After 3 days exploring Okinawa, I realized I had been crazy to ever doubt whether this place was worth a visit. I now completely get why so many people love this prefecture, and return year after year. And in fact I’m a little surprised at how underrated it is. For those of you who haven’t been to Japan, how much do you know about Okinawa, I wonder?
Day 4: Iriomote Island & Yubu Island – the slow life
Our 4th day was spent exploring two more islands in the Yaeyama chain. From Ishigaki, we took a jet boat 25km west to Uehara Port on Iriomote Island. The sea was calm and flat as a pancake, which made for a very relaxing and peaceful ride.
Iriomote Island is a place where you could easily forget about the rest of the world. Time seems to stand still here, or at least ticks by at a very leisurely pace. Despite being the second largest island in Okinawa, only about 2,000 people live on Iriomote and few people travel here because of its remote location. There is just one main road that follows the coastline partway round the island, so your view is always the emerald sea on one side and dense, mountainous forest on the other.
The island is packed with activities for nature lovers – hiking to waterfalls, kayaking down rivers, cruises through mangroves, snorkeling at beaches and diving in reefs. In the mangrove forests, you can see the fascinating Looking Glass trees, famous for their buttress roots. The largest tree is said to be 400 years old. The fauna on Iriomote is also amazing. I swear I’ve never seen so many butterflies fluttering around in my life. I felt like we were driving through a butterfly sanctuary! And incredibly, the island is home to its own unique wild cat called the Iriomote-yamaneko which the locals are especially proud of.
Unlike Kaiji Beach on Taketomi Island, Iriomote’s northern Hoshizuna Beach is actually full of star-shaped sand. You literally just have to scoop up a handful of sand and you will see hundreds of teeny tiny stars. It’s so amazing! There are apparently 2 shapes – one is the standard star, the other can be described like how people draw suns, circular in shape with a bunch of lines pointing outwards. If you manage to find the latter, you should consider yourself very lucky!
Located a few hundred metres from Iriomote’s east shore is Yubu Island. There’s no bridge or road connecting the two islands, and the only way to get there is by water buffalo cart. I’d heard about these buffalo carts that cross between islands during low tide and was so excited to see them in real life. Our driver sat at the front singing traditional Okinawan songs with his sanshin, an Okinawan banjo, as the buffalo ambled through the water, definitely in no hurry at all. Though the ride was short, it made us slow down and appreciate everything around us – the great big blue sky, the mountains behind us, the island in front of us, the ocean out in the distance.
Sometimes we forget to breathe deeply, we worry about things out of our control, stress about things that don’t matter and end up missing out on our own life. Places like Iriomote, and the whole of Okinawa for that matter, make us hit the pause button and reevaluate what’s important.
Day 5: Ishigaki Island – beach day
Our last day had arrived. It was finally beach day – an actual chilling on the beach, swimming and snorkeling kind of beach day. The hotel we were staying at had direct access to a beach, so as soon as we finished breakfast, we were out, sand in our toes, smiles on our faces! Snorkeling was tons of fun and I was ecstatic to see so many Nemos. They’re just so cute! The reef wasn’t too colourful, though. I’m sure it’s better further out, as is the same for the Great Barrier Reef. It was great to see the kids having a great time in the water and on the beach. Next year they will be in their final year of high school, so this was the last big school trip for them before things get more serious.
As we got on the plane back to Tokyo, we were all completely exhausted but extremely happy. An unforgettable 5 days. Okinawa is a magical, tranquil, unspoiled dot in the ocean. Even though it’s technically a part of Japan, they have their own culture, language, traditions, music, food and drink – it’s like the Ryukyu Kingdom is still alive. I will leave you with some snaps of all the food and performances we enjoyed, and a link to my favourite Okinawan song: BEGIN 島人ぬ宝