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Island-hopping in southern Japan: Ishigaki, Iriomote, Taketomi and Hateruma by ferry

Updated on March 30, 2014
Rice fields and granite mountains. A scene from Route 79 along Ishigaki's north shore.
Rice fields and granite mountains. A scene from Route 79 along Ishigaki's north shore.
Traditional house on Hateruma-jimi with coral limestone typhoon walls.
Traditional house on Hateruma-jimi with coral limestone typhoon walls.
Typhoon walls and traditional house on Taketomi-jimi.
Typhoon walls and traditional house on Taketomi-jimi.
Jungle below Kampira falls, Iriomote.
Jungle below Kampira falls, Iriomote.
Beach on Hateruma's north shore. Bicyles are the best way to get around this island.
Beach on Hateruma's north shore. Bicyles are the best way to get around this island.
Looking past fellow tourists across a water buffalo's back towards Iriomotes's mountains.
Looking past fellow tourists across a water buffalo's back towards Iriomotes's mountains.
Buffalo-driven carts to Yufu Island.
Buffalo-driven carts to Yufu Island.
Peace Bell Park Ishigaki-City.
Peace Bell Park Ishigaki-City.
One of a few monuments marking Japan's southernmost spot. Hateruma-jimi.
One of a few monuments marking Japan's southernmost spot. Hateruma-jimi.

Ishigaki, Iriomote, Taketomi, and Hateruma by ferry

Most visitors to Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, don’t go beyond the shores of the namesake island. However, Okinawa prefecture is far flung and includes islands that are strung out across almost 600 kilometers of ocean. Okinawa island is the largest and most populated in the Ryukyu island group and of Okinawa prefecture, but there are other groups of islands in Okinawa prefecture. The Yaeyamas, for instance. The Yaeyamas are closer to Taiwan than Okinawa. From the western most island of the group, Yonaguni, it is possible to see the rugged coast of Taiwan on a clear day, which is only 70 kilometers distant. Yonaguni is also Japan’s westernmost piece of land and famous for the submerged formations off shore, whose origin is unknown. The Yaeyamas also claim Japan’s southernmost inhabited island, Hateruma. Other well-known islands in the group are Ishigaki, the most populated; Iriomote, the wildest; and Taketomi, the most historic.

Getting to these islands is relatively simple by plane. Since Ishigaki is a major tourist destination, regularly scheduled commercial flights arrive daily from Okinawa and mainland Japan. When we visited the Yaeyamas in March 2006 we decided to take the ferry. We wanted to save money and we had enough time for such travel which requires 14 hours between Naha, Okinawa and IshigakiCity. Two ferry lines ply the waters between the various ports: the RKK line and Arimura Sangyo. The latter was a bit cheaper and suited our return schedule better. The former is slightly faster. They only run about once a week and the Arimura line goes all the way to Keeling, Taiwan (ROC). Both ferry lines essentially provide passenger service to most of the inhabited islands of the entire Japanese archipelago from Kagoshima, Japan to Keeling, ROC.

We boarded in the evening in Naha with our luggage and three year old son, Nicholas. The berths were simple: a space for sleeping with a pull away curtain for privacy. There are also private cabins which cost a bit more. I didn’t sleep well mostly because my son was restless and couldn’t settle down. A short stop on Miyako-jima at about 4:00 am discharged and took in more passengers. By first light I was up wandering the decks and anticipating the views of various islets and islands along the way. By 10:00 am Ishigaki-jima was visible and people started to que for the exit. Without much sleep, we embarked and walked to our hotel, the Sleep Inn, which was close to the port. After checking in we headed to Kabira Bay, which is well known for its pearl harvesting. Since we didn’t pack our car on the ferry we settled for the bus pass which cost 4000 Japanese Yen for the week per adult. Kids are free, which is often the case anywhere and for anything in Japan. This trip proved disappointing with the exception of the outstanding views of the turquoise water, which by the way, you are not allowed to swim in because of the pearl beds. Glass bottom boats offer an alternative for the curious. The most interesting thing we experienced this day was the bus trip which traveled across the island’s beautiful scenery. Sea cliffs, mountains, mangrove forests, and beautiful coastline are spectacular. On the way we passed by the unique Chinese temple which commemorates 400 Chinese coolies shipwrecked on Ishigaki and also known as the Tang People’s Grave. It was back to the comforts of our hotel room and then back out into the city of Ishigaki to explore. There’s not much in the city except the usual shopping, hotels, and a busy port, which has a network of ferries to other nearby islands.

