at Shioya Ungami Sea Festival. Okinawa’s islands qualify as a Blue Zone, an area with a higher-than-average number of centenarians. The Okinawa Centenarian Study, which began in 1975, aims to discover the genetic and lifestyle factors contributing to how slowly locals age. Diet is believed to be key, with vegetable-rich dishes heavy on sweet potato. High numbers of older Okinawans keep active through gardening (medicinal gardens are a favorite), and avoid loneliness by forming a moai, or social network that provides emotional and even financial support.

    Photographer: Karen Kasmauski/Getty Images/Science Faction

  5. Views from Pinaisaara Waterfall, Iriomote
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    Views from Pinaisaara Waterfall, Iriomote

    The hike to the top of Pinaisaara Waterfall provides the perfect perch to take in Iriomote Island, 90 percent covered by dense jungle and Japan’s largest mangrove forest. Many visitors kayak up the Nakama River to the three-tiered waterfall—named after its resemblance to an old man’s beard—before climbing to 180 feet above the basin.

    Photographer: Ippei Naoi/Getty Images/Flickr RF

  6. Water Buffalo Taxi, Yubu
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    Water Buffalo Taxi, Yubu

    Sometimes it’s the journey that helps you better understand the destination. You can island hop the chain of Ryukyu Islands by plane, high-speed ferry, or (for a more leisurely pace) water buffalo taxi. The trip between Iriomote and Yubu takes 15 minutes on a cart pulled by two of these big-horned beasts, whose wide hooves prevent them from sinking in the mud at low tide. Once there, check out the tiny island’s botanical garden and restaurant.

    Photographer: Sachiko's photography/Getty Images

  7. Makishi Public Market, Naha
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    Makishi Public Market, Naha

    For an authentic taste of Okinawa, Makishi Public Market in downtown Naha is a bustling slice of life. On the first floor, stalls sell fish, shellfish, meat, and local fruit and vegetables. Shoppers can opt to take their purchases to one of the restaurants on the second floor to be prepared immediately in an authentic dish—a perfect option for visitors.

    Photographer: Norm Lee/Flickr

  8. Senpiro Falls, Yakushima
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    Senpiro Falls, Yakushima

    The Yakushima's beauty of combines exotic beaches on its sunny coast with the interior’s mossy forests, surging waterfalls, and dramatic peaks. There’s a price to be paid for the majesty of those mountains: rain … lots of it. Inland, Yakushima is one of the wettest places in Japan. And where there’s wet, there's waterfalls. At the foot of Mount Mocchomu, with a backdrop of granite bedrock, the massive Senpiro Falls makes a stunning scene.

    Photographer: Ken Usami/Getty Images

  9. Hiking, Yakushima
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    Hiking, Yakushima

    Opportunities to photograph monkeys and deer abound in the island's numerous trails, such as the Arakawa, which follows old train tracks.

    Photographer: Electra K. Vasileiadou/Getty Images/Flickr RF

  10. Diving, Yonaguni
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    Diving, Yonaguni

    The origins of the weird and wonderful rock pyramid near Yonaguni Island, 82 feet under the East China Sea, has been the subject of debate since it was discovered in the 1980s. Known as the Iseki stones, is this a natural phenomenon or a megalithic temple from the lost continent of Atlantis? As addition to the mysterious underwater monument, over 70 dive sites teem with exotic sea life.

    Photographer: Nudiblue/Getty Images

  11. Wilson’s Stump, Yakushima
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    Wilson’s Stump, Yakushima

    At the northern tip of the of the Ryukyu arc, Yakushima’s towering Yakusugi cedar trees make for a magical hike, having inspired Hayao Miyazaki's acclaimed anime film, Princess Mononoke. On the Ohkabu Mountain Trail near the center of the island, Wilson’s Stump can fit some 30 people inside its 340-square-foot hollow, which also houses a small Mokkon Shrine dedicated to the island’s patron god. Felled in the 16th century to build a temple for a great Buddha statue in Kyoto, and believed to be around 3,000 years old, the stump is named after Ernest Henry Wilson, a collector of Asian plants, who mistook it for a cave in 1914.

    Photographer: Alex Linghorn/Getty Images

  12. Iriomote Wild Cat
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    Iriomote Wild Cat

    You’ll undoubtedly see more Iriomote Wild Cat road signs on the island than the animal itself. Extremely rare, fewer than 100 of this subspecies of the leopard are believed to exist in the wild.

