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Southern islands offer adventure, quiet

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2012-06-29

The names are as exotic as the islands themselves –Iriomote, Ishigaki, Irabu, Yonaguni and Hateruma are a few—but a break from life on Okinawa’s main island opens up customs, culture, history and beauty that few have ever even imagined.

There’s plenty to see and do anywhere in Okinawa Prefecture, but there comes a time to break out of the familiar comfort zone, become adventurous, and explore a few breathtaking regions of the southern zone.

And getting there is now cheaper and more convenient than ever. A good place to check prices and special offers is Okinawa Tourland Hotel Booking website at http://eng.tourland.co.jp

Miyako Islands

The Miyako Island group consists of eight main islands --Miyako, Ikema, Kurima, Irabu, Shimoji, Oogami, Tarama and Minna Island-- located about 300 kilometers southwest of the mainland and 2,000km from Tokyo. It’s a sparsely populated set of islands, with only about 55,000 people occupying the total land area of 164 square kilometers.

Miyako Island is almost flat, filled with sugar cane fields spread throughout the entire area, and blessed with a lot of as white beaches, beautiful shoreline and coral reefs. The biggest coral reef group in Japan is located north of the island, called “Yaebiji”, and it is well known as a diving and snorkeling point. On Miyako Island, there are plenty of beautiful beaches where visitors are able to enjoy sunbathing and snorkeling, or just spending relaxing time looking at the unbelievably turquoise and highly transparent ocean.

The real excitement is the pleasure of snorkeling and watching colorful tropical fish swimming among the coral reefs close at hand. There are tours to a coral reef by boat or kayak to do snorkeling, and there are many diving shops that deal with snorkeling tours. And that’s where it gets even more special. Working with the dive shops, guides will go with you and teach you basics of snorkeling, so, it is safe.

There are seven other inhabited islands around Miyako Island; Ikema and Kurima islands are connected to Miyako by bridges, and thus accessible by car, and Irabu and Shimoji will soon be connected to Miyako by a 3,500-meter long bridge, the second longest in Japan. Oogami is a tiny island off Miyako’s east coast, and Tarama and Minna islands are halfway between Miyako Yaeyama island Group further south-east.

To Irabu Island, it’s possible to sail across by ship from Hirara port while the new bridge is being completed. Irabu and Shimoji Island are linked by several bridges built over a narrow waterway. Irabu Island and Miyako Island will be linked by bridges later this year.

To Oogami Island, you can sail by a small boat, and to Tarama Island travel is by ship or airplane. For Minna Island, where there’s only one family now living, you need to charter a boat at Tarama Island. To Irabu Island, it’s about 10 minutes by passenger speed boat and about 25 minutes by a ferry from Hirara port. To Tarama Island, about 2 hours 30 minutes from Hirara port, but Ryukyu Air Commuter flies regularly to Tarama Island in about 20 minutes.

There is no bus to Hirara Port Marine Terminal, so, if you want to go to Hirara Port from Miyako Airport, you need to use a taxi or go by bus to center of Miyakojima City, formerly known as Hirara, and walk to the port. To Hirara port from Nishizato Street bus stop at central city of Miyako Island, it is about 1 km and about 20-minute walk.

Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Skymark all fly to Miyako from Naha City, about a half-hour flying time. The lowest air fare, one way, is currently \2,800.

Ishigaki Island

Still farther south, almost to Taiwan, are Ishigaki Island, central Island of theYaeyama Islands group, located about 410 km from Okinawa’s mainland and about 2000km from Tokyo. It’s often called a ‘Paradise Island far away from Japan Mainland.’ Ishigaki city is located at 24.3°N, and on a surprising note, the latitude is almost same with the Bahamas.

Ishigaki Island that belongs to can be defined as a true subtropical climate where tourists can enjoy beautiful beaches and coral reefs throughout the year.

Ishigaki Island’s a reasonably small 229 square kilometers, and is the second largest, next to Iriomote Island, in the famed Yaeyama Islands. The population of Ishigaki is about 48,000 people, large compared to other islands of the group. Most Ishigaki islanders live in the urban district at the southern part of the Island.

Ishigaki Island boasts plenty of good points for diving, and the island is one of the best places in the world to watch mantas. The ocean temperature is warm throughout the year, a balmy 21C/70F in winter and about 29C/84F in summer, and because of that, snorkeling, diving and watching coral reefs around the island can be done anytime.

On Ishigaki Island, there are a lot of local foods that are popular with tourists. Above all, Ishigaki beef is very popular not only in the islands, but throughout Japan. Although very expensive, the quality of the meat is the highest grade.

Yaeyama-soba is popular with tourists, and Yaeyama-soba’s taste and texture are different from the soba eaten on the mainland.

Awamori is Okinawa’s local liquor, and Ishigaki Island has its exclusive Awamori brands, all loved by local residents. Give the awamori a try during a trip, but be aware that many are 25~60% alcohol.

Ishigaki Island is a part of Japan, but its traditional culture and life style are different. Festivals such as Haarii, and a year filled with festivals throughout the spring to summer, and traditional musical instruments such as Sanshin add to the Yaeyama culture. A visit to the Yaeyama islands make you feel you’re living really relaxed compared with living in large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.

It goes without saying that in an island group surrounded by water, boats are the means for sailing from Ishigaki Island. Everything’s reasonably close, depending on the type boat. Navigation around Yaeyama Islands to Hateruma Island takes 50 minutes, to Yonaguni Island about 4 hours, to Iriomote Island 35 ~ 40 minutes, to Kohama Island 25 minutes, Kuroshima Island 25 minutes, Taketomi Island 10 minutes, and to Hatoma Island 2 hours 10 minutes.

Plenty of events and activities take place year around in the Yaeyamas. Try some of these on for size:

The Ishigaki Island Triathlon is a big event, well known internationally, and a triathlon that attracts top class athletes from all over the world. It’s probably the biggest day of the year on the island, and around Tonoshiro port everything heats up by thousands of visitors who cheer the athletes on a nearby road. The event is held on the last Sunday of April at Tonoshiro port.

The Orion Beer Fest starts at 3:30 p.m. but almost all people go to the event a few hours late, as the main event starts in the evening. Orion beer is brewed on Okinawa’s main island and sponsors the fest. The fest is made up of a lot of performances such as traditional Okinawan dance, foreign performers playing keyboard and mimicing famous rock’ n’ rollers. And at the end of the main event professional live bands and solo singers perform.

Two airline companies fly to Ishigaki Island: ANA and Japan Transocean Air. Ryukyu Air Commuter, which specializes in the southern region of Okinawa Prefecture flights, also fly to Ishigaki Island. The trip from Naha to Ishigaki takes 55 minutes.

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