Wandering in Ryukyu: Island Hopping Okinawa

Located at the southernmost tip of Japan with Taiwan looming on its outskirts, Okinawa is made up of 49 inhabited islands (including Okinawa Island) and 111 uninhabited islands with sub-tropical temperatures year-round. Island hopping is a great way to experience each island’s unique personality, and from Okinawa’s main island, you can get to other islands by ferry or a short flight. Since the emergence of direct flights from Singapore to Naha via Jetstar (just over 5 hours’ flight time), it’s now easier to visit these islands.

OKINAWA ISLAND

The main island of the Okinawa chain – also called Okinawa – is the main hub for transport to the region. It’s home to an international airport, as well as ferry terminals to nearby islands. However, Okinawa itself is also home to a number of attractions, ranging from historic sites to shopping streets, scenic sites, and night spots. While many of the attractions are centred around its capital, Naha, further afield are attractions like picturesque capes, castle ruins, and the world-famous Churaumi Aquarium. Okinawa’s most famous shopping street is Kokusai-dori, which is packed with souvenir stores and restaurants that stretch for about 2km through downtown Naha. Just off this street is Yatai-Mura, where over 20 outdoor food stalls serve mostly Japanese fare made with Okinawan ingredients, and Makishi Public Market where you can get fresh produce and seafood; restaurants
here serve fresh seafood in the same fashion as Tsukiji in Tokyo.

Castles

Photo Credits: Akimasa Yuasa (JNTO)

The main drawcard in Okinawa island for visitors is Shuri Castle. Shuri was the former capital of the Ryukyu kingdom from the 15th to 19th centuries when Okinawa was an independent nation, and the castle was its stronghold. Shuri’s biggest attraction is the main hall of Seiden, the imposing vermilion-coloured landmark of Okinawa. The former venue for major state affairs, its architecture differs significantly from other Japanese castles. At certain times of the year, the castle hosts reenactments of royal processions and other important historic moments. Shureimon – the castle’s second gate – adorns the ¥2,000 note issued in 2000 to commemorate the G8 summit held in Okinawa. At one point, Ryukyu had more than 220 castles, with Shuri being the only fully-restored one today. Other castle ruins can still be seen in various parts of the island, including Katsuren which was built on a peninsula surrounded by the ocean, Nakagusuku with its six courtyards and unique stacked stone walls, as well as Nakijin Castle which features sacred groves and cherry blossoms.

Capes

 If you’re on a road trip, you can check out Okinawa’s famous capes: Manza, Maeda, Hedo, and Zanpa. Each has its own unique attraction – Manza is famous for its elephant-shaped cliff, Maeda is known for its rock formations (and the access point to the famous Blue Cave dive site), Hedo is located on the northernmost tip of the island, and Zanpa is known for its lighthouse. All of these are great for watching sunsets.

MIYAKO-JIMA

Miyako-jima is practically pancake-flat and easy to get around. The main draw here is its soft sandy beaches which are protected by bays, making the entire island suitable for snorkelling, and best enjoyed from April to November when the water is warm. Popular beaches include Maehama’s white sand beach, Sunayama’s rock formations, and Yoshino’s beach which is a coral reef. 

The most famous dive site on this island is Yabiji – it’s nicknamed ‘Phantasmal Island’ as it’s only exposed to open air once a year. This reef shelf is home to the largest cluster of coral reefs in Japan. With over 100 coral mounds and pinnacles, it’s covered with table corals and branch- shaped corals where reef fish live. 

Photo Credits: Saori K (JNTO)

ISHIGAKI ISLAND

Ishigaki is famous for its beaches, and as the jumping-off point for excursions to nearby islands like Iriomote and Taketomi. An interesting site on the island is the Ishigaki Limestone Cave, a natural formation created over 200,000 years boasting gigantic stalactites and stalagmites, as well as giant clam fossils all beautifully illuminated in bright colours. 

Ishigaki itself is also worth exploring for its number of dive sites – perhaps the most famous is the Manta Scramble (or Manta Point) located near the town of Kabira which is popular for leisure seekers. 

As its name suggests, it’s an area where mantas congregate near the coast to feed and be cleaned by remoras that frequent the reefs. The sight of these graceful giants hovering above the coral reef is truly one to behold. The site is suitable for divers of all levels, and the mantas visit year-round. 

