Japan is not typically considered an ideal destination for a winter tropical escape. The most familiar images of Japan in winter include the thatched-roof houses of Shirakawago blanketed in snow and the snow-dusted monkeys of Jigokudani in Nagano warming up in the hot springs. While it’s true that places like Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps get virtually buried in snow every winter, that is not true of Japan’s subtropical southern prefectures. In these places, the word “winter” hardly even applies.
If you long to escape the cold this winter, consider these destinations that Japanese people travel to for warmth and Vitamin D.
Located on the southeastern coast of Kyushu, it is the capital of Miyazaki Prefecture, one of the warmest cities on the main islands of Japan. This small subtropical city used to be one of the most popular destinations for domestic tourists, and its beaches and resorts made it particularly appealing to honeymooners. The city’s popularity has declined since the 1980s but has returned recently. However, Miyazaki is free of the adverse effects of overtourism that several places in Japan are currently experiencing. This makes it ideal as a quiet destination that is a bit off the beaten path but still easily accessed.
The capital of Kagoshima Prefecture and the southernmost major city in Kyushu is often compared to Naples, its sister city in Italy. This is because of Kagoshima’s Mediterranean-like climate, palm-tree-lined streets, and, most importantly, its proximity to Sakurajima. This active volcano in Kagoshima Bay is a counterpart to Vesuvius near Naples and a symbol of Kagoshima City. It is also easily accessed from the city by ferry for hiking, hot springs and even (safe) eruption observation. Kagoshima has a rich feudal-era history and offers plenty of museums, hot springs and shrines.
The ancient cedar forests of Yakushima, a subtropical island just off the coast of Kyushu, have made the island a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site and inspired the mystical setting of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. Many of the cedar trees on Yakushima are more than 1000 years old, and its oldest and largest tree, Jomon Sugi from Japan’s Jomon period (14,000–300 BC), may be nearly 7,000 years old. Much of Yakushima remains undeveloped, but amenities and well-marked hiking trails attract nature lovers year-round. Yakushima is part of Kagoshima Prefecture and is most easily accessed through Kagoshima City.
Amami Oshima Island
A bit further south of Yakushima is Amami Oshima, a subtropical island part of Kagoshima Prefecture located just north of the Okinawa Islands. Its climate is similar to that of Okinawa, but its sandy white beaches, excellent for relaxing, swimming and snorkeling, are much less crowded than its counterparts in Okinawa. The entire island is part of a UNESCO natural site, and it is particularly well-known for its mangrove forests, which can be explored by kayak, and its unique cuisine. Amami Airport has connections to Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka and Kagoshima, as well as other nearby islands.
Japan’s most popular and populous island destination is Okinawa, the main island of the former Ryukyu Kingdom and today’s Okinawa Prefecture. The island’s main city, Naha, is a regional transportation hub, and much of the area around it in the island’s southern part is urbanized. In contrast, the northern part of Okinawa is less developed, and the Yanbaru region at the northern tip is mostly forested. As the prefecture’s main island, there is no shortage of things to do, and some of the most popular attractions include the former Ryukyu palace at Shuri Castle, Churaumi Aquarium, war memorials and, of course, beaches and natural beauty.
A short ferry ride from Okinawa’s main island lies the Kerama Islands, a small group of islands located about 40 kilometers west of Naha. Often visited as a side-trip from the Okinawa main island, the islands together are a national park, with the main attractions being their white sandy beaches that are great for snorkeling and diving and, of course, relaxing. The Kerama Islands are also a popular whale-watching spot from January to March. Of the 36 islands in Kerama, only four are inhabited, and the two main islands are Tokashiki and Zamami.
About 300 kilometers south of the Okinawa main island sits Miyako Island, the fourth largest island in Okinawa Prefecture. Less popular than Okinawa and Ishigaki, Miyako Island still boasts some of the best beaches in Japan, and its coral reefs are excellent for diving and snorkeling. Even in winter, you can experience mild beach weather, with the average high at about 20 degrees in January. Besides beaches, you can also explore a few smaller islands connected to Miyako Island by a bridge.
Ishigaki is one of Japan’s most popular island getaway destinations. It is the main hub of the Yaeyama Islands, and the entire island, along with nearby Iriomote Island, is part of a national park. Its most famous and scenic place is the emerald-blue Kabira Bay, where swimming and diving are forbidden. Still, visitors can ride glass-bottomed boats to marvel at the bay’s underwater scenery. Other beaches on the island offer snorkeling and diving, including one spot where you can see Manta rays. Exploring the island’s mangroves through river kayaking is another popular activity, and Ishigaki City has plenty of restaurants and bars for relaxing after a day of island adventuring.
Ishigaki’s more remote neighbor is Iriomote Island, the largest of the Yaeyama Islands and the second largest in Okinawa prefecture. Iriomote is mostly undeveloped, as mangrove forests and dense jungle cover about 90% of its land, and only one main road exists. Still, the island offers plenty of opportunities for river kayaking, snorkeling, fishing, hiking and scuba diving, including Manta Way, where divers can swim with Manta rays. And though it is highly unlikely, visitors may encounter the elusive Iriomote Yamaneko, an endangered species of wild cat only found on Iriomote.
Outside of Japan
If you live in Japan, you have an excellent opportunity to visit destinations in Southeast Asia. Warmer destinations beyond Japan are easily accessible. Many Southeast Asian and Pacific countries are only slightly more expensive to reach than the islands of Okinawa Prefecture. The closest option is Taiwan, a mere 70 kilometers from the westernmost Yaeyama Islands. Cebu Island in the Philippines is a favored destination among Japanese tourists. Thailand and Vietnam are just six hours away from Japan’s major airports, and Malaysia and Singapore are not much farther. You can bask in summer weather in any of these locations, even during winter.