I’m back from my summer vacation in Okinawa!
I hope you all had a great summer vacation as well!~
I just recently went to Okinawa (winter vacation 2012/13) and had 2 weeks of rainstorms, but yet I fell in love with this westernmost prefecture of Japan. So, I knew I’d be back sooner or later.
In winter I visited the main island, Kumejima as well as Miyako Island.
This time I wanted to explore the Yaeyama Islands that are even farther away from the “main island”.
Yaeyama Islands – The Westernmost Part of Japan
The Yaeyama Islands (八重山諸島) include the westernmost and southernmost points of Japan and are closer to Taiwan or the Batanes (Philipines) than to the rest of Japan.
You can imagine that everything is slightly different there: culture, food, wildlife, scenery.
Even the climate belongs to the tropical rainforest climate while the rest of Okinawa is considered to have subtropical climate.
The islands that belong to the Yaeyama Islands are: Ishigaki, Iriomote, Taketomi, Kohama, Kuro, Hatoma, Hateruma, Aragusuku, Sotobanari, Kayama and Yonaguni.
(Easily) accessible for tourists are the ones in bold and among them I only didn’t visit Hatoma.
How to get there:
The major airports in Japan offer direct flights to Ishigaki which is the most populated island among the Yaeyama Islands. You can also get there via Naha Airport.
From Ishigaki you can take ferries to get to the other islands within 10 – 80 mins. Only Yonaguni can’t be reached by the smaller ferries. You’d either have to fly or take a big(ger) ferry.
After Iriomote it’s the second largest island, but with a population of 45,000 it’s the political and economical center of the region.
Ishigaki (石垣) is also the transportation hub to the other islands.
I spent a total of three days in Ishigaki (although 2 days are more than enough). I traveled by rental car.
In the photo above you see Kabira Bay. It’s a famous spot for cultivating black pearls.
The water is so clear that glass boat tours are offered where you can enjoy the underwater world. Snorkeling is not allowed.
Kabira Bay became one of my favorite spots in Ishigaki although it can become quite crowded during busy times.
Of course, Ishigaki has a lot more to offer. There are many beautiful beaches, rivers, caves, observation platforms, you can take canoe tours etc. I’ll post about it in detail in the near future, so stay tuned!
As Taketomi (竹富) is only about 10-15 mins away from Ishigaki, it’s a popular day trip destination for most tourists. It’s great for relaxing, swimming and snorkeling. The best way of transportation is a rental bicycle.
Once you arrive at the port, there are a lot of rental services awaiting you. Just pick the one you like and they’ll bring you to their store by car or bus! As the island is very small (area: 5.4 km²; circumference: 9.2 km²) you can even walk!
Only around 300 people live there and they all know each other.
Taketomi’s Kondoi Beach (コンドイ浜) is one of the most beautiful beaches of the Yaeyama Islands.
You can go swimming or snorkeling there. Toilets and showers are available and you can also rent parasols, snorkeling equipment and buy snacks. I also found some stray cats there.
In Taketomi there’s one of the beaches where you can find star-shaped “sand”. In fact it comes from the shells of thousands of tiny crustaceans. You can either look for it yourself and take it home or buy it in small bottles as a souvenir right there at the beach.
To get to Hateruma Island (波照間) it’ll take more than an hour by ferry, but it’s still a very popular destination.
In Hateruma you’ll find one of the most beautiful ocean views of Okinawa (and I’d say in Japan) if you visit Nishi Hama (ニシ浜).
It’s a great spot for swimming and snorkeling and you can easily spend the whole day there!
The Nishi Hama Beach is very close to the port, so you can walk there if all you want to do is spending time at the beach.
If not, there are rental services where you can get bicycles, mopeds and very few rental cars.
And you might want to get some sort of transportation as Hateruma is the southernmost island of Japan!
You can visit the southernmost point of Japan! How cool is that?
There are also tour buses, if you don’t mind being rushed from one spot to another.
Another popular island is Iriomote (西表). It’s the largest of the Yaeyama Islands, but has a small population of only 2000 people. 90% of the island is covered in jungles and mangroves. It’s a great place for experiencing nature.
Iriomote is famous for being home to the Iriomote wildcat (イリオモテヤマネコ, Iriomote yamaneko). It’s an endangered species that you can only find on this small island!
It’s very rare that tourists get to see one, so it’s no wonder that I also didn’t. They even sell T-shirts saying “Although I visited Iriomote, I didn’t get to see the Iriomote cat.”
