The first two days of our Okinawa trip had been a fascinating glimpse into the history of Japan’s southern islands. I had been shocked by the horrors that had taken place there during the war, learned about the Ryukyu Kingdom which existed before Okinawa came to be, and been just metres away from some huge whale sharks at Churaumi Aquarium. The Main Island was lots of fun and a great introduction to Okinawa, but I had no idea of the pristine natural beauty and displays of Okinawa’s unique culture that awaited us on the smaller islands further south. Excited for some island hopping, it was time to hit the sky again!
Day 3: Ishigaki Island & Taketomi Island
Our third day in Okinawa was packed from start to finish. After a 1-hour flight from Naha, we landed on Ishigaki Island, part of an archipelago called the Yaeyama Islands. With Taiwan only 30 minutes away, we may as well have been in a foreign country. Tokyo felt a long, long way away.
Ishigaki is about 140km around, surrounded by a beautiful coral reef and covered in an interesting mix of sugar cane, pineapple farms, banana plants, palm trees and pine trees! Outside of the main town and agricultural plots, the island is largely untouched. Driving down roads lined with overgrown vegetation made it feel like we were exploring a deserted island!
And boy, the sky – it was constantly painted in the most beautiful shades of blue, dotted with bright, snow-white clouds. Everywhere we went, I was always drawn to the vast sky above us. Maybe I’m just too used to the city life, especially in Tokyo, where we are crammed in and there’s always some building obstructing the view. With much less pollution than many parts of the world, the sky in the Yaeyama Islands seemed the purest and most radiant I’d ever seen.
Our first port of call was Yaima-mura, an open-air museum featuring a small collection of traditional buildings set up like an actual village. There were displays explaining the life of the Yaeyama fishermen – including giant sea turtles and giant shells used for cooking over fires. We were kept busy with craft activities, an enclosure full of cheeky and playful squirrel monkeys, and a restaurant where we tried yaeyama soba topped with pork, fish cake and green onions.
After a few hours at the village, we headed to the port to catch a ferry to a nearby island.
Though the smallest island on our itinerary, Taketomi was by far my favourite. I wish I could have stayed there forever! I love going to remote locations and this island couldn’t have been more perfect. The only way in is by boat, and with a population of only 300, it never gets busy.
Taketomi is only 9km in circumference, and the best way to get around is by bicycle. Especially under the intense summer sun, there is no way walking is an option! With loose, sandy roads, the going is not so easy but that’s part of the charm. It was so much fun going from beach to beach, feeling the wind in our faces as we pedalled down palm tree-lined roads.
In the middle of the island is a quaint village of traditional Ryukyu houses – all with “shisa” statues out the front warding off evil spirits. The red-tiled roofs, stone walls, and water buffalo-drawn carts sauntering through the white sandy streets, was the quintessential Okinawa view I’d seen in pictures many times before. It was as though those images had come alive before my very eyes.
Aside from the village, it’s the beaches for which Taketomi is most famous. I can still clearly picture in my mind walking out from the clearing at West Wharf and seeing the crystal clear, turquoise waters for the first time. Ahh-mazing. The sky was dreamy. The air was fresh. In the distance we could see Kohama Island. In the water we could see fish swimming about. Everything just took my breath away!
The crescent-shaped Kondoi Beach was by far the most heavenly, with pristine, shallow waters, and fine, white sand stretching out into the distance in both directions. It was one of those pinch-me moments and a place I’ll never forget.
Kaiji Beach is known as one of only two places in Okinawa you can see ‘star sand’. These stars are actually incredible, tiny pieces of coral that get washed ashore after the coral dies. These days it’s hard to find star sand at Kaiji, but it’s fun to wander the shore searching for them. And if all else fails, you can buy cute little bottles of them from a local vendor.
So far, we had been to three islands – Okinawa Main Island, Ishigaki Island and Taketomi Island. Each were so beautiful and offered something different. The days were extraordinarily humid and boiling hot and the nights also very warm, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to visit paradise!
We still had two more days and one more island, the most remote of all the places we visited, on the itinerary. Stay tuned for Part 3!