The Yaeyama Islands: A Subtropical Treasure Trove Unveiled
30 November 2016
Ishigakijima
When most people think of Okinawa, the main island (Okinawa Honto) is what comes to mind. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Okinawa is actually an extended archipelago, with numerous island gems glittering in the Pacific, each with their own local cultures, customs and even languages. Of the southern islands, the most widely known are the seven main islands of the Yaeyama group (and of course Miyakojima, which is part of its own group). The Yaeyama islands are all accessible either by ferry or airplane, each offering the visitor its own brand of sub-tropical charm.



 

7 Yaeyama Islands from Ishigakijima to Taketomijima

Kabirawan

Ishigakijima

Ishigakijima is considered the gateway to the Yaeyamas. No longer accessible to tourists by ferry, the only way there is by air. However, once on Ishigakijima, the ferry terminal is your portal to the rest of the Yaeyama Islands. There are countless things to do on Ishigakijima. Depending on the season you visit, you can cheer on contestants in a traditional Haari boat race held in June, or join in the Hounensai harvest festival in August. If you’re into diving, the island is famous for its mantas and if you enjoy hiking, you can climb Mt. Omoto. Though it’s 528 meters may not compete with Mt. Fuji’s 3,776, it none the less offers spectacular views of not only Ishigakijima, but the stunning coral reefs which surround it. The nightlife is quite lively, with numerous bars and restaurants open late all over the island. If Ishigakijima is your destination, consider staying at the all-new Blue Cabin Hotel, a unique resort for backpackers featuring cruise ship-style rooms with shared toilets and showers, accommodating men and women on separate floors, including a washing space for diving enthusiasts. It offers safe, comfortable accommodation at a very reasonable price. From Naha Airport on mainland Okinawa, Ishigakijima is only a one hour flight.

Blue Cabin Ishigakijima
https://bluecabin-ishigakijima.jp/en/
 
Yonagunijima

Yonagunijima

Much closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan (or even the main island of Okinawa), Yonagunijima is the westernmost point of land in Japan.  Not even the smallest among the Yaeyama Islands (see below), it measures only 29 square km - but Yonagunijima is abundant in nature, with mountains, pristine rivers and some grassy plateaus.  While sugar cane, shrimp, horse and dairy farms cover much of the island, tourism is vital to the local economy. Incidentally, Yonagunijima is most famous for what lies underwater just off the coast, namely a massive stone structure known as the Yonaguni Monument. Divers come in droves to explore the monument and decide for themselves whether or not the structure is principally man-made (as argued by numerous academics who have made a career studying it), or mostly a product of nature. Even for those who don’t dive, if a taste of rural Okinawan culture is what you desire, Yonagunijima is the island for you. You can get there via short plane ride from Ishigakijima.


 
Haterumajima

Haterumajima

Haterumajima takes its name from the word ‘ha-te’ (pronounced ‘ha-tay’) meaning ‘last’ and ‘uruma,’ which means coral (or coral reef) in the local dialect, combining to form “The Last Reef.” Like Yonaguni to the west, Haterumajima features another of Japan’s geographical extremes, this time to the south, where a monument can be viewed at Takanazaki cliff. Half the size of Yonaguni and with only 600 residents, this precious part of the Yaeyama Islands has the feel of a living time capsule, its red tiled roofs and ubiquitous stone walls evoking the feel of an old-style Okinawan village. Famous for its view of the night sky, the lighting on the island is designed to minimize light pollution and the southern coast is home to an observatory with a 200mm telescope. While camping is not permitted, there are hotels on the island - but be forewarned, they are quite rustic (tip: bring your own towels, since few of the island’s inns supply them). The island can be accessed by ferry from Ishigaki port, or by plane from Ishigaki airport (thought the crossing can be a bit rough, most people recommend the ferry, since it costs less than ¥6,000 and only takes one hour).