I was tempted to buy one. *g*
Every year a few cats are hit by cars and injured or even killed. As the wildcat is already an endangered species there are signs everywhere on the streets to remind you to drive carefully and the speed limit is 40km/h or less on the whole island.
Many tourists only come for a day trip from Ishigaki (~ 40 mins by ferry) to take one of the various tours offered on Iriomote, but I recommend to stay at least 2 days there!
I stayed 3 days and I could have stayed even longer.
You can take canoe tours, nature walking tours, mangrove boat tours, hiking tours. There’s so much nature waiting for you!
Iriomote is really beautiful and you need to take your time exploring everything.
I took a day tour where we went by canoe to a waterfall (Pinaisala Falls). We could look up to the waterfall while floating in the water below it. Awesome feeling.
In the afternoon we went to a supertiny island to go snorkeling. Best snorkeling experience ever!
I even got to see a huge sea turtle and was told later that it’s a rather rare sight in those waters. So lucky!
There’s also Yubu Island (由布島) which is so close to Iriomote that you can either walk through the water (during low tide) or use one of the water buffalo carriages. I recommend the latter. It might be a tourist trap, but it’s a great experience!
Currently we have the hottest summer in Japan ever!
Okinawa was cool compared to the rest of Japan as there was always a nice ocean breeze and it just doesn’t get as hot as in the big cities on the mainland.
Nevertheless it was extremely hot, so the water buffalos enjoyed bathing in cool water.
On Iriomote I got to see one of the most beautiful sunsets ever at Hoshizuna no Hama (星砂の浜). This is the only other beach apart from the one in Taketomi where you can find “star-shaped sand“.
Kohama and Kuro Islands
Both islands are rather small and visited less frequently by tourists than the other islands.
Kohama (小浜) is a very small island with an area of 7.84 km², a circumference of 16.6km² and a population of around 600 people. You can explore the island by tour bus, rental bicycle, moped or car. There are a lot of slopes, so if you’re not fit, a bicycle is not the best choice.
Kohama has several nice beaches and ocean views. I recommend the “Haimurubushi Resort“. I didn’t stay there as a guest, but the beach is awesome. I don’t know if non-guests were allowed, but a lot of tourists who came by ferry like me, also enjoyed some time there.
Some people visit the small island because it was shooting location for the drama “Churasan“.
Kuro Island (黒島) is well-known for having more cows than people (about 3000 cows vs. 200 people). With an area of 10 km² and a circumference of 12.6 km² it’s even smaller than Kohama.
It takes about 30 mins by ferry from Ishigaki to get there. You can get around by bicycle. Apart from the cows, there’s also a tiny sea turtle research center.
Yonaguni (与那国) can be reached by plane (25-30 mins) or by ferry (4h) from Ishigaki.
However, the ferry doesn’t run every day! I went by plane.
It is one of the remotest islands of Japan and destination for mostly divers. However I spent 4 whole days there and despite the horrible weather during most of my stay, it became one of my highlights.
Yonaguni is famous for a couple of things and I’m SURE after reading all of this, you want to visit as well!
Yonaguni horses (ヨナグニウマ) are one of the smallest breeds in the world and they run around freely on the whole island – together with a bunch of cows. You have to drive very carefully because they also walk around freely on the streets.
Yonaguni is also home to the largest moth in the world called “Yonaguni-san” (ヨナグニサン, Atlas moth). It’s as big as an adult’s face.
The one in the photo above was alive.
In Yonaguni you’ll find the westernmost point of Japan. The island is actually closer to Taiwan than to the rest of Japan.
On clear days you can even see Taiwan, but as I wasn’t so lucky with the weather, I couldn’t.
You can also observe the last sunset of Japan (on clear days …).
And to cite WikiTravel that offers the following recommendation for “getting out of Yonaguni“:
“You’re at the end of the earth now — unless you can score a seat to Taiwan, the only way out is back where you came from.”
And if you’re still not head over heels, then let me tell you that Yonaguni was also shooting location for the popular drama “Dr. Koto“.
In the photo above you can see “Dr. Koto’s clinic”, but you’ll also run into several other “locations” on the island.
Diving on Yonaguni – Mysterious Underwater Ruins
As it was raining most of the time, I decided to go diving.
It was my first time ever and I had not planned to go, which resulted in spending more money than I thought I would. I think this might have been the most expensive vacation I’ve ever had. However, I do not regret it!