The next day was our first full day in the Yaeyamas. We were better rested and with our son in tow, we headed to the ferry terminal to catch one of the hourly boats to Taketomi-jima, a fifteen minute ride. A leaf-shaped island, Taketomi is visible from Ishigaki. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered a monument to living history. The island is flat, so we rented bicycles. This was a great relief because of our son, who enjoyed riding in the kid’s seat. Even so, it’s an easy walk from the ferry terminal to the center of the village. The uniqueness of Taketomi village is the structures. All have the traditional brick roofs and wooden frames. Typhoon walls made of stacked coral limestone buffer against the gale force winds that occur frequently from June to November. The only building on the island that is not built to historical code, other than a few bathrooms along the public beaches, is the school. Not unique to Taketomi exclusively are the omnipresent Shisa lions atop the homes that ward off evil spirits. These are found all over Okinawa prefecture in both old and new buildings. Taketomi is a big draw for the Japanese tourist and most go for the cart rides through the village driven by water buffalo. Water buffalos are more than just a tourist attraction in the Yaeyamas: they are primarly used by farmers to plough fields, so their function is more than a recreational ornamental. They are relatively common in Taiwan as well but I did not see any in the Ryukyus (Okinawa) while I was there. The roads through the central part of the village are sand, which makes it difficult for bicycles, but you can ride around the entire island and access the beaches easily by bike. Apparently snorkeling is good, especially on the west side of Taketomi, but the water and weather were a bit out of season.

The next day we decided on visiting Iriomote-jima. About an hour by ferry from IshigakiCity, Iriomote is often called the ‘New Guinea of Japan’. Its granite mountains, jungles, mangrove-lined rivers, and small population allow for such a vivid comparison. It’s perhaps best known for the elusive and nocturnal Iriomote wild cat, discovered only in the 1960s. There are maybe 150 cats total and they are exclusively found on the island. Comparatively speaking it’s a large island, and only has 5000 human inhabitants. There is a road that rings most of the island, but no roads penetrate the rugged interior. There are a few resorts along the coast, but they don’t take away from the wild scenery and they are built in secluded spots without the mega-resort branding. Our venture to Iriomote was challenged by our own lack of transportation to see the island so we opted for one of the packaged Japanese tours. We were reluctant because these tours are notorious for herding tourists on a tightly scheduled and highly structured itinerary. This was not our idea of experiencing Iriomote. Another thing we couldn’t help was the soggy spring weather, which is unpredictable for this time of year. The first stop was the boat trip which went up one of the mangrove rivers. It was interesting, but the rainy weather made the granite mountains barely visible. After a thirty minute ride, we disembarked to begin a hike to the waterfalls. It was more like a sprint. I ran up the steep trails with Nicholas on my back, took a few photos of Maryudo and Kampira waterfalls, and turned back to reach the waiting boats. Thereafter lunch was in order at the Nirakanai Wildlife Sanctuary Resort. The only thing wild I noticed was the leech sucking on my left shin which I must have picked up on the power hike to the falls. Since the critter was snacking on my blood for at least an hour, it was hard to dislodge, and when I did, it took a few band aids to stop the reservoir of blood from my leg. The next stop on our packaged view-it-all tour was clearly the biggest waste of time. Many of the beaches in the Yaeyamas are “famous” for their star-shaped sand. While this minute phenomena is interesting, it’s really nothing that intrigues me. The Japanese eat it up. Iriomote’s Hoshizuna beach is one of these reputed places, so in order to placate the tourist from Tokyo, a stop was on the itinerary for combing the sands in search of these star-shaped “gems”. The irony was not lost on one older Japanese retiree I noticed, who walked to the beach, shoveled a couple loads of sand in a plastic bag, turned around and went back to the bus. That’s efficiency. While many of the tourists sifted the sand meticulously looking for their four-leaf clovers, the old man decided he would just do the sifting on his own terms. It was amusing. When we returned to the bus the driver looked at my shoes and mumbled something and pointed at my feet. You didn’t have to understand much Japanese to know that he wanted me to clean my shoes off. Wet sand? I didn’t hear him taking exception to anyone else’s shoes. The last stop was probably the most fun although no less touristy than the others. Yufu island (also spelled 'Yubu') sits a few hundred yards off Iriomote and at low tide you can easily wade across the mud flats. Today water buffalo driven carts do the wading pulling cart loads of tourists to the island which has a botanical garden. The botanical garden is nothing special. It seems that it’s there just because the buffalos need to pull you to some destination. Build it and they will come, huh? Yufu was the last stop on the whirlwind tour of Iriomote. While I wouldn’t recommend a tour of this sort, it was better than not going. The most characteristic image of my eight hours on the island was one view I got from the bus ride. On one side of the road was the shore, on the other, the rain and fog soaked side of a mountain with a half score of waterfalls draining the island’s saturated interior. This scene is what I had imagined Iriomote to be and it did not disappoint.

