With its laid-back surf culture, Chinese-inspired architecture and buffalo-powered buses, Okinawa is a side of Japan worlds away from the skyscrapers of Tokyo and teahouses of Kyoto. If you’re in search of excellent food, tropical scenery and unique culture, spend a weekend exploring the Yaeyama Islands.
The Yaeyama Islands are a cluster of islands that lies in the southwest of Okinawa Prefecture, dotting the Pacific Ocean east of Taiwan. While they may not have the international recognition they deserve, once you visit this tropical corner of the country, you’ll realise why domestic travellers want to keep them a Japan-only secret.
As well as white-sand beaches, the islands are home to dense forests, rich and muddy mangrove habitats and a fascinating culture that brings together Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese and American influences to create something entirely different. They also have a mysterious mountain cat that parallels the mysticism of the Tasmanian tiger.
Naha, the main island of Okinawa, is a great place to visit for a family holiday. However, those with a penchant for richer and deeper cultural experiences should head to the Yaeyama Islands.
In terms of attractions and accessibility, Iriomote and Ishigaki are the two most dominant islands of the Yaeyama family. They’re big enough to offer plenty to do all day long but small enough to still feel like a remote island escape, and even better, you can cover them both in a weekend – here’s how.
Take a morning jungle cruise down the Urauchi River
While Okinawa is typically known for its pristine beaches, 90 percent of Iriomote’s 289-square-kilometre (112-square-mile) landmass features rugged, mangrove forests and subtropical jungle. The best way to explore is by joining the Urauchi River Jungle Cruise. The Urauchi River runs like a main artery through the middle of the island and is home to a diverse ecosystem of both saltwater and freshwater flora and fauna. This cruise combines sightseeing with a light hiking excursion, which will lead you to Kanbire (Kanpira) and Mariyudu, two waterfalls that look like something from a Jurassic Park movie set. The cruise departs at 9.30am and returns at 12.30pm, just in time for lunch.
Indulge in local soul food at Iriomote Green Farm
Okinawa’s local cuisine is strikingly different from its mainland counterparts. Partly influenced by Taiwan, China and, in more recent times, the United States, the islands offer fusion dishes featuring ingredients you can’t find anywhere else. Visit Iriomote Green Farm and get a taste of the real Okinawa. This cosy family-style restaurant serves classic Okinawan soul food, such as taco rice, Okinawa soba, slightly sweet black beef bowls and brown sugar pudding.
Meet the enigmatic Iriomote yamaneko
It’s no secret that Japan has an affinity for the feline. Still, no inner-city cat café comes close to the intrigue and fascination around the elusive Iriomote yamaneko (mountain cat). The island’s residents are mad about this kitty, with images of the yamaneko making appearances everywhere, from car decals to tourism information displays. This particular breed of wildcat only exists on Iriomote, and its current population numbers are in the low hundreds. Stop by the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center to learn more about this mysterious creature.
Inspect the tiny stars of Hoshizuna-no-Hama
Known in English as Star Sand Beach, Hoshizuna-no-Hama is a picturesque beach that, on the surface, is beautiful enough to warrant a visit. However, if you look a little closer, you’ll find there’s more to the beach than immediately meets the eye. Many of the grains of sand on the coast are tiny star-shaped grains. These five-pointed stars are the sun-bleached, washed-up exoskeletons of organisms known as Baculogypsina sphaerulata, which live in seagrass.
Ride a water-buffalo car to Yubu Island
Yubu is a small sand island 1.5 metres (five feet) above sea level and sits 500 metres (1,640 feet) from the eastern coast of Iriomote. While admiring the lush green tropical beauty of Yubu, it’s hard to believe the island formed from a build-up of sediment displaced by the sea current. To access the island, you have to hop onboard a buffalo car. The journey takes between 15 and 20 minutes, and during the ride, the driver plays traditional Okinawa folk songs on the sanshin, an instrument similar to the banjo.
Grab an ice cream and head to Manta Ray Beach
Hamabenochaya, which translates to ‘teahouse on the beach’, is a quaint little café that faces out to Yubu Island’s Manta Ray Beach. After spending some time exploring the attractions of the island, stop by here for ice cream and gelato. You can go for a fruity and classic scoop or something local, such as the awamori (similar to sake) or sweet potato varieties.
