Japan is typified by its bustling metropoles and the non-stop, hectic pace that beats throughout its major cities. Within the country, however, are pockets of serenity, where the slow life takes precedence over the rush. One such enclave is the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa, a paradisical group of 23 islands in the south of Japan that touts a tropical climate year-round, bucket-list-worthy natural escapades, and a unique amalgamation of cultures that makes it the complete opposite to any other part of the country.
Okinawa itself is a trove of tranquillity, and the Yaeyama Islands are its greatest treasure. We take you through the major islands of the Yaeyama archipelago in this guide, picking out some of its must-dos and must-sees when you find yourself heading towards the Land of the Rising Sun again.
The Ishigaki Islands are known as the gateway to the rest of the Yaeyama archipelago, given its largess and its accessibility from the Okinawan mainland. The beautiful cluster of islands is home to some of the best diving spots in the whole of Japan, so if you dive or are keen to learn how to, you can expect colourful expanses of coral reef and marine life to greet you once submerged. Booking a tour is best, as you’ll have an experienced guide and a boat to ferry you to the different diving areas within Ishigaki. Most also offer a visit to Hama-jima Island, a 10km stretch of pristine sand and sea just off of Ishigaki, that is beloved by locals and tourists for how saturated the marine life is within the deep blue.
Ishigaki Islands have plenty to offer those who prefer to stay on land too. During the day, the land prides itself on having prime views of unblemished nature, from sweeping panoramas of the sea and sun-bleached beaches on Kabira Bay, and a number of secret beaches to explore, such as Fusaki and Sukuji. By night, Ishigaki boasts one of the best views of the night sky on earth, with 84 out of the 88 modern constellations twinkling above your head once the sun goes down.
Foodies will also find Ishigaki a treat. Not only is Okinawa’s unique cuisine rampant, but Ishigaki is a major beef producer that rivals Kobe, and the wagyu available on the island is believed to be even better.
If you thought the Okinawan mainland exemplified island-life zen, you clearly have not been to Taketomi Island. This humble islet makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time in slow-motion, given its rural setting and pace.
Accessible via a ferry from Ishigaki Port, Taketomi Island is home to a traditional Japanese ryukyu village, with some of these red-roofed houses being bed-and-breakfasts you can stay in for an authentic, old-school Japan experience.
Taketomi Island is compact enough for cycling tours that can span half a day or less, given that it is only 5.42 square kilometres of land. Rent a bike and ride past the idyllic village, past the coastlines of Kondoi Beach, and down to the Nishi pier. It is definitely one of the most romantic destinations in Okinawa.
Nature junkies visiting the Yaeyama Islands should make Iriomote the top priority. 90 per cent of this massive island is the jungle, which has earned the designation of a national park. The tropical mass is the amalgamation of the sea, waterfalls, mountains and a mangrove, full of indigenous flora and fauna. You can spend a day trekking the park or canoeing down its various water bodies and still leave with the sense that you have not seen enough.
In line with Iriomote’s nature, most of the accommodation on-site are eco-resorts, though many travellers don’t typically stay overnight, preferring Iriomote Island as a day destination. Whichever your pick is, this breathtaking destination will not disappoint.