Sunday 27 March 2022

Getting Away from it all: 5 Days in the Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa (Part 1: Sightseeing)

With the quasi-state of emergency (manbō) now over and new COVID cases decreasing it seemed like a good time to take a spring holiday break and recharge the batteries. While international travel still poses various challenges (not the least of which are Japan's stringent regulations for getting back in), domestic travel is picking up again and I decided to visit a place as far away from Tokyo as possible, one which I always wanted to visit: the Yaeyama Islands (八重山諸島) in Okinawa Prefecture.

The Yaeyama Islands are located some 400km from the Okinawan mainland and over 1900km from Tokyo accessible via a 4-hour flight to Ishigaki, the political centre. Despite the name ( 八, read as hachi or ya(tsu), is the kanji for eight), there are actually 12 inhabited islands in the archipelago plus a number of uninhabited islands (including the disputed Senkaku Islands as well as the most southern and most western points in Japan - Yonaguni Island is only a hundred kilometres or so from Taiwan!). 

(Map used under the under the Creative Commons licence as detailed here)

The islands are full of beautiful beaches, clear turquoise waters, mangrove forests, sugarcane fields, pineapples, and orange terracotta roofs. The tropical, almost aloha Hawaiian, vibe is supremely relaxing and the temperatures were comfortable mid-twenties (at the same time Tokyo was hit by a snow flurry resulting in a gap of 20℃ on one particular day!). Speaking of terracotta, traditional pairs of red clay guardian lion shīsā (シーサー) are everywhere, typically guarding the entrances to houses, businesses, and even bridges (covered here in a previous post). Chinese influenced lion masks also feature in local festivals revealing the strong Chinese influences underlining Ryukyuan culture. 

We stayed on Kohama, a small island 25 minutes by ferry from Ishigaki with a population of 600 - there seemed to be more goats than people - and only a single shop. The snorkeling was a particular highlight - amazing to lose yourself in a pristine underwater world of fish and coral. Kohama is also famous for the granny group KBG84 (a play on the teen idol group AKB48), evidence perhaps of the healthy Okinawan diet (the staple food on the island is the purple-fleshed yam or sweet potato - beni'imo - rather than rice). Talking of food, there is so much that is unique or different in Okinawa that I'm going to save it for part 2. In the meantime, I'd love to hear about your favourite places in Japan as well as the dream destinations you'd love to travel to. I've covered a number of spots around Japan so far - Tokyo, Hakone, Dazaifu, Shizuoka, Zushi, Enoshima, Kamakura, Karuizawa, Kyoto (part 1 and part 2), and Mount Fuji - but if you'd like me to cover somewhere else do please let me know. Click HERE to comment!

1 comment:

Chris Burgess said...

Just to get the ball rolling on the comments, I'm going to talk about my dream destination in Japan. The place I've really set my heart on spending some quality time is Yakushima, which is just south of Kagoshima, Kyushu. Yaskushima is a sub-tropical island (and a World Heritage Site) covered with ancient cedar forests and lush mossy vegetation. The breathtaking natural scenery was also the inspiration for a certain Ghibli film - check the following link for more details: