Exploring Okinawa’s Yaeyama Islands
By Chris Willson
Not fully incorporated into the modern Japanese polity until 1972, Japan’s Okinawa prefecture was in the custody of the US from the end of WWII. Prior to that, despite owing allegiance first to China and then to Japan, it was a country in its own right: the Kingdom of the Ryukyus. Since medieval times until the early modern period, the Ryukus were governed by the Sho dynasty who compensated for a serious lack of natural resources by trading across Asia. Acting as a thoroughfare for Asian commerce, the Ryukyu kingdom has its roots as a vibrant cosmopolitan chain of islands and, to this day, its unique heritage and history make it as culturally interesting as it is beautiful.
Okinawa’s Yaeyama Islands are at the southern end of the island chain, 2,000km from Tokyo and only a sixhour ferry ride from Taiwan. Surrounded by crystal-clear waters, coral reefs and white sandy beaches, the islands have become a heavenly retreat for urban Japanese, and are in the fortunate position of not playing host to any US military bases.
For city visitors, cramped trains and concrete cityscapes are replaced by palm lined roads and ocean panoramas. In all there are eight inhabited islands that make up the island group with population size ranging from Hatoma island’s 50 to Ishigaki’s 50,000. The Yaeyama islands offer visitors more than just the chance to unwind; glide over the reef with manta rays, kayak through the mangroves, or participate in one of the many local festivals ranging from the ‘cow festival’ on Kuroshima island to the Okinawan music festival on Hatoma. Ishigaki is also host to the World Cup triathlon every spring. All the islands have local events, most frequently in the summer, including dragon-boat racing, tug-of-war and fishing competitions.
In this article we focus on three islands: Ishigaki, Taketomi and Iriomote.
The main hub of the Yaeyama islands, Ishigaki boasts Okinawa’s tallest mountain, stunning coral reefs and wildlife, as well as having a small town with plenty of good bars and restaurants. From the ferry port all the other islands can be accessed with ease and the island has a variety of resorts, hotels and campsites suitable for a range of tastes and budgets. Beyond the idyllic scenery, exotic food and dazzling array of local arts and crafts, the local population are friendly and welcoming—proud of their separate history and culture, they would go along with the statement that Okinawa is the ‘Hawaii of Japan.’ Even the staff in banks there wear elaborate local style short-sleeve shirts and, in contrast to the rest of Japan, punctuality is considered as a relatively low priority next to fishing, drinking, dancing, singing and playing the sanshin (threestringed guitar). In fact, the island is famous for its music being the home to Begin, a famous ‘Okinawa-blues’ band, and Rimi Natsukawa, a traditional folk singer with a voice to die for.
On the Road
By far the best way to get around is by car. For around ¥5,000 a day, you can join the daily rent-a-car ‘Tour de Ishigaki’ and cruise around the island in a Nissan March or Toyota Vitz. Driving in most of Japan is analogous to getting a tattoo: it’s slow, painful and can cost a small fortune—TV commercials may show cars cruising along wide open roads, but the reality is traffic jams and red lights. Ishigaki is the exception.
Take route 390 out of Ishigaki City and you quickly leave the urban area. Pass by the fields of sugar cane and follow the road as it tracks up the East coast. In an hour or two, at a leisurely pace, you will reach the most northern point of Cape Hirakubo. Standing beside the whitewashed lighthouse you have a breathtaking ocean panorama.
From the northernmost cape, it is another leisurely drive down the West coast towards the Ogan peninsula where the lighthouse at Oganzaki provides another spectacular view. During the day it’s a popular place for tourists, but the locals recommend that you go at dusk to witness one of the glorious Ishigaki sunsets.
Kabira Bay & Sukuji Beach
The small peninsula just north of Oganzaki has Ishigaki’s best beach, its most famous viewpoint, and most expensive souvenirs. Sukuji Beach is what the rest of Japan’s beaches may have looked like before the onset of a national obsession with concrete. An arc of golden sand is the only thing that separates the blue water from verdant trees. There are showers, toilets and the ubiquitous soda machines, but thankfully development is surprisingly limited.
Visitors can tour the azure waters of Kabira Bay in glass-bottomed boats or lounge on the sandy beach. The bay was the first place in the world to successfully culture black pearls; the Ryukyu Pearl Company has a store there with a wide selection of gifts and souvenirs. At around US$90,000 for a black pearl necklace, beauty does come at a price.
Shiraho is a small, sleepy town that sits on Ishigaki’s southern coast, famous locally for being home to the island’s best musicians and performers. Narrow roads wind between traditional Okinawan houses punctuated by ancient shrines to the villagers’ ancestors. Shiraho’s most valuable asset, however, lies not in the town, but just offshore. The coral reef that stretches out along the coast is within a stone’s throw of the beach. The quality of the coral and its environmental importance are so substantial that the reef drew the attention of the World Wildlife Fund. Shiraho is now home to The International Coral Reef Research and Monitoring Center.
