When you envision Japan, you think of sushi and wagyu beef, geishas and anime, cherry blossoms and pagodas. But beaches never cross your mind. The snow corridors of Hokkaido make more sense in this East Asian country than bathing-suit-worthy temperatures. Or maybe you just haven’t traveled far enough south yet.
Hundreds of islands make up the Okinawa Prefecture, Japan’s southernmost region. The gorgeous Yaeyama Islands—filled with mangrove forests, sugarcane fields, and pineapple trees—trail off to the southwest and the Tropic of Cancer. The islands are windswept and connected by ferries. The people are laid back and less formal than elsewhere in the country. While one of the most beautiful beaches in the world is found on Hateruma.
Hateruma is the southernmost inhabited island in all of Japan. Its traditional architecture—with hip roofs, red tiles, and Shisa statues—has been well preserved. A 17th-century watchtower, the Kodomori, acted as a lookout point for ships approaching the island. A monument stands along the steep southern coast to mark the country’s southern tip. The Southern Cross, an uncommon sight in Japan, is visible from the nearby astronomical observatory from December to June. Plus the north and west coasts are ringed with white sand.
After disembarking the ferry and renting a bike in the harbor, head west in search of Nishihama Beach. At first, you can only see emerald water in the distance. But, slowly, more shades of blue and green start to appear. Dark spots mark coral under the water, which looks more turquoise and clear as it approaches the shore. The beach does indeed have white sand. Fine, snow-white sand to be exact. The one-kilometer beach is only interrupted by a few coral boulders and some smiling tourists. Add low green shrubs in the background and a cloudless sky above for a picture-perfect setting. You’ll never doubt Japan again.