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Yaeyama, Miyako lure visitors with beauty and intrigue

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2005-09-01

Coral reefs, crystal clear waters and countless varieties of colorful fish are the tip of the iceberg for visitors to Okinawa’s southernmost region.

The Miyako Island chain is roughly 300 kilometers south of the prefecture’s main island, and the Yaeyama island group is another 120 milometers farther south. Their customs, culture and history long predate their relationship with Japan, tending to be more allied with the south Asian communities.

Venturing south takes visitors from the everyday world to something special. Exotic, pristine, untouched lands that beckon one to simply slow the world’s pace down, relax and enjoy. It is on these islands that vacationers can control the pace. It is paradise for scuba divers and snorkelers, yet equally so for those with an equestrian bent, or hiking and exploring.

And did we mention shopping? Ishigaki, heart of the Yaeyama islands, is the world’s leader in cultured black pearls. The lustrous pearls, which once lined the crowns of ancient royalty, are cultured in Kabira Bay, not far from the world renowned Club Med. Black pearls are nurtured, with a nudge from gemologists, to form in a variety of brilliant colors, shapes and sizes. As with any gem, those characteristics can lead to purchases ranging from inexpensive to the tens of thousands of dollars.

From Okinawa, Miyako’s eight inhabited islands are a short 45 minutes air flight away. Hirara City, the main island’s largest, is modern and the hub for sightseeing, diving and simple relaxing. Ueno German Culture Village is a popular tourist spot on the southern edge of the island. Sunayama Beach, translated to mean ‘sand mountain’, is only a few minutes from the city.

Along with pristine waters, there are natural caves worth exploring, and simply basking in the tropical sunshine is another option. Miyako Island also has several Capes worthy of note. Cape Nishihenna on the northern tip has a windmill electric power research facility, but more importantly, tremendous sunsets. Cape Higashihenna, voted one of the 100 most scenic spots in Japan, is home to a 200 meter high, two kilometer cliff.

The seven other inhabited islands are easily accessible from Hirara City. They are a diver’s dream, and photographers tend to go gaa-gaa at the opportunities, too. Ikema, Shimoji and Irabu islands offer a glimpse into Okinawa’s past, as men toil as fishermen, or work in seafood processing plants while the women tend to the farms. The nearly one-mile long Okashi Bridge connects Miyako with Ikema. Shimoji and Irabu Islands, which sit alongside each other, are a brief ferryboat ride away.

Ishigaki, hub of the 29islands known as the Yaeyamas, lies 429 kilometers from Okinawa. It is the prefecture’s closest point to Taiwan, which is only 45 minutes away. Nine are inhabited, but most can be visited by boats and with organized groups. Each island has its own distinctive customs and culture dating back centuries, with music and folklore varying from locale to locale.

Kabira Bay, on Ishigaki’s north side, is the perfect travel destination. Crystal white sands, translucent blue waters, and panoramic views of islands in the distance abound. In those clear waters are more than 250 species of tropic fish meandering through the coral reefs. Whether a diver, or a tourist on a glass bottom boat, they are for you to enjoy. Giant mantas and devil rays ply the waters, offering spectacular photo opportunities.

Before venturing the the outer islands, there are several more shopping specialties in Ishigaki. Kariyushi clothing apparel styles, colors and textiles vary from area to area in Okinawa, and the local specialty is known as Minsa. Ishigaki’s pattern is unique, even adopted for wear by the Japanese Prime Minister. Ishigaki / Yaeyama pottery is a beauty as well, featuring deep transparent blues with subtle patterns glazed into the plates, dishes, vases and bowls.

Iriomote the largest island in the Yaeyama group, is 80% jungle and is considered the least explored locale in Japan. Some have tagged it the ‘Galapagos of Japan’ and its natural beauty is magnified by rare trees, plants and rain forests. Boat tours up the Urauchi River, the longest and largest in Okinawa at 39 kilometers, are popular.

Taketomi Island, only a speedy ten minutes by boat from Ishigaki, is a floral delight with bouganvillea and hibiscus above the waters and colorful coral reefs beneath. The beach sand, called ‘star sand’, is cool and soft on the feet. And one cannot be a diver and bypass Yonaguni, the most western location in Japan.

Yonaguni has countless undersea ruins that challenge divers. It’s a four-hour ride from Ishigaki Port, but it’s a diver’s mecca.

Getting There

Air travel from Naha Domestic Airport is easy and relatively inexpensive. Rising fuel costs continue changing prices, but it’s roughly Y16,000 round trip to Miyako, and about Y24,000 to Ishigaki. Several airlines serve each location with multiple flights daily. Those wanting on-the-ground access can take ferries from Naha to Miyako or Ishigaki, with prices ranging from Y7,000~20,000 depending on vessel size, accommodations and vehicle. There are also flights from Ishigaki to Yonaguni.

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