Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Yaeyama Island

Yaeyama Island

Original text By Priscilia Siew, photo adapted from google by darmansjah

 the lighthouse of Uganzaki is situated on one of ishigaki island’s most beautiful capes

I read the warning Japanese character by Japanese character, fearing that with the misinterpretation of any one word I may end up unfortunately surrendered to the forces of nature.

The message seems to be saying that flights will be cancelled from tomorrow. No surprise – I have, after all, spent the last days on the  Japan meteorological website nervously tacking typhoon movements.  There’s a typhoon spiraling from the Philippines and another from Vietnam. Both are forecasted to hit us here on the yaeyama islands in the coming days.

 you are more likely to come across grazing cows than people on Kuroshima island

And as we were flying across the enormous stretch of sea towards Ishigaki airport just moments ago, it wasn’t hard to see why typhoons are such a concern for the Yaeyama Island. A group  of nine islands making up Japan’s southernmost and westernmost corners, the Yaeyamas look like someone had carelessly flung a handful of tiny stones across the endless sea, leaving them fully vulnerable to the element.

Territorially, the islands are Japanese, placed under the administration of the Okinawa prefecture. Geographically, however, they are a long way from the rest of Japan, located even closer to Taiwan than to the main of island, and enjoy a the tropical climate and a laid-back island culture of their own.

The tiny airport on Ishigaki island is the Yaeyamas’ main gateway to the rest of Japan; to get to most other islands one has to take the ferry from Ishigaki.

So far-flung are these islands, they’ve managed to stay well-concealed from international attention. And perhaps the Japanese wouldn’t prefer it any other way. For nature-loving Japanese urbanites, the Yaeyama island are a secret paradise; their pristine white beaches and beautiful clear waters present an idyllic and rustic seclusion from the rest of the world.

And when a few weeks ago I decided that I needed a break from the city, this seemed like the perfect place to be. I would spend my first day on Ishigaki, where English generally is understood an grocery stores are available, then make my way to beautiful Hteruma island – Japan’s southernmost point, beyond which lies the Philipines – and Hatoma, a tiny, barely-inhabited island.

Beating The Typhoons To It

I  spot a tourist information counter. The officer on duty, a tanned, small-built lady, smiles kindly as I confess in a mix of  tentative Japanese and pared-down English that I don’t quite know what I’ve got my self into.

In fluent English and a warm voice, she tells me that my life is in no danger, but the boats to Hateruma and Hatoma have been cancelled – the winds are too strong, the waters too rough. Boats are still running to Kuroshima island, but no one knows for how much longer. And the next boat leaves in an hour.

I decide to beat the typhoons to it and head straight to Kuroshima – land of 2,000 cows and 200 islanders, the island that I had at first dismissed as “interesting but not so beautiful”.

A middle-aged man, very athletic looking an a little weather –beaten, has been listening in to our conversation with interest. He’s also going to Kuroshima, he says, but just for the day. His main purpose of the trip is to go snorkeling on Aragusukku, a tiny island surrounded by beautiful coral reefs, and with the impending typhoons he’ll have to hang around for a few days waiting for snorkeling tours to resume.

I am swiftly entrusted to his care and together we head off to Kuroshima.

If Ishigaki had looked like a resort town that,  although laid-back and unpretentious, caters to the visitor’s basic needs with a  thoughtful spread of small eateries and public transport, Kuroshima is where one truly lives the island life as the locals do.

 Top Kabira Bay is one of Ishigaki island’s nicest beaches 

 the southern-most point on Hateruma island

 view of the sea from Kuroshima island

the Kuroshima sea turtle lab

There are no hotels here; visitors stay in family-run accommodation called minshukus, which house up to a handful of travelers each time, providing tehm with a room to sleep in and usually two meals a day. There is agrocery store on the island, but it’s closed for the month – the owner is on holiday. An with just about 200 residents. Kuroshima has no need for public transport – to get around, one cycles or walks.

My new friend is a 58-year-young dingy sailor and para-gilder from Chiba. It’s his fourth trip to the Yaeyamas, and as we set foot on Kuroshima he removes his hoes and puts them away. Throughout our afternoon excursion, as we move from the island’s main road, through the green fields with their  quietly grazing cattle, to the little dirt tracks, the beach and the limestone cliff overlooking the sea, he remains barefoot, as if here in the splendid embrace of nature shoes are an unnecessary adornment, something that gets in the way of truly knowing nature.