 
Iriomotejima
Photo by Kentaro Ohshima on flickr

Iriomotejima

If you could use only one word to summarize Iriomotejima, it would be ‘nature.’  On Iriomote, visitors can explore the famous mangrove-surrounded Nahra Waterfall along the Nakara river or take a boat tour up the Urauchi, Okinawa’s longest river, which meanders through the prefecture’s most expansive primeval forest. Travelers can also go on safari in search of the rare and elusive Iriomote Cat, a small and totally undomesticated member of the leopard family found only on this island. Of course, there are numerous pristine sandy beaches, but perhaps the most opulent experience on Iriomote can be found in the jungle, where visitors who travel between February and April can watch in awe as thousands upon thousands of fireflies dance in the lush subtropical forest. Whether going to the south or the north of the island, catch the ferry at Ishigaki Terminal for a 45 minute ride.  When visiting Iriomotejima, be sure to stay at the Hotel Nirakanai, where you can indulge in lavish comfort in the midst of an unspoiled natural paradise. Even among the splendor of the Yaeyama Islands, this combination of luxury and rarity makes Iriotejima a must-see destination.


 
Kuroshima
Photo by Kentaro Ohshima on flickr

Kuroshima

A mere 35 minutes by ferry from Ishigakijima, Kuroshima offers visitors a kind of rural charm some say is reminiscent of the English countryside. While it is known for its rustic charm, the island also features many sandy beaches, frequented in the right season by sea turtles there to lay their eggs. The island’s popularity with sea turtles is one reason the the sea turtle research center located on the western side has enjoyed a highly successful satellite tracking program - if you want to learn about turtles, Kuroshima is the best place in the Yaeyama Islands to do it. Kuroshima Village is so small it only has one store and one cafe catering to tourists. If you do visit this tiny wonder of Yaeyama, try the yashigane soba (noodle soup prepared with the meat of the coconut crab). Just don’t plan to spend the night, since there are very few establishments offering accommodation.


 
Kohamajima

Kohamajima

Kohamajima’s claim to fame is that it was the setting of a once-famous NHK daytime drama series called ‘Chura-san.’ The house which was the main set for the series still stands and draws a remarkable number of Japanese tourists, who like to pose for photos in front of it. While the island’s beaches are unremarkable (at least by the standards of the Yaeyama Islands in general), what Kohamajima offers is beautiful scenic lookouts. Chura-san’s Point offers what is arguably the best view of Iriomotejima, while Ufudake features the best view of Kohamajima itself. While you’re booking your trip, why not stay at a luxury resort hotel right on the beach? Hotel Allamanda Kohamajima and Nirakanai Kohamajima offer private access to white-sand beaches, as well as romantically designed pools to broaden your choices. If you would like to relax after meandering around the island, they also have a spa, cafe, and a bar. For those with a sportier edge, the hotels share an 18-hole golf course as well. If you’re looking to add a little class to your stay in Kohamajima, this is an excellent choice. They have rooms available starting on the first day of April, 2017.

Hotel Allamanda Kohamajima and Hotel Nirakanai Kohamajima
https://resort-kohamajima.jp/en/


 
Taketomijima

Taketomijima

What separates Taketomijima from rest of the Yaeyama Islands is its strict adherence to traditional Okinawan ways of life. While only a ten minute ferry ride from Ishigakijima, visitors comment that the journey feels more like time travel. Although the island has a number of beaches which can be accessed by bicycle, it best known for the way the houses and buildings have been preserved. Though new houses are occasionally constructed, they must be built according to the traditional style and indeed, much of life on the island is governed by rather strict rules based on ancient customs. 

If you visit this hallowed part of the Yaeyama Islands, go prepared the way you would if you were hiking deep in the forest, since Taketomijima has only one store, which is open only for a few hours a day (on days when it is open at all) and you’ll have to look hard to find so much as a vending machine. There are many shrines on the island, but most of them are off-limits to tourists, since, unlike the temples in mainland Japan, the Okinawan religion, based on ancestor worship, is practiced quite privately. While this is certainly an atypical tourist experience, the island has its charms, not the least of which is the local taxi service, featuring carts drawn by water buffalo. If nothing else, for shutterbugs wishing to bring back images of a truly unique way of life, it is a photographer’s paradise.


 

The Yaeyama Islands are Just the Beginning...Visit Miyakojima Too!

While there are other islands which are part of the Yaeyama group, many of them are either uninhabited or not thought of as tourist destinations. And of course, outside the Yaeyama Islands and closer to the main island of Okinawa are the islands of the Miyako chain, each with their own unique charm and identity. Miyakojima, the central island of this group, is one of the best known tourist destinations in Okinawa and is extremely diverse, offering some of the finest beaches in Japan, a wide range of watersports, eco-tours, golf and even hotsprings, all easily accessible especially from Shigira Resort. Book your trip to Miyakojima or the Yaeyama Islands today!



 

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