I signed up for a beginners’ course for people who had little to no diving experience.
The air tank was really heavy, but I was told that my breathing technique was already excellent. If my ears could withstand the depths of the ocean, I’d be fine. Luckily they could! (I’m the one on the very right in the photo above.)
After the first diving round I heard that even beginners can go to the mysterious underwater ruins of Yonaguni.
I thought that only licensed divers could go (all the available information in English says so!), but if you go with a “guide” like me (in form of a “beginners’ course”), you can go!
I was so thrilled that I decided to do another dive in the afternoon.
The waves were extremely high and the boat was going up and down like crazy. Apart from me everybody else (about 10 other people) was a licensed diver, but all of them got seasick. However, I was the only one who threw up.
I get seasick easily, but that was the first time I actually had to throw up.
I guess it was a bit too much for my body. First diving experience, another diving session right after that, the high waves and the fact that I had a slight fever the night before just weren’t the ideal conditions.
Luckily the waves weren’t too bad around the ruins and so we could go down and admire those mysterious ruins.
I highly recommend exploring them! If you can’t afford a diving course, then snorkeling or a glass boat are other options!
I haven’t tried the glass boat, so I don’t know how much you can actually see, though!
Wildlife on the Yaeyama Islands:
On all the islands you’ll run into a lot of animals and insects that you might not find anywhere else. The best example is the Iriomote wildcat I mentioned earlier.
A few other things you might find are:
Not only on the Yaeyama Islands, but in Okinawa in general there are many goats.
Especially on Ishigaki and the nearby smaller islands you’ll find a lot of cows and buffalos.
Ishigaki beef is quite famous and delicious.
I felt like I’m back home in Germany with all the cows and the smell, but then I saw the beautiful ocean in the background instead of high mountains.
It’s an awesome combination!
There are a lot of salamanders and lizards everywhere. It’s very common that they come into your apartment, I heard.
This is the one I saw the most. Very beautiful! I love its colors. Unfortunately they’re very shy, so taking good photos was difficult.
Of course, there’s also the dangerous (because poisonous) Habu snake, but not on all the islands. I ran into a huge snake on Yonaguni and got the shock of my life, but later was told that there are no Habu snakes on Yonaguni.
There are millions of butterflies and all of them are really beautiful!
I enjoyed riding my bicycle on the smaller islands while being accompanied by cute butterflies. It was a great feeling!
In Ishigaki I also met the cutest squirrel monkeys I’ve ever seen! ^__^
They’re not indigenous to Okinawa, but were kept in a park at “Yaima Mura”.
There are a lot of crabs, shellfish and other things you can explore in and around the ocean. Hammerhead sharks and manta rays are seen often. For the Yaeyama Islands you need to look out for a certain type of jellyfish called “Habu kurage” as it is extremely poisonous and thus dangerous!
And this was just a small selection of the wildlife that will await you!
Typical food includes Yaeyama soba (八重山そば) as well as Ishigaki beef. The region is also famous for salt and a certain type of alcoholic beverage called “Awamori“. Furthermore, you’ll get the traditional Okinawan food such as goya champloo. Vegetable curry or curry with Ishigaki beef are also offered.
For example, I ended up in an accommodation where I had to fight against cockroaches, ants, spiders, mosquitoes, lizards, beetles and other creepy crawlers the whole night. On top of that there was no hot water. I couldn’t sleep at all.
On one of the small islands (Taketomi) I lost my smartphone (it fell out of my backpack while I was riding my bicycle on the non-paved roads). Luckily it’s a small island and after riding my bicycle around the whole island a second time I found it, but it was completely destroyed. The screen looked like somebody shot at it.
As there was a typhoon approaching the weather forecast wasn’t very accurate. Ferries to the smaller islands were cancelled (just in case) as high waves were predicted (but never came).
It was raining a lot on a few days, but much less than what I’m usually used to.
I suddenly got sick with swollen tonsils and a slight fever, but medicine and some extra sleep seemed to do the trick.
All in all, I’d say this was one of my best summer vacations ever!
Okinawa is surely different from the rest of Japan and for someone who wants to get to know the “real Japan” this might NOT be the right vacation.
However, for me who has been to all 47 prefectures already and wants to explore something new and different, it’s like paradise! ^___^
I’m falling in love with Okinawa more and more and this was surely not my last visit!
I couldn’t fully cover what all the islands have to offer, so stay tuned for more detailed future blog posts!