The most significant feature of the reef is the presence of a blue coral, Heliopora Coerulea. The blue coral colony at Shiraho is thought to be the largest and oldest of its kind in the northern hemisphere. Several companies in the town specialize in taking visitors out to the reef in small boats. The shallow hulls of the boats allow skippers to manoeuvre over the reef to the best spots for snorkeling. There is a lot of healthy coral and a huge variety of subtropical fish, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Unlike at deeper, darker dive sites, snorkelers here can experience the full colors of the reef.
Sympathy for the Devil Ray
The Kuroshio current brings warm water and nutrients from the tropics into the ocean around Okinawa. The reef between Iriomote and Ishigaki is 20km long and 15km wide. It is the largest coral reef in Japan and a fantastic place to explore the aquatic world. It is also the route for migratory animals including humpback whales, sharks and manta rays. For a couple of months in autumn and spring, the reefs near Kabira Bay become one of the best places in the world to see mantas. Certified divers can join a dive-boat and, once anchored around a kilometer offshore, descend down to the reef. The mantas, sometimes in groups of more than a dozen, glide over the ocean floor with their colossal wingspans casting shadows on the divers below them.
There are numerous dive shops operating day trips to see the mantas from either Kabira Bay or Ishigaki Port. Some of the divemasters, such as those at Grand Blue dive shop, can speak a little English. A two-tank day, including lunch, costs around ¥11,000 (¥15,000 including gear). The first dive is with the mantas, the second is usually a shallower dive over the reef looking out for turtles, anemone fish and the occasional reef shark.
Typhoons, war and modernization have swept over Okinawa and yet, Taketomi village retains the essence of a traditional Ryukyu settlement. The buildings are all single storey, with traditional clay tile roofs. The walls are made of thin wooden panels that can be slid aside and stacked up against each other. Island breezes keep the houses cool during summer and the open layout lets in more light during winter.
On the roof of each building there is a shisa, (lion-dog), statue. The shisa are guardians, ancient talismans, protecting the occupants from evil spirits. At the entrances to the village, there are pairs of shisa; one has its mouth open letting the evil spirits escape, the other has its mouth closed stopping evil from entering.
Between the buildings, deep red hibiscus and bougainvillea climb yellow limestone walls. The narrow roads are covered with white sand that cushions each footstep. Visitors can explore the area by themselves, or take a brief guided tour in a water buffalo cart. Even if you are not fluent in Japanese, the slow rhythmic hoof beats are enough to relax the most stressed urbanite.
When? The Yaeyama Islands have a warm subtropical climate. Unlike mainland Japan, ocean breezes make the mid-summer heat bearable. The area, like the rest of Okinawa, is located in Typhoon Alley so a visit during July, August or September can mean either glorious weather or torrential wind and rain. When a large typhoon passes through, the ferry service between the islands is stopped and flights back to Okinawa or mainland Japan will also be delayed.
The best chance of seeing manta rays is during October and April, but there is a fair chance of seeing them at anytime during the winter months.
In early October, Iriomote celebrates Shichi, a harvest festival that has taken place on the island for more than 500 years. This three day event, which is the highlight of the Iriomote year is held in the villages of Sonai and Hoshitate.
Where? To get down to Yaeyama there are direct flights to Ishigaki from Tokyo available through JAL or you can get there easily by changing planes in Naha City on Okinawa mainland. Flights from Tokyo can cost up to ¥90,000 although there are a number of early booking and seasonal discounts available—it’s best to enquire about deals with your local travel agent. From Naha there is also a ferry option; the journey takes 14 to 16 hours.
Hirata Tourism offers various good value tours of all the key sites on the islands and in the ocean, and have English language capability.
Where to stay? Ishigaki has some great resort hotels such as Club Med near Kabira Bay or Sukuji Beach and the ANA Intercontinental. Iriomote and Taketomi are both less than an hour by ferry from Ishigaki Island. It is possible, therefore, to base yourself in one of the hotels in Ishigaki City, and visit the islands on day trips. If you have a little more time, Taketomi Island has several minshuku (traditional guesthouses) that allows visitors to experience the quiet serenity of the island at night. Iriomote is also an excellent place to stay for several days and has some resorts such as the Nirakanai—a luxurious hotel that opened in the summer of 2005 at Todomari Beach.
For visitors who would like to spend some time on the golf course, they should consider staying at one of the two resorts on Kohama Island. Only a 25-minute boat ride from Ishigaki, the recently constructed Villa Hapira Pana provides luxurious accommodation and excellent golf facilities while Haimarubushi, operated by Yamaha, is equally impressive.
