Escape to Okinawa's Yaeyama Islands

Closer to Taiwan than to Tokyo, Okinawa's Yaeyama Islands have a tropical rainforest climate, a wealth of natural beauty, and a laid-back island culture that draws inspiration from China as well as Japan.

Boat Tours are Popular at Kabira Bay -- Photo from Flickr cc by Kzaral

An Affordable and Accessible Tropical Paradise

The islands are surprisingly accessible, too. Direct flights to Ishigakijima Island from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport take just over three hours (you can also fly from Osaka, Nagoya and Naha). With a bit of shopping around, you can get great package deals on flight, hotel and car rental. Our five day trip in March came to ¥65,000 per person for six days.

Okinawa's Yaeyama Islands: Natural Sights


Okinawa's Yaeyama Islands are Famous for Underwater Exploration -- Photo from Flickr cc by kobaken++
The islands are well known for snorkelling and diving, and plenty of companies who can show you the basics. We took one of the regular glass-bottomed boats operating in Kabira Bay (around ¥1,000, 30 minutes, 9 am-5 pm), giving us a great view of rainbow-coloured fish darting between the coral reefs. The view above water is just as stunning, with vibrant turquoise sea against bright white sands. Head up to the observation point at Kabira Park for a breathtaking view of the islands dotting the bay, Mount Omoto and the Hirakubo Peninsula in the north.

Hirakubozaki Lighthouse -- Photo from Flickr cc by Kzaral
West of Kabira is Sukuji Beach, a tree-lined white sand beach with good facilities and a great view of Uganzaki Lighthouse. Perched on steep cliffs, the lighthouse offers a dramatic view of the bay. On a local tip, we followed the road to Kabira Club Med for a little-touristed sunset view over Hirabanari Island. On the north peninsula, Sunset Beach is idyllic at all times of day, and far enough from the city that it’s usually quiet. Keep heading north to Hirakubozaki Lighthouse for dramatic views of the coastline, and for the feeling that you’re standing at the end of the earth. Head there for sunsets, too.
Rivers and Mangroves

Miyara River Mangroves -- Photo by Kaoru Imafuku
To experience the tangled roots of a mangrove forest, check out Miyara or Fukido rivers, or the Nagura Wetlands, a unique habitat combining tidal flats, mangrove, beach and coastal forest. All offer kayak tours, although, for the full jungle experience, locals recommend travelling to less-developed Iriomotejima Island, a 40-minute ferry ride away. Just standing on the banks, you can spot rare birds.

Look Closely, Hermit Crabs! -- Photo from Flickr cc by Mirai Takahashi
If you stay very still, watch the sands come to life as wary crabs scuttle from their hidey-holes.
Woods and Mountains

Mount Omoto -- Photo from Flickr cc by cotaro70s
Another unusual natural sight is the palm tree groves at Yonehara, where you can see the Yaeyama palm, a species only found in this region. The area you can access is fairly limited, but it still gives a real sense of being in the tropics, and access and parking are free. You’re unlikely to miss the fresh juice sellers at the bottom of the groves, a worthy and delicious diversion. Hikers can climb Mount Nosoko (45 minutes, 15 minutes from parking area) or Mount Omoto (60-90 minutes) for excellent views and more chances to encounter wildlife. Be sure to take mosquito repellent and watch out for poisonous habu snakes.
Cultural Sights

Miyaradunchi is Representative of Local Architecture -- Photo by Kaoru Imafuku
As you explore the island, you’ll notice many roofs topped with ceramic lion guardians called shisa, who work in pairs to draw in good spirits and keep out bad ones. Shisa are a visible reminder of the Yaeyama Islands’ rich history. Okinawa only formally became part of Japan in 1879, and before this, the islands were ruled by the Ryukyu Kingdom, which drew cultural inspiration from China as well as Japan. To find out more, spend an afternoon (possibly a rainy one) visiting the small Ishigaki City Yaeyama Museum (¥200) and nearby preserved samurai residence Miyaradunchi (¥200).

Water Buffalo Tour on Taketomijima Island -- Photo from Flickr cc by Ken Funakoshi
By far the most evocative way to get a sense of old Okinawa is a visit to tiny Taketomijima Island (population 300), just 10 minutes away by ferry. On Taketomi, care has been taken to preserve the village’s traditional architecture of red tile roofs and dry stone walls, surrounded by narrow, sandy streets. You can easily get around on foot or by bicycle, but for the full island experience, we took a tour by water buffalo cart. The ride is surprisingly charming: The driver tells tales of villagers past (in Japanese) and sings folk songs while playing the three-stringed sanshin. Taketomi also boasts beautiful beaches at Kondoi and Kaiji. At Kaiji, you can search for hoshizuna (“star sand”), the skeletons of tiny crustaceans.

Super Fresh Ishigaki Sashimi (Raw Fish) -- Photo from Flickr cc by Pelican
Is this exploring making you hungry? Ishigaki’s food is fresh, delicious and healthy. Okinawans are among the longest-lived people in the world. Easily the most talked-about restaurant on Ishigaki is Hitoshi, an izakaya specialising in seafood, in particular, maguro tuna, which was so good I actually cried in delight. Every fish on the sashimi plate was a revelation. Local dishes like goya chanpuru are also a cut above. Book in advance! Another restaurant needing prior reservation is Usagi-ya, where the draw is the live Okinawan music sets twice each evening (7 pm and 9 pm, ¥500 cover charge per person). The atmosphere is friendly, the music lively and even the weariest traveller will find themselves dancing or clapping along.
We also sampled the famous local Ishigaki beef. Marbled with fat, it melts in the mouth and easily rivals the more famous Kobe beef. A steak will set you back around ¥5,000, so we went for yakiniku barbeque costing around half that. For a relaxing cold drink with a view of the beach, try either Puku-Puku or the bizarrely-named Shima Yasai Cafe Re:Hellow Beach, on the island’s south coast.

Okinawa's Yaeyama Islands: You Won't Want to Leave -- Photo from Flickr cc by Sota
Sitting at Puku-Puku enjoying our last, bittersweet pineapple juice before heading home, it was hard to believe that Tokyo even existed. The Yaeyama Islands truly feel a world away: warm weather, warm people, delicious food, natural beauty and a fascinating culture. The only hitch is that if you visit, you might never want to leave.
 Follow in Caroline's footsteps and check out her Yaeyama Island trip in Odigo!

Caroline Hutchinson