Our fifth episode of the Nihongo Master podcast, we talk about island life in Japan. Japan is the largest island country in East Asia and the fourth largest in the whole world! But what not everyone knows is that Japan is not only one single island, but it’s made up a total of almost 7 thousand ones!
There are a total of 6,852 shima in Japan, and 430 of them are inhabited. They cover a huge range of longitude and latitude, ranging from the subarctic to the subtropical climates.
We looked at three different categories of islands: famous main islands, quirky tourist islands and some far-flung exotic islands which feel a world away from Tokyo — each with a few examples.
There are four main islands which broadly constitute the mainland, or ‘home islands’: Hokkaido up north; Honshu — the biggest part on which most major cities lie; Shikoku Island, known for its spiritual spots and laidback atmosphere; and southern Kyushu, the sunny stronghold of samurai culture.
To talk about all four would take hours on end, so we only headed to the far north and south, to Hokkaido Island and Kyushu Island. Despite both islands being part of the main Japanese archipelago, it’s incredible how different these two vast islands are: one a wild and wintery land with a unique indigenous culture, one a melting pot of foreign influences baking under the sub-tropical sun.
Hokkaido is the second-largest island of Japan, after Honshu. In days gone by, this wild northern region was the last frontier of the Japanese home islands. Nowadays, it’s a snow sports Mecca and home to a huge proportion of the country’s wildlife species like the red-crowned crane. On top of that, Hokkaido has probably the best and freshest seafood in all of Japan. The capital city, Sapporo, is a famous destination for anyone looking to venture the north without straying too far off the beaten path.
Hokkaido’s history is quite the story, especially when it comes to its past residents. I won’t go into detail — that’s where the podcast episode comes in, and over there we talked about it all — but ever so briefly, the island was home to an aboriginal group known as the Ainu who also inhabited far-eastern Russia. They were skilled at hunting and fishing, but these people largely faded into obscurity after their lands were conquered and culture suppressed.
However, the unique Ainu culture is still alive (but barely) in the legends, music and dance they created. Official statistics state that there are just 25,000 Ainu remaining to carry the torch of this legacy.
Want to know more about the Ainu people’s physical appearances, customs, practices, language and culture? Head over to Spotify or Apple Podcast and give this episode a listen! We also talked about other unique factors of Hokkaido — food, weather, attractions and all.
The island of Kyushu is the southernmost part of the home islands. Its geographical location means it has a far warmer climate than the rest— some parts even reaching subtropical latitude. Kyushu doesn’t have its own indigenous people like Hokkaido, but this island’s history is just as rich — long story short, the very last samurai waged a war against the government on this very island. Want to know the long story (but not too long)? Go to the podcast, people!
The sun-soaked coasts of Kyushu were also once the only ones in Japan to welcome foreigners, bringing in foreign religions like Christianity and business to the country. There was quite a ruckus going on because of the whole religion thing — we talked about the whole banning of Christianity and restriction of foreigners’ movements all in the podcast episode.
You might’ve seen this in the film if you’ve watched Martin Scorsese’s 2016 movie Silence, about two Catholic priests traveling to Kyushu from Rome to track down their mentor. It was based on a book by one of Japan’s greatest modern novelists, Shusake Endo, and it shows the real brutality of the shogun’s forces.
Kyushu has more to offer than just its religious and political history — its nature is top class. I mean, they’re known as “The Land of Fire” for a reason, mainly for their active volcanoes but their natural hot springs are must-visits too.
To know more about Kyushu, like the food and unique dialect, give episode 5 of the podcast a listen!
Other than looking at the major players among the islands, we also took a look at some of the unique and stranger ones: animal islands and art islands.
Image Credit: Addy Cameron-Huff
Why go to the zoo or visit a pet cafe when you can get up close and personal with some wild and friendly ones in their home territory? Japan has no shortage of these places that are dominated by furry creatures — places overrun by critters that were once domesticated, but have now conquered entire islands for themselves!
One of the most famous is Rabbit Island, but the island also goes by a different name: Okunoshima. This tiny island is overrun by over 1,000 fluffy bunnies. After a day spent drifting around fields feeding friendly bunnies, you might be inclined to think of Okunoshima as a total paradise, but it wasn’t always this way. This island has quite a dark past for both bunnies and people. Something happened during World War II…it’s a secret that we revealed in the podcast!
If for some strange reason you don’t like rabbits, why not head to a cat island instead? While there’s only one rabbit island, there are a grand total of 11 cat islands in Japan! Why are there so many? Well, there are a couple of myths and legends, but mainly they were simply a solution to rodent problems on these islands.
Out of all the 11 cat islands, there are two that trump the rest: Aoshima and Tashiro-jima.
In Ehime Prefecture, Aoshima is the most popular cat island there is. Some even call it the Cat Heaven Island because of how the furry felines outnumber humans. We talked a bit about this island’s history and population — cat and human! Tashiro-jima tucked off the coast of Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture, has a similar story behind their excessive number of cats on the island. The difference is that Tashiro-jima completely and officially bans all dogs from visiting!
