The Okinawan and Yaeyaman archipelagos – stretching over 1000 kilometres from Kyushu to Taiwan – show a side of Japan worlds away from the buzzy neon-lit cities most know. Discovering these almost untouched islands is best done by sea where you can tender ashore and explore 17th-century villages, hike through butterfly-filled jungles and snorkel with sea turtles in sapphire waters.
Exploring this region previously required flying in from Japan’s capital, Tokyo, but now, these remote islands can be accessed with French luxury expedition leaders, Ponant. They’ve cultivated close relationships with local Japanese national parks and governments to gain rare access to these secluded isles on Le Jacques-Cartier – a 92-room luxury small ship, complete with a glass-walled infinity pool and underwater bar.
“We’ve created a very small-ship-specific itinerary, visiting villages and going through narrow passages,” says Ryo Ijichi, expedition leader at Ponant. “The ship sails when you’re asleep so when you wake, you’ll see a new rural village, jungle, beach or island from your balcony.”
There’s an overwhelming array of island-hopping options, so we’ve narrowed down three of the best ways to sail through this subtropical paradise.
Take a step back in time on Taketomi-jima
Japanese Subtropical Islands: Keelung – Kagoshima
8 days | departs 13 March 2024
Get your fill of fresh seafood from the street stalls in Keelung, Taiwan before starting your journey to Taketomi-jima more than 250 kilometres west of Taiwan. Stroll through a preserved traditional village of red tiles and limestone walls – hallmarks of Okinawan architecture. Just over 30 kilometres west, trek through Iriomote-jima, “the jungle island”, which is so densely carpeted with mangrove forest that it looks prehistoric. Keep an eye out for a crested serpent eagle or the endangered Iriomote wild cat, a rare subspecies of leopard.
Next, take in the other-worldly landscapes of Oshima as you hike the black desert slopes of Mount Mihara, a 758-metre-tall active volcano, and soak in the Motomachi Hamanoyu hot spring. On this itinerary, a stay at the UNESCO-listed Yakushima off the southern coast of Kyushu is essential, where you can bathe in waterfalls, spot wild monkeys and deer and gaze up at 7,000-year-old cedar trees.
Snorkel amongst the coral gardens of the Kerama Islands
Japanese Subtropical Islands: Naha Okinawa to Keelung
8 days | departs 16 March 2024
From $8030 per person aboard Le Jacques-Cartier
Start your sail in Naha, Okinawa to explore Zamami in the Kerama Islands. There you can snorkel amongst its lush coral gardens, teeming with marine life such as lionfish, clownfish and green sea turtles. Then explore the westernmost island of Japan, Yonagun-ijima, and its remote, windswept meadows spotted with wild horses. It’s also the ideal spot for keen divers to explore the beauty of its sea-beds and the Yonaguni Monument – a unique underwater stone formation.
Okinawa’s northernmost tip, Iheyajima, is another essential port of call, where you can watch Eisa – a traditional folk dance involving colourful garments, drumming and singing. On Kumejima, the island that linked Okinawa to China in the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429 to 1879), you can visit a local distillery and taste Okinawan cuisine, sink your toes into the powdery soft sand in Kabira Bay and see mythical Mifuga rock formations.
Unwind on Miyako-jima's dazzling beaches
Odyssey In The Heart of Japan’s Subtropical Islands: Ha Long, Vietnam to Naha, Okinawa
13 days | departs 4 March 2024
From $15,610 per person aboard Le Jacques-Cartier
The wind-sculpted grottoes and forested islands of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay make for a phenomenal spot to start your adventure. Head 700 kilometres north-east to pulsing Hong Kong, where neon skylines and temples coexist, where you’ll eat your way along the buzzing streets of Shau Kei Wan and hike to Victoria Peak for unobstructed coastal views.
Next, slow your pace through Okinawa, Yaeyama and Sakishima islands, with a stop at beach-lover’s paradise: Miyako-jima, more than 380 kilometres west of Taiwan. It’s known for some of Japan’s best stretches of blindingly white sand and turquoise waters, with excellent snorkelling opportunities a few strokes from shore.
You’ll be one of few travellers on Iheyajima, an untouched island steeped in Japanese folklore. Explore Kumaya Cave (a sacred spot for locals where it’s believed the sun deity hides) and swim amongst limestone rock formations scattered amongst sparkling sea.