IRIOMOTE

Iriomote is Japan’s southernmost national park, synonymous with mangroves, wildlife, and even hot springs. You can go hiking, kayaking, or fishing. Plenty of outfitters offer adventure tours; the most popular involves an easy kayak up the Urauchi River, followed by a short jungle hike to the waterfall. Another popular tour is a bullock cart ride to Yubu-jima, a small island separated from Iriomote by a sandy strait. 

Iriomote is legendary among the Japanese for the yamaneko – a very rare “mountain cat” that exists only on this island. While it’s difficult to see this nocturnal feline, you may spot manta rays on Manta Way (the strait between Iriomote and Kohama Island) where they congregate in spring and summer. 

TAKETOMI

Accessible only by ferries from Ishigaki island, the tiny island of Taketomi is famous for historic houses that are built in traditional Ryukyu style. These abodes feature stone walls and red tiled-roofs adorned with the ubiquitous shisa. Often seen perched atop homes, walls, and temples across Okinawa, shisa figures were first brought over from China in the 14th century when Okinawa was the Ryukyu kingdom. 

These ubiquitous guardian lion-dog statues always come in pairs – one has an open mouth to ward off evil spirits while the other has a closed mouth to keep good spirits in. There is also a variation where a shisa has a sphere under one paw to symbolise a concentration of wealth and bountiful crops.

Photo Credits: Saori K (JNTO)

The island is small enough to walk or cycle; there are bullock cart tours where the driver also performs on the sanshin (a traditional string instrument). To get a view of the entire island, climb the 4.5m-tall Nagominoto Tower in the middle of the village. 

The ‘star sand’ beaches of Kaiji and Hoshizuna are also popular, as the sand is actually made up of teeny, tiny skeletons of starfish-like creatures.

ZAMAMI-JIMA

A hilly island, Zamami-jima is popular for its marine life, especially humpback whales. Boat tours run from January to March when these giants come to Okinawa’s warmer waters to breed. You can also try to catch sight of the whales from one of three observatories on the island. 

Zamami-jima is a 1-hour ferry ride from Okinawa, with a stopover on Aka Island which is home to the unique Kerama deer – a subspecies of Japanese deer that is able to swim between the islands. Another famous animal here is Shiro, a dog who swam the strait to Zamami to meet his love, Marilyn. Both are immortalised as statues: Shiro is on Aka, and Marilyn on Zamami, both looking out across the ocean at each other. 

YONAGUNI

Yonaguni is the furthest island from mainland Japan and is actually a lot closer to Taiwan, therefore it’s also the last place in Japan to experience the sunset. To add to the frontier feel, there are no hospitals, banks, high school, or even book stores. The island is known for its diving scene, its remoteness, its cliffs, its miniature horses, and most especially for its marlins. 

Being so close to the cold underwater currents, fishermen here haul the largest catch of kajiki (marlin) in Japan, making this tiny island the country’s authority on the big fish. Not surprisingly, you can dine on everything marlin here – from marlin sashimi to marlin hotpot and everything in between. 

If you’re in the mood to catch your own fish, there are live bait fishing tours where you have to first catch bonito and tuna as bait, and then float them while trawling for your predatory marlin. The marlin season is from February to November, and most operators can also fillet and pack your catch for an extra fee. 

Yonaguni is also famous for its dive scene, as it’s one of the best places in the region to see hundreds of hammerhead sharks when they cruise along the underwater currents in winter from January to February. However, the biggest underwater attraction lies just offshore: ruins thought by many to be proof of an ancient advanced civilisation – dubbed ‘Atlantis’ or ‘Yonaguni Pyramid’, a debate is ongoing to determine whether they’re natural or manmade. 

Due to strong currents and waves, only experienced divers can see these ruins, with their angular blocks and stair-like structure, up close but even non-divers can have a brief peek at these structures from a glass-bottomed boat. 

In addition to its ocean attractions, the island is surrounded by picturesque cliffs with offshore rock formations and rolling grasslands which are home to rare Yonaguni horses. Barely 4 feet tall, there are only about 100 of these free-roaming horses on the island. 

 

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