Kabira Bay on Ishigaki Island Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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Island hopping in Okinawa

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By Vicki L Beyer

If you’ve had enough of the cold (and cedar pollen!) of “mainland” Japan this time of year, why not plan a little escape to subtropical Japan? In Okinawa you can enjoy various shades of blue offered by the sea and the sky, as well as the deep green of subtropical jungle, and experience a completely different Japan.

The farthest you can get from the four main islands of Japan and still be in Japan is the Sakishima Islands, a combination of two island groups: Miyako and Yaeyama, situated some 440 kilometers southwest of Naha and less than 250 kilometers from Taiwan. It’s pretty easy to hop between the islands and enjoy their differences and similarities.

The little Sakishima Islands sit along one of the Pacific Ring of Fire’s fault lines and are comprised of uplifted igneous rock and coral reef. It is this coral that provides excellent diving and snorkelling (too many choices to try to detail them here) and is also the basis for the beautiful pale sand beaches these islands are so well known for.  

Even if you’re not a diver or snorkeler, it’s easy to enjoy the coral as well as the tropical fish that inhabit it. Glass-bottom boats, emulating the effect of a snorkel, ply the waters of Ishigaki Island’s Michelin star-rated Kabira Bay. Semi-submersible boats that have deep hulls outfitted with seats and reinforced windows (think a boat with a basement) offer excursions to the coral reefs around the islands of Iriomote and Miyako, allowing patrons to see the beauty under the sea without even getting wet.

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Looking for star sand Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Another feature the islands have in common is beaches. Yet the beaches themselves are quite diverse: some sandy, others comprised of crushed coral, still others stony. On both Taketomi Island and Iriomote Island, you will find “star sand” beaches, containing regular sand as well as the star-shaped calcified shells of Foraminifera, a single-celled organism that lives throughout the world’s oceans. These fossils are the same color as regular sand; it is said the best way to find them is to lightly press your open palm against the sand of a “star sand” beach and look closely at what remains on your hand when you it bring it away. There will be grains of sand as well as a few of the star-shaped fossils.

Each island has its distinctive features as well, making it worthwhile to hop between them.

It is possible to fly into either Miyako or Ishigaki islands, and there are flights between the two, making it possible to use both as bases for your exploration.

Ishigaki

Besides its beautiful scenery and glass bottom boats, Ishigaki’s Kabira Bay is one of the few places in Japan to cultivate black pearls. Drop by the Ryukyu Pearl Company’s “factory store” to check out the pearls and learn more about their cultivation.

In 1771, an earthquake just off Ishigaki Island caused a tsunami so devastating that islanders still talk about it. More than 12,000 people died in the disaster. Oddly placed boulders just off shore or on the islands themselves are said to have been left by the tsunami’s powerful waves. There is also a local legend that one Ishigaki community was saved because a mermaid rescued by a local fisherman warned him of the coming wave, enabling him and his neighbors to seek higher ground and avoid being washed away. Think of this when you see mermaid images on the island.

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Enjoying Korean barbecue of Ishigaki beef Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Ishigaki produces sugar, tobacco, tropical fruit and very tasty beef, perhaps best enjoyed as Korean barbecue. You’ll find several excellent beef restaurants just near the ferry terminal.

From Ishigaki, ferries can take you to Taketomi Island in just 10 minutes, or to either Uehara (north side) or Ohara (south side) of Iriomote Island in just over half an hour. Accommodation is available on all the islands, but many tourists find using Ishigaki as a base and taking day trips by ferry to the smaller islands works best.

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Water buffalo cart on Taketomi Island Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Tiny Taketomi—population is only about 300 -- is the home of a traditional Ryukyuan village, complete with coral stone walls around each villager’s compound. It is charming to explore on foot, but one can also ride through the heart of the village in a cart drawn by a water buffalo (these massive bovines were introduced to the island from Taiwan as beasts of burden back in the days were beasts of burden were a thing) or rent bicycles to explore further afield, including several beaches. There is even a comprehensive ferry ticket that includes one or the other of these options in the price.

Although Iriomote is the second largest of the more than 160 islands that make up Okinawa Prefecture, it has a population of just a couple thousand. The island is famous for its native cat and has lots of unique flora as well. Most of the rugged island is thick jungle and wild rivers, making it a great place for those who love outdoor adventures. Among the most popular activities are kayaking along the shoreline or up the rivers and trekking to one of the many spectacular waterfalls on the island. Many of these trips begin from Uehara, although kayaking adventures are also available from Ohara. For the less intrepid, consider a boat ride through the mangrove swamps of the Nakama River estuary, departing from Ohara, also the landing for the semi-submersible.

Ishigaki is also known for its stargazing opportunities. Being so remote, there is little light interference, so many stars not otherwise visible can be seen. This time of year, one can even see the Southern Cross from here.

Miyako

Miyako Island, the most populous of the Sakishima Islands, is a good place to finish your island hopping. There are direct flights from the island to Tokyo-Haneda, Nagoya, Osaka and Naha. Once the new Shimojishima airport on Miyako opens on March 30, the low cost carrier Jetstar will be flying to Narita as well, with an introductory offer of less than 7,000 yen one way.

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The 3.5-km "sango" bridge connecting Miyako to Irabu Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Miyako is connected by bridges to three nearby islands: Irabu, Shimoji, and Kurima, effectively making them a single island. The 3.5-kilometer long bridge between Miyako and Irabu, with its graceful dinosaur’s back arch, is the longest toll-free bridge in Japan. The pun-loving Japanese will soon point out to you that the pronunciation of 3.5, sango, sounds the same as the Japanese word for coral: sango.

After the remoteness of the other islands, Miyako may feel like a return to civilization. They even have fast food chains and convenience stores. 

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Miyako's famous silent cop, "Mamoru-kun" Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The pace here is so hectic (in relative terms) that the local constabulary have enlisted the help of “Mamoru-kun”, a life-sized, full-color statue of a traffic cop. There are 17 statues of Mamoru-kun in strategic locations around Miyako, including a female version at the airport. Apparently, finding them all has become a tourist past-time. 

For another uniquely Okinawan experience, why not visit an awamori distillery? Awamori is Okinawa’s local alcohol.

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Inside the Taragawa Awamori showroom Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Made with Thai long grain rice, the initial steps of the process are similar to those of sake production, but the final steps are distilling and then aging in clay pots, producing a very potent (often 40%) spirit. On Miyako, Taragawa, distillers for over 70 years, have an English language video explaining their process, as well as tastings. Open weekdays from 10 am to 4 pm, and sometimes on Saturdays. Call 0980-77-4108 (Japanese only) to arrange a visit.  

It was only while dining with friends on the evening after my visit to the distillery that I learned the locals usually dilute their Awamori with water. Oops!

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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