Story Okinawa: Island Hopping by JNTO on 4 January 2018
Okinawa comprises a collection of islands that dot southern Japan, and island hopping is a great way to experience each island’s unique personality. From Okinawa’s main island, you can get to other islands by ferry or flight.
Miyako-jima is practically pancake-flat and easy to get around. The main draw here are 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.
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.
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 an closed mouth to keep good spirits in. There is also a variation where a shisa has a sphere under one paw to symbolize a concentration of wealth and bountiful crops.
The island is small enough to walk or cycle; there are bullock cart tours where the driver also performs on a traditional string instrument called the sanshin. 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.
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 (and immortalised in the movie ‘Marilyn ni Aitai’). Both are immortalised as statues: Shiro is on Aka, and Marilyn on Zamami, both looking out across the ocean at each other.