We headed for Hateruma the next day. The weather was better but the ocean was still at odds with the front that had moved out the day before. About an hour and a quarter ferry ride south of Ishigaki the small island, ringed by sea cliffs, is rather non-descript. Its native population of curious white goats and friendly farmers are eclipsed by its location on a map. This location distinguishes Hateruma as the most southerly inhabited piece of land in Japan at 24º2’25”N latitude. And so they come, the steady stream of Japanese tourists who go to the monument, which marks the spot, and pay homage by taking their pictures. There is also an observatory close by. The island’s southern latitude is within range of spotting the Southern Cross constellation in the night sky. The monument didn’t hold any special power for me. The scene from where it stands is nothing extraordinary either. Yet I came for the same reason as the others – to stand at Japan’s most southern point with the qualifier that it is on a habitable island. Otherwise the laurels would go to the coral atoll in the Philippine Sea known as Okinotorishima located at 20º25’N latitude, which, by the way, is contested by China. What impressed me most about Hateruma was not this geographical extreme, but the relaxed feel. It was easy to bike around. White goats looked on as you passed by, and farmers in the field returned your waves with alacrity, smiles, and subtle bows. The beach on the north side of the island was also another pleasant surprise. Coral fringed, like most islands in Okinawa prefecture, the waters turned brilliant shades of blue. Iriomote’s mountains were just visible to the northwest. It would have been ideal for snorkeling but it was windy and out of season. One man was in a wet suit but he was struggling to keep the water out of his snorkel because of the wind-driven swells. The return ferry proved to be no less calming than the trip down. The boat was catching air and slamming the water’s surface hard. I thought it would just break apart but the captain came out looked at us and just laughed and smiled at one point as if to reassure us. Maybe he was used to it but I was in no mood to think about deploying life vests, especially with my three year old aboard. We eventually made it back to Ishigaki’s port – relieved that we could feel gravity underfoot.

The final full day on the island was spent exploring more of Ishigaki, in particular its scenic north coast. Bordered by mountains, beautiful beaches are accessible from Route 79. We took the bus to Yonehara from the bus terminal. Overlooking the East China Sea, Yonehara is probably more active during the summer months. We walked the empty beaches and then headed back to the road. From there we walked along Route 79 for almost an hour towards KabiraBay, where we were the first day on the islands. Our walk was highlighted by the beautiful butterflies and granite mountains. Rice paddies, something you don’t see much of on Okinawa proper, reminded me more of mainland Japan. Eventually we caught the bus to Kabira Bay and headed back into Ishigaki City. There, we briefly visited one of the historical homes, the Miyaradunchi House, and headed back to the hotel. The Miyaradunchi House is one exception to the otherwise concrete city of Ishigaki. Located a few blocks north of downtown, this homestead is one of the few historic structures in the city. In the evening we went to the Peace Bell Park, located a couple blocks from the Sleep Inn where we retired early in anticipation of the long ferry ride back to Okinawa the next day. The return ferry leaves on Thursday morning from Ishigaki. An hour stop in Miyako-jima four hours later allowed me to take a few pictures of the port from the boat. From there it was another nine and one half hours to Naha, Okinawa.

We were happy to get off the ferry and return home. It was a memorable trip but after most trips, I usually I have an idea of what we could have done better. For this trip time-management and mode of transportation was a problem, but surprisingly it was not the overnight ferry that made me think twice. Instead, we ate up a lot of time waiting for buses and were unable to see a number of sites because of the bus schedules, particularly on Ishigaki island. In retrospect I would have paid the extra money and put our car on the ferry. It would have eliminated all of the hassle of walking to the bus station and we would have been able to explore the island in much greater detail. The second of three points, was the guided tour to Iriomote. Maybe it was just the soggy weather, but we should have opted for another tour that explored different aspects of the island, or again, packed our own car for the day. Finally, I would recommend bringing bicycles since many of the islands such as Taketomi and Hateruma are small and can be easily explored by bike. The bikes for rent are functional and of course you have to rent them every time unless you have your own. Finally, if you are interested in swimming or snorkeling, it's better to go from May to early October, although the weather is hot and humid. There’s always a next time and more islands and places out there in Okinawa prefecture that I did not see. Perhaps I’ll know better next time.


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