Breathtaking waterfalls on Iriomote Island
Home to tropical beaches, first-rate resorts and numerous unique attractions, Okinawa has long been a popular destination for Japanese and international travellers seeking a good balance of R&R and sightseeing. But to truly get away from it all, head south for the Yaeyama Islands – the southernmost and westernmost inhabited islands of Japan – where pristine nature, postcard-perfect townscapes, thrilling adventures and cultural discovery await.
Gateway to Heaven
Although somewhat off the beaten track, getting to the islands is easy. Most fly in from Naha, the capital of Okinawa; but for those travelling from Hong Kong or Macau, there is now a direct flight to Ishigaki City for less than two and a half hours. As the region’s main island and transportation hub, it’s a springboard for visiting other remote islands like Taketomi, Hatoma, Hateruma and Iriomote, which can be accessed by ferry.
Before you hop on the ferry, however, Ishigaki Island itself also calls for exploration. While there’s no shortage of natural attractions, including several sandy and rocky beaches, Mount Omoto (Okinawa’s highest mountain), Banna Park, and the spectacular Ishigaki stalactite cave, this is also the best place to learn about Yaeyama culture.
Visit the Traditional Arts and Crafts Centre to take a glimpse into the islands’ past and learn about Yaeyama minsa weaving, a famous local craft traditionally used for belts (min means ‘cotton’ and sa means ‘a narrow belt’). The textile has a ribbed texture with stripes and distinctive kasuri patterns woven with cotton threads in both warp and weft. At the Azamiya Minsah Craft Center in Tonoshiro, you can even try your hand at the traditional craft with the skilled instructors.
Measuring just 5,420sqm, Taketomi Island is tiny but perfect for getting away from city life. The isle is particularly renowned for its central village, home to traditional Ryukyuan houses with red kawara (tiled) roofs and shiisa, lion-dog figures that ward off evil spirits. The roadside coral stone walls are often dotted with colours from blooming flowers such as hibiscus and wild poinsettias. Take a stroll through the tranquil village on the narrow, white sandy paths, or take a water buffalo carriage ride for an unusual experience where the driver plays the sanshin, a three-stringed local instrument, while telling folk tales.
Stars, Above and Below
An island getaway is incomplete without a beach day. On Taketomi, Kondoi Beach is considered one of the most gorgeous beaches in Japan, with inviting white sand and crystal-clear water. It’s the only beach on the island where swimming is allowed, and also a great spot for snorkelling as the island is surrounded by coral reefs teeming with subtropical fish. Nearby is equally famous Kaiji Beach, also known as a ‘star-sand’ beach. However, the star-shaped particles found here are not actually sand, but in fact remains of Foraminifera. For something more secluded, visit Aiyaruhama on the eastern coast. Far removed from city lights, its location affords wonderful opportunities for stargazing and, though lesser known, this is also a ‘star-sand’ beach.
Galapagos of the East
For nature lovers, Iriomote Island has the moniker of ‘Galapagos of the East’ because it’s covered by dense forests and mangroves that give home to an abundance of flora and fauna, including the critically endangered Iriomote wildcat. Rivers traverse the hilly island, creating stunning landscapes such as the Maryudo Falls, as well as an interesting environment where trees have developed features to adapt to the changing fresh and salt-water habitat. Another natural wonder is the sagaribana tree. Also known as the ‘powder-puff tree’, its flamboyant flowers hang over mangrove rivers and bloom only at night in summer. The shape of the blossoms and the bright colours resemble fireworks, and it’s a mesmerising sight when the petals fall at dawn each day. To see the magical display, visit from late June to end of July and join a sagaribana viewing tour.
From kayaking and sailing to forest trekking, Iriomote offers adventures of all sorts to get your adrenaline pumping. Visit the Nakama River zone with a cruise or a kayak tour to the heart of Japan’s largest mangrove forest; or hike along the Urauchi River – Okinawa’s longest – to admire the jungle and its wildlife up close, and eventually reaching the magnificent waterfalls. Those interested in the rich marine life will enjoy snorkelling at the beaches. For experienced divers, the Yonara Channel between Iriomote and Kohama Islands is a drift diving site good for manta ray watching.