Summer Bliss at the Izu Peninsula

The Izu Peninsula was beyond anything I had ever imagined. For most people in Japan, Izu is synonymous with beaches and onsens. It’s a popular weekend trip from Tokyo, but I’d only been to the area once before, to see the early-blooming cherry blossoms in Kawazu. Continue reading “Summer Bliss at the Izu Peninsula”

Southern Kyushu: Shrines, Volcanoes and Unusual Sea Views

The Golden Week holiday in Japan is the perfect time to get out of the city and explore the country. A few years ago, I spent early May on a road trip around Kyushu, Japan’s southern main island. I was lucky to have the trip planned for me, but that also meant I had no idea what sights we were going to see. Continue reading “Southern Kyushu: Shrines, Volcanoes and Unusual Sea Views”

Starting a Goshuincho at the Wedded Rocks

On the seashore not far from Japan’s most important Shinto shrine, is a cluster of towering rocks. Rising from the water like giant sea monsters, two rocks in particular stand out. Connected by thick, braided straw ropes, they represent a husband and wife couple, bound together till the end of time. Continue reading “Starting a Goshuincho at the Wedded Rocks”

Summer Trip to the Sanriku Coast

Ever since leaving Fukushima prefecture after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, I’ve wanted to go back and explore more of Tohoku and in some way support the local people.

I’d never been to the Sanriku Coast before the earthquake, so I’d never seen the villages that once lined the shores. Continue reading “Summer Trip to the Sanriku Coast”

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!