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Seiren call of outer islands lures visitors

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2005-07-22

The vast majority of Okinawa visitors spend their time on this main island without realizing they’re missing a giant chunk of the former Kingdom’s culture, history and beauty. Okinawa’s outer island groups beckon, but are often ignored in the hustle and bustle of tourists trying to see the castles, ruins, World War II Battle of Okinawa sites and doing the shopping. There are three groups of outer islands comprising Okinawa Prefecture; the islands which surround Okinawa Island with the capital city of Naha, the Yaeyama Group and the Miyako group.

More than 160 islands of varying size make up Okinawa, the Prefecture. Some 41 of these are inhabited, although many are still living in a rustic state compared with the more hectic pace of today’s modern society. Still, it is the ’40 years ago’ slower tempo that makes up a big part of their allure and beauty. It’s vacation season, the kids are out of school, and there’s no time better than August to venture away from the homestead to explore more of this Ryukyu Kingdom’s history and culture. Island Market offers thumbnail overview of travel opportunities, with detailed vacation and weekend exploration options on each of the areas in upcoming weeks.

The island chain stretches from Gushikawa Village in the north, only a few hundred kilometers south of Japan’s Kyushu Island, to Taketomi Town in Hateruma Island of the Yaeyama group in the far south. The Yaeyama’s half-dozen islands are only a short distance from Taiwan. For the record, Okinawa’s total population is only 1,485,000, with about 70% of its
residents living on this main island.

In and around Okinawa Island there are a dozen small islands reachable on a day adventure, ranging from Sesoko and Ie Islands on the northwest coats near Nago, to Hamahiga Island on the central east coast near Katsuren and White Beach. Each lends itself to sightseeing, cultural experiences, diving and snorkeling, and perhaps some shopping. Ie is the largest of the islands off the Motobu peninsula, bracketed by Sesoko and Minna to its south, and Izena and Iheya Islands to the north. It’s a part of the region’s resort strip, offering many of the western amenities to vacationers. Military recreation services offices often have special travel packages to these islands.

Ferries and commuter air flights are the key to reaching the principal islands to the west, south and east of Okinawa Island. Minami and Kita Daito Islands are the guardian islands to the east, an hour flying time from Naha. Kume Island, with pristine beaches and easily accessible marine sports, is a half-hour away. The Kerama Islands―Tokashiki, Zamami, Aguni and Tonaki―are perhaps the prefecture’s most popular dive locations. They are close enough to take tours and charters from Naha, and are also reachable by ferries or air for those wanting to stay a bit. Divers will want to know that Tokashiki has some of the most crystal clear waters in the world, boasting clarity to the 50-60 meter range.

Eight inhabited islands make up the Miyako Islands, roughly 300 kilometers south of Okinawa Island. Coral reefs are a drawing card for snorkelers and divers, with dozens of tropical fish species posing for those underwater snapshots. Professional baseball teams delight in the mild sub-tropical weather as a training site each year.

August 4th Island Market will explore the islands of Miyako, from botanical gardens to museums to villages. The islands are easy to reach, and promise visitors a superb time. August is festivals time across the prefecture and Miyako is no exception; there’s plenty to see and do, and a three-day weekend goes quickly.

The Yaeyama Island Group is to the far south, 430 kilometers from Naha. With Ishigaki Island and City at the hub, the nine inhabited islands provide everything from some of the most picturesque golf courses anywhere to insights into traditional arts and crafts.

Ishigaki has a Club Med facility, and military recreation services often have special deals to the island. Deep sea fishing for the giant maguro (tuna) is a day trip that leaves fishermen telling stories for ages about the big one that got away. The region’s waters are home to mantas, popular with divers. Another specialty is Ishigaki beef, home grown and exported to other prefectures within Japan. Many say it far surpasses Kobe beef as the country’s premium product.

Iriomote Island is a popular location for basking on pristine beaches, with Seisu Star Sand Beach getting a three thumbs up. There are waterfalls, mango forests, cliffs and palm groves, not to mention Iriomote Wildlife Center which will offer hours of pleasure.

Okinawa is filled with contrasts, and begs to be explored. The everyday life on Okinawa Island is wonderful, but paradise begins with travel to the outlying islands. Get the overnight bags, dive and snorkeling gear and cameras ready.

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