I did mention other cool fun facts of these islands — check out episode 5!
Image Credit: Roger Walch
While some Japanese islands have been overrun by the animal kingdom, others belong to the avant garde. Art is business in Japan, and the country is home to some of the biggest private collections in Asia. The best art islands in Japan are Naoshima and Inujima.
I won’t talk about them in detail here — there will be a separate post on that in the future (or you could just listen to the podcast if you can’t wait). But to get you started, Naoshima is probably the most popular art island out of them all, famous for its iconic ‘Pumpkins’ sculptures made by Yayoi Kusama, which are now an unofficial emblem of the island. Inushima, on the other hand, literally translates to “Dog Island” — but don’t get too excited — it’s not an island packed full of puppies; Inushima just got its name from a large rock on its coast, which looks like a sitting dog.
Both islands are home to unique museums, quaint cafes and exhibitions that you won’t get on the mainland. We went into detail what both islands have in the podcast episode.
The last category is for the remote Japanese islands flung far out into uncharted waters. They’re so far from the mainland, they often don’t even feel like Japan at all, and which had their own isolated societies and unique culture stretching for millennia.
There are two groups of exotic islands we looked at: the Okinawa Islands (including the remote outer reaches) and the Ogasawara Islands.
Okinawa Islands – Ryukyu Kingdom
Image Credit: 8 Kome
To the southwest of mainland Japan is sunny Okinawa — a famous beach vacation spot that hardly qualifies as remote anymore, but the name itself actually refers to a few different things. It’s not only the name of one island that is capital to a vast prefecture of the same name — with over 150 islands spread out right throughout the Pacific Ocean!
These islands can also be collectively referred to as the Ryukyu Islands, named after the historic kingdom which ruled here for centuries before it was invaded by the Satsuma Kingdom of Kyushu in 1609. Listen to the podcast episode to know more about what happened.
Anyway, to this day, quite a number of the outer Ryukyu islands only have a few hundred residents, while others are virtually uninhabited. Because of their remote location and unspoiled nature, this cluster of islands is a haven for unique wildlife, genuinely undisturbed white sandy beaches in the world, and complete with colourful marine life and lively coral reefs.
In the podcast episode, we elaborated more on the subtropical weather of Ryukyu Islands, its wildlife species you won’t find anywhere else in the world, and of course, their unique language, culture and cuisine!
Ogasawara Islands – Galapagos of the Orient
Image Credit: Lee Render
A lesser-known and more remote group of exotic islands are the Ogasawara Islands. While they’re a sub-prefecture of Tokyo, it takes about 24 hours to go between the two! Named after the Japanese explorer who discovered them, Sadayori Ogasawara, they are also known as the Galapagos of the Orient. Like the actual Galapagos, these islands were formed by an isolated chain of underwater volcanoes. Because of this isolation, the Ogasawara Islands developed their own ecosystems with unique flora and fauna calling them home.
Previously, this group of islands was known as Bonin Islands. There are a few reasons why it was named that — we looked into it deeper in the episode. Another interesting fun fact about this group of islands is that the first settlers there weren’t Japanese — they were British! And others joined in before the Japanese came into the picture. Throughout the years, a unique culture was built — a mix of Japanese, Western and the Pacific Island culture in everything from customs to linguistics.
It wasn’t all fun and games — original settlers were treated like second-class citizens during the wars. I won’t go into it — but if you’re interested as to what happened, we talked about it in the podcast episode!
Also in the podcast episode, we highlighted the best parts of Ogasawara — obeikei culture, cuisine, unique wildlife unlike you’ve ever seen before and, of course, the untouched nature.
If you listened to the podcast and didn’t manage to catch some words, here’s a list of them:
Tanchou (丹頂) — the famous red-crowned crane
Kaisen don (海鮮丼) — Hokkaido’s specialty seafood rice bowl
Kani (蟹) — crab
Uni (海胆) — sea urchin
Gaikokujin (外国人) — foreigner (also known as gaijin外人)
Kazan (火山) — volcano
Onsen (温泉) — Japanese hot springs
Usagi (ウサギ) — rabbit
Neko (猫) — cat
Inu (犬) — dog
Jinja (神社) — shrine
Hakubutsukan (博物館) — museum
Goya (ゴーヤ) — bitter melon
Youkoso (ようこそ) — a formal word for welcome, most often seen in writing
Butaniku (豚肉) — pork
Umi-budo (海ぶど) — Okinawan sea grapes
Buninshima (無人島) — uninhabited islands
Umigame (海亀) — sea turtle
So if you’ve realised, in episode 5, we toured Japan from its very far northern reaches right down to the Pacific south. Along the way, we’ve taken a look at native peoples and languages, unique wildlife, culture both modern and ancient, and indigenous foods to add to your must-try list. So if you’re into any of the things I’ve mentioned, why not give the episode a listen?