Island Hopping in Japan’s South (Part 3)

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?

Days 1 & 2 had taken us around Okinawa-honto, Day 3 to Ishigaki Island and Taketomi Island, and we had just 1.5 more days left to soak up this slice of paradise before heading back to Tokyo.

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

Okinawa
A piece of Okinawa at home

 

Island Hopping in Japan’s South (Part 2)

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!

Exploring Sado Island

Sado Island, just a little bigger than the area of Tokyo city, has only 60,000 inhabitants compared to Tokyo’s 10 million. That’s a lot of space per person! I’d say the residents are living the ultimate remote, peaceful ‘island life’. The kids run around making their own fun, while the teenagers take the ferry over to the mainland to go shopping and hang out. Once they’ve finished high school, most of them leave the island to study at university or look for work. But interestingly, many rediscover the comfort of their island home and end up coming back to settle down. Sado Islanders are proud of where they come from, and with good reason.

In January, I took the 5-hour trip up to Niigata Prefecture and out to this relatively unknown (outside of Japan) place. As we drove through the centre of the island, we could see rice paddy fields stretching for miles, with mountains in the distance providing a dramatic backdrop. The air was biting cold, but there was hardly any snow on the ground. I was told the fields are usually covered in a thick blanket of snow, but thanks to the El Niño conditions this year they were brown and bare. But not to worry – this was one trip where I wasn’t interested so much in the landscape.

Sado is known for a bunch of random different things: sake; gold; crested ibises; Noh theatre; oysters and seafood; the taiko group, Kodo; and being the place where an Emperor, a monk and various others were exiled to. Intriguing!

Our first port of call was the Sado Island Taiko Centre. The centre featured a big practice hall made entirely with timber sourced from the island. It had a very earthy, organic feel to it, which was obvious not only visually but also came through in the vibrations made from the taiko. I love the deep and powerful sounds Japanese drums make and when you see a group of professionals performing together, it’s really something special. There were 2 giant drums in the centre – both made from the same tree – with ox skin rather than cow skin used as the drumhead. The one sitting on the ground had a pig’s nose-shaped hole on the side, and when you put your cheek up against it and someone struck the top of the drum, it was as though the tree was letting a big one rip in your face! Lucky it didn’t smell… Seriously though, the force was pretty incredible.

After warming ourselves up on the drums for an hour or so, it was time to go panning for gold! In the Edo Period (1603-1868), underground mining began at Sado Kinzan, Japan’s largest gold mine. It was a huge mining boom and ran for over 300 years, financing the government. At its peak, the gold mines on Sado produced 400kg of gold a year. The mines have since closed down, but we can still try our luck either in controlled troughs, or in the river outside. I managed to get a tiny fleck of gold which is apparently worth about $40. I wonder if I can cash that in somewhere…

With all the rice growing in the area, it’s no wonder the Sado Islanders have gone into the rice wine, or sake, business. The breweries are a fun place to visit and do some taste testing. Each have with their own tastes and some have even won international awards. The key to their success is apparently the locally grown rice grains, the locally sourced mountain water, the generations of dedication and experience, and the magical touch the island itself offers. Whatever the ingredients, the sake here is seriously good.

Aside from music, drinking and gold mining, the wildlife is also a major reason the island is popular amongst local tourists. The Japanese crested ibis, known as toki, was once found all over the country. But they were hunted and as the country developed they lost their natural habitat. In 1960, they were officially designated a protected bird and breeding programs were set up to keep them alive. Similar species were sent over from China and a few chicks were born before the last wild toki, Kin, died in 2003. Now, the Toki Conservation Park is home to many crested ibises and they periodically release them into the wild. It’s been a success, but one which should not have been necessary in the first place.

I feel like I learnt so much while exploring Sado Island! I’ve heard the ocean turns into the most beautiful, crystal clear, turquoise blue during summer and I’d love to go back one day when it’s not so cold. It’s always fun to discover new places and venture off the usual tourist path, don’t you think?