Enjoy some cosy homestyle cooking at Minami Kazami
There’s an energy about Okinawans that is so effortlessly cool. It probably has a lot to do with their laid-back coastal lifestyle, incredible food and top-quality Orion beer. At Minami Kazami, you can experience first-hand Okinawa’s chilled-out charm. This small but friendly izakaya-style restaurant serves regional staples and internationally inspired dishes all lovingly prepared. It has some excellent cocktails, too, made from awamori.
Enjoy a luxurious stay by the beach at Hoshino Resorts Iriomote Hotel
If there’s one chance to go all out while exploring the islands, it should be here, with a stay at Hoshino Resorts Iriomote Hotel. This hotel features a pool, spa and buffet restaurant, but the resort’s main drawcard is its location. The hotel sits on the northeastern coast of the island metres from the sea, offering spectacular sunset views over the water that you can admire from your room or on the beach.
Indulge in a buffet breakfast at the hotel
With floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the green-flanked pool, with the ocean breeze in the background, breakfast at the Hoshino Resorts Iriomote Hotel restaurant is a great way to start the day. This buffet-style restaurant offers Western, Japanese and Okinawan cuisines, as well as tropical fruits and smoothies. It’s only open to staying guests though, so if you’re spending the night here, be sure to take advantage.
Cruise over to Ishigaki
Two ferry routes run between the tropical Okinawa islands of Ishigaki and Iriomote, and they operate throughout the day. The trip on the high-speed ferry from Ohara Port in Iriomote to Ishigaki Port takes between 35 and 40 minutes and provides plenty of oceanic scenery.
Go for a refreshing morning snorkel
TOM Sawyer Marine Shop is a charming ocean-weathered dive shop located just a short walk from Ishigaki Port. Here, you can rent dive gear and sign up for a morning snorkelling session. The professionals will run you through the process before taking you 15 minutes out into the sea to admire the colourful tropical fish and uniquely shaped coral formations.
Grab a coffee and doughnut at Theater Donut
Head to the town centre of Ishigaki, and you’ll find Ichibangai and Sun City, two unintentionally retro undercover shopping streets known in Japanese as shotengai. These streets house a cluster of restaurants and souvenir stores selling dried noodles, sweet-potato candy and novelty T-shirts. Between gift shopping, visit Theater Donut – a husband-and-wife-owned cinema. It’s about as big as a living room, but they’ve managed to fit a café inside, too. Stop by to say hello, and grab a coffee and doughnut, which are made fresh in-store.
Explore old Okinawa at Yaima Village
Yaima Village is an amusement park built in the image of old-world Ishigaki. While the park is popular with families, it is suitable for all ages. Featuring traditional, tiled-roof Ryukyu Kingdom-style houses and home to live music and dance performances, a monkey park, mangrove forest, snack stands, a souvenir market and spiral-shaped lookout, it’s a bit touristy. However, it’s educational, and the performers are entertaining characters.
Sample some soba at Yaima Village
If you don’t have time to explore the attractions of Yaima Village, then stopping off at the bustling restaurant for an authentic Okinawan lunch is worth it. While it’s not the fanciest place in the world, the food is hearty and satisfying. It serves two types of noodles: yaeyama soba (made with pork broth, skipjack tuna, kombu (seaweed) and filled with thick, chewy noodles) and soki soba (similar but with extra pork ribs as the topping).
Admire Kabira Bay from above or below the sea
This bay is the unofficial poster child of Ishigaki. With bright aqua-blue water, framed by pure white sand and rocky cliffs topped with tufts of green, it’s hard to believe this place is real. You can hop on a glass-bottom boat and admire the beauty of the bay from below sea level or kick off your shoes and take a stroll along the shore. Whichever way you decide to take it all in, it’ll be an experience you won’t forget.
Izakaya Satsuki for a local brew and some bar snacks
Decorated with lanterns featuring the Okinawan Orion beer brand colours of red, white and blue, Izakaya Satsuki is the embodiment of Ishigaki culture after dark. This buzzing izakaya serves up the best the island has to offer. Some choices you can’t miss are goya champuru (a stir-fry of bitter goya melon, pork, tofu and umi budo – sea grapes, which are like salty, pop-in-your-mouth balls of seaweed) and fresh sashimi, all washed down with a frosty glass of Orion, of course.