    Photographer: MIXA/Getty Images/MIXA

  13. The Sanshin
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    The Sanshin

    Peaceful, distinct tones of the three-stringed sanshin are deeply rooted in Ryukyu culture. The instrument, believed to have arrived in Okinawa via China, is the forerunner to Japan’s Shamisen. The long neck is traditionally made from indigenous kuroki tree hardwood and a python-skin body; musicians pluck original Ryukyuan folk songs with a “claw” made from water buffalo horn or wood.

    Photographer: Jennifer Jones/Getty Images/Flickr Open

  14. Idanohama Beach, Iriomote
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    Idanohama Beach, Iriomote

    There’s no shortage of stunning tropical beaches on these islands, from the star-shaped sand on Taketomi’s Kondoi Beach—actually teeny skeletons of sea grass organisms—to the icing-sugar-soft fringes of Nishihama on Hateruma Island, closest to Taiwan. The biggest surprise isn’t that there are so many, but that such spectacular sands lapped by crystal clear water are often nearly deserted. Pictured here, a “secret” beach on Iriomote, accessible through cliff caves.

    Photographer: Ippei Naoi/Getty Images

  15. Dragon Boat Races
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    Dragon Boat Races

    Dragon boat races are hugely competitive, exciting island events held through May and June. The one-day Itoman Hare Festival, seen here, focuses on fishermen’s sabani races in smaller vessels and was traditionally held for the gods to ensure safe voyages and plentiful catches. Dragon boats first appeared in the Ryukyu Islands around 600 years ago, having originated in China, where racing can be traced to a much earlier period.

    Photographer: Jonathan Hoiles, Silver Canvas Photography/Flickr

  16. Amami Oshima
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    Amami Oshima

    Sitting at the heart of a group of eight islets known as the Satsunan Islands, Amami Oshima is carpeted with mangroves and primeval forest. It’s an ideal habitat for the rare Amamino-kurousagi hare, and it's a bird-watching paradise. Because venomous Habu snakes deter hikers, many adventurers opt instead to kayak through the island’s mangrove forest. Diving and snorkeling are also big draws—the island is ringed with powder white beaches. The surrounding crystal clear waters, designated as national park spaces, are blessed with coral reefs and a colorful palette of tropical fish.

    Photographer: Ippei Naoi/Getty Images

  17. Karate
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    Karate

    Okinawa is the birthplace of karate, reputed to have been developed by a local who visited the Shaolin Temple in Honan Province, China. There, a Buddhist monk from India had introduced a series of physical and mental exercises that proved useful for islanders, who were forbidden to carry weapons. Today, many visitors come to the Okinawan Prefecture specifically to practice this traditional martial art. Kevin Chaplin, originally from the U.K., is pictured in Murasaki Mura dojo in Yomitan. He stayed on in Okinawa to become a sensei under Master Chinen, sensei of World Oshukai Katate.

    Photographer: Pete Leong, www.fotoshisa.com

  18. Peace Park Okinawa
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    Peace Park Okinawa

    Mabuni Hill Park on Okinawa, the site of vicious fighting during World War II, is the most significant Okinawan peace site, with a museum that explores the events from the islanders’ perspective. The park includes the Okinawa Peace Hall (with its 147-foot-high heptagonal tower), the Cornerstone of Peace (a flame at the center of a pond), and avenues of stone inscribed with 240,000 names of the dead (both civilian and military).

    Photographer: Jonathan A. Hoiles/Flickr

  19. Hoshinoya Okinawa, Taketomi
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    Hoshinoya Okinawa, Taketomi

    The stylish Hoshinoya Okinawa is a 48-villa, full-service resort on Taketomi and the epitome of traditional Japanese hospitality gone modern. It’s a mere two-minute stroll from the beach on white coral-sand paths that emit a subtle glow come evening. Each of the cedar-constructed properties is topped by red, tiled roofs with jutting eaves for extra shade and ringed by low coral walls, giving it the look of a traditional Ryukyu village. Interiors have Okinawan tatami mats (request wood floors if you’re not accustomed to matting), and shoji screens. South-facing living rooms have large, comfortable sofas and floor-to-ceiling windows that slide open to let you best enjoy the ocean breeze.

    Source: Hoshino Resorts Hoshinoya Okinawa

  20. Tokashiki Island
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    Tokashiki Island

    A deserted cove beach surrounded by the lush tropical rainforest and the emerald green clear waters of Tokashiki Island.

    Photographer: Ippei Naoi/Getty Images/Flickr RF