In the evenings you can hear the occasional TV set, but the most popular form of entertainment are social gatherings. Accompanied by the sanshin, the people of Taketomi like nothing more than a good sing-a-long and several glasses of the Okinawan rice wine: awamori, served over plenty of ice.
Hoshizuna and Kondoi Beaches
Hoshizuna is a small quiet beach, where visitors are normally crouched over the sand sorting through the grains. They are looking for miniscule five pointed stars little more than a millimeter across. To a biologist, each star is merely the exoskeleton of foraminifers—marine protozoa that once lived on the ocean floor. To the locals, they are the tiny offspring of the Southern Cross and the North Star. These children of the stars were born in the ocean just off Okinawa, but killed by a giant serpent. Their tiny skeletons are all that remains of the heavenly union. The best time to find the star sand is just after a typhoon, when rough seas have thrown fresh sand onto the beach. Otherwise, it is a slow task and most visitors find no more than a couple of grains, then resort to buying a small vial of pre-found stars.
Kondoi is the larger of the two beaches and popular with families, paddlers and the occasional snorkeler. There are parasols and loungers for rent, with vendors selling cold drinks and, in case you don’t have any already, little bottles of star-shaped sand.
Known as the ‘Galapagos of the East,’ Iriomote is covered with subtropical forests and is ringed by coral reef. A large part of the virgin forest has been designated a national park and forest ecology conservation area. The center is broad-leafed woodland, while along the coast and rivers, mangroves form their own unique ecosystems. The Nakama River meanders down from the island’s rugged interior to the ocean near Ohara Port. The mangroves are home to a wide variety of fish, amphibians, and birds. The Ryukyu Crested Serpent Eagle, with its distinctive crown of feathers, can be seen scanning the surface of the river looking for its next target. Adan trees hang over the river, their pineapple-like fruit almost touching the water.
Boat tours along the Nakama River take visitors upstream to see one of the island’s true giants the colossal Sakishima Sappan trees. The trees have always had a significant role in the lives of people on Iriomote. The large flat buttress roots, which spread over the forest floor, became the rudders for boats, dyes were made from the bark and slices of the enormous trunk could be used as wheels.
Iriomote’s most famous resident is far smaller, and so secretive, it wasn’t until 1965 that is was even discovered. The Iriomote Wild Cat is little larger than a house cat, weighing in at three to four kilos. Its image, with rounded ears and thick tail, can be seen on everything from T-shirts to road hazard signs. You would have to be amazingly lucky, however, to see one in the wild although it is still worth trekking through the rainforests in the hope of a sighting—make sure you are prepared for the leeches though.
Just off Iriomote’s East coast is the small island of Yubu. It has a botanical park where you can see familiar Okinawa sights, like the yellow or red hibiscus, and a few less common ones like the wild boar. Yubu’s fame, however, comes not from the island itself, but how people get to it. The narrow strip of water that separates Yubu from Iriomote never gets much more than half a meter deep. At low tide it is possible for people to wade across, but most visitors take the local ‘taxi’ service—water buffalo. Once used for farming, in their new role these sturdy creatures ferry visitors from one island to the other in rickety, wooden carts at a slow but deliberate pace. The water buffalo taxis provide a welcome break from air-conditioned coaches and are one of Okinawa’s most iconic scenes.
Iriomote’s other river, the Urauchi, is the longest river in Okinawa. As with the Nakama River, the mangroves that flank them form a vital part of the island’s ecosystem. Motorboats take visitors from the mouth of the river, 8km upstream to the Gunkan-iwa River jetty. The more adventurous can also get to Gunkan-iwa on a half-day guided canoe tour. From the jetty it is a 40- minute hike along a winding forest trail to the Mariyudu Falls and after another 10 minutes on foot, trekkers will reach Kanbire Falls.
Mariyudu is a 16 meter-high tripledecked waterfall which is always impressive, but spectacular after heavy rain. The rocks surrounding the falls are slippery, but provide great views of the cascade, especially in the afternoon. Although some people have swum downstream from the falls to the Gunkan-iwa jetty, it is not recommended. Jumping from the top of the Mariyudu Falls into the rock strewn plunge pool, is verging on the insane, and strictly for the cerebrally challenged.
Kanbire means ‘god’s throne’ in the local dialect. The waterfall is longer and wider than Mariyudu, but at a much shallower angle. In many ways, the continuous mass of churning water makes Kanbire look more like a whitewater river than a traditional vertical waterfall. JI
Chris Willson is a freelance photographer and travel writer based in Okinawa. Travel features, galleries and limited edition prints of his work can be seen at www.travel67.com
J@pan Inc Magazine, Nov/Dec 2007
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