Things to do in Japan’s Yaeyama Islands
When you think about Japan, images of geisha, delicious sushi and beautiful temples will most likely spring to mind. But what about tropical islands, pristine reefs, secluded beaches and jungles? Head a thousand miles south of Tokyo and you stumble upon a less talked-about Japanese destination: the Yaeyama Islands.
The Yaeyama Islands
The Yaeyama Islands make up the southernmost inhabited archipelago of Japan, some 2,000 kilometres (1,242 miles) south of Tokyo. They form part of the Okinawa Prefecture and are the remotest part of the country. They are untouched and offer a complete change of scenery in a subtropical climate. We visited the three main islands, each offering a range of things to do: Ishigaki, the main one, and an ideal base for scuba diving trips, Taketomi for beach fun, and Iriomote for adventure.
We are extremely passionate about scuba diving and snorkelling. This was the main reason we found out about the Yaeyama islands in the first place
Scuba Diving on Ishigaki Island
Ishigaki is the main transport hub into the Yaeyama islands with daily flights to/from Tokyo and Kyoto. Most will base themselves here. The two main activities on Ishigaki include the Yaima Cultural Village and the world-class scuba diving trips on offer.
We are extremely passionate about scuba diving and snorkelling. This was the main reason we found out about the Yaeyama islands in the first place. There’s an excellent underwater world to discover here, some based around Ishigaki, others you can reach on a day trip with a diving school. Must see highlights include:
Manta Rays Scramble – This is a cleaning station near Kabira Beach on Ishigaki. You’re almost guaranteed to spot Manta Rays from spring to autumn, particularly June to September.
Baras Island – The coral around Baras island is one of the best for exploring the underwater world. Baras island itself is a tiny island made of a debris of coral chips.
The Yonaguni Monument – this is a submerged rock formation, off the coast of Yonaguni Island and considered Japan’s underwater “Pyramid”. Since its discovery in the 1980s, it’s caused a lot of controversy because experts can’t determine if it is natural or man-made. Recent scientific research suggests it could be the remains of an underwater city called Mu, dating back at least 5,000 years.
Hammerhead sharks – The Yonaguni Monument also attracts its share of Hammerhead sharks, which can be spotted throughout the year, particularly between December to February.
Yaima Village on Ishigaki Island is a large centre showcasing the best of the local Ryukyu culture. It is an authentic replica of a Yaeyama Island-style village as it would have been before modern influences. The cultural centre has live performances with interactive dances and sanshin (similar to a banjo) players showcasing their art. The Ryukyu have their own unique style of kimonos, which are on display for you to try on. These kimonos are unique because they are much brighter and more colourful than those from the mainland. They appealed to our Nomadic Boys aesthetic wonderfully.
Other than dressing up, our other favourite activity at the cultural village was playing with the cute squirrel monkeys, endemic to the area. They do not bite and are completely safe to interact with. They will climb on you and take selfies with you before trying to chew on your selfie stick.
We would never have associated Japan with a beach holiday, but right here on Taketomi’s beaches
Taketomi is a tiny inhabited island, just a few miles south-west of Ishigaki and only 1km long. The village of Taketomi is crying out to fill your Instagram gallery. It has maintained its traditional charm from the Ryukyu Kingdom, with red-tiled one-storey houses down the narrow lanes, each lined with white coral walls and the roofs decorated with shiisaa good luck figurines.
Taketomi also has some impressive beaches, in particular, Kaiji Beach, famous for its tiny star-shaped sand, and Kondoi Beach. We would never have associated Japan with a beach holiday, but right here on Taketomi’s beaches, you can soak up the tropical Japanese sunshine.
Taketomi is small and flat, which makes it ideal for cycling. Bike rentals are widely available, and it only takes a few hours to cycle around the entire island. There are frequent ferries from Ishigaki, which take only 10-15 minutes, so it’s well worth a day trip.
Iriomote Island is also ideal for snorkelling as it is surrounded by coral reef. As a bonus, some of the many coves and inlets reveal several hidden deserted beaches
Iriomote is Japan’s jungle island and the place to go for adventure seekers. It is one of the largest of the Yaeyama islands, but the least populated, with only 2,000 inhabitants. There’s more nature than people spread across this large island as well as an abundance of wildlife ranging from wild boars, pretty butterflies and the elusive Iriomote cat.
Iriomote Island is also ideal for snorkelling as it is surrounded by coral reef. As a bonus, some of the many coves and inlets reveal several hidden deserted beaches. But the real highlight is the jungle inland. A typical day of adventure on Iriomote would include kayaking through the tropical rivers, surrounded by mangroves, then stopping by a waterfall for a packed lunch. We had ours at the base of the famous Pinaisara Waterfall, where you can also swim in the pool of water at the foot of the falls. There are several decent jungle trails through the dense vegetation also worth exploring. Our favourite was the one running parallel to the Pinaisara Waterfall, up the mountain to the top where you’re rewarded with an incredible view across the archipelago.
A trip to the Yaeyama Islands is extremely worthwhile. It’s like being on your favourite Thai island, but without the mass tourism. At least for now. Go soon before the word gets out!
Photo: Nomadic Boys
Pinaisara Waterfall Iriomote | Photo: Nomadic Boys