On the limestone cliff in the hot afternoon sun, the distant sea is a rough medley of sparkling blue and emerald green. We watch as long rows of waves, stretching kilometers across the entire panoramic view of the horizon, rush towards us, each wave folding over another, pushing towards us. Above us, clouds fly rapidly across the bright blue skies.

And here, on this beautifully rustic island, I wait for the typhoons to come and go

 market shopping in ishigaki city

Nan To Ka Naru

At the minshuku I realize I have caused quite a stir. What are you doing here, everyone asks, in amusement and disbelief. It’s been a year since the minshuku received any foreigners. My predecessors were two Italian men, who did not speak a word of Japanese and did not eat anything the minsuku served.

My companions at the minshuku are all Japanese independent travelers brought together by their desire for some respite from city-living.

There’s Kentaro, a flora and fauna researcher from Tokyo, who has been visiting Kuroshima annually without fail for the past years. There’s Take-san, a 50-something-year-old free spirit, who cycles over to the minshuku each evening in Hawaiian pants and a silver ponytail. He spends several months on Kuroshima  every year, staying at a friend’s cottage down the road from us. The minshuku makes no distinction between paying guests and visiting neighbours, and our host smiling brings out the awamori – a strong local spirit distilled from rice – as we stretch out under the stars and talk late into the night.

Then there’s Midori, who’s scheduled to fly back to Tokyo in two days, but with the impending typhoons her flight will more likely than not be cancelled.

I ask Midori what she will do then. “Nan to ka naru,” she replies chirpily.

Kentaro translates it for me, “It means a bad thing will become a good thing in the end.”

I stay on Kuroshima for three days., falling in love with an island I hadn’t planned to see at all. On the fourth morning, after the typhoons have turned away from us, I take the ferry back to Ishigaki island hoping for the Hateruma service to re-open.
The typhoons have thrown many plans into disarray, but everyone I’ve met on the Yaeyama island seems to take these inconveniences perfectly in his stride relax. Life goes on; the typhoons will come and the typhoon will go.

And as I stand at Ishigaki’s Uganzaki Lighthouse, an observation platform perched on top of a rocky cliff overlooking the East China Sea, the sea crashes ferociously into the cliff and the wind blows my hair wildly across my face. We are still feeling the effects of the typhoon as it blows away from us. I wonder if I’ll ever get to see Japan’s southernmost point. But perhaps here on the Yaeyamas it’s time I learn to do as the ilanders do; to go with the flow, and keep faith, knowing that everything will work out well somehow.

The isles of Yaeyama-shoto are renowed for their lovely beaches, superb snorkeling and diving, and some of Japan’s last intact subtropical jungles and mangrove swamps.
Getting there. From both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, first fly into either Tokyo’s Haneda Airport before connecting to Ishigaki Airport with Japan Transocean Air (

Getting around. Countless daily ferries operate between ishigaki’s Ritto Ferry Terminal and the outlying islands in Yaeyama-shoto, including iriomote. Taketomi and Hateruma island. Discounting the weather departures are frequent enough that you can usually just turn up in the morning and hop on the next ferry departing for your intended destination. Within individual islands, rental bicycles and scooters are readily available.

Further reading. See Lonely Planet’s Japan guide for the chapter on Okinawa and the Southwest islands, which can also be downloaded from

3 Ways To Do It. Ishikagi. The most populated and developed island in Yaeyama-shoto, Ishikagi has excellent beaches, brilliant diving and snorkeling spots, a rugged geography made for long drives and day hikes, and great food and lively nightlife in the city.

 explore iriomete's lush interior

Iriomote. Dense jungles and mangrove forest blanket more than 90 percent of iriomote. Several rivers penetrate into the lush island interior and can be explored by river-boat or kayak. The island is also fringed by some beautiful coral reefs.

Taketomi. The tinny islet of Taketomi is a living museum of Ryuku culture. Centered on a flower-bedecked village of traditional houses complete with red tiled roofs, coral walls and shiisa statues, Taketomi is a welcome breath of fresh air. 

Rakutenya is guest house with attractive western and Japanese-style rooms in a rickety, old wooden house. The managers are a friendly Japanese couple who speak a little bit of English, and are a fantastic source of local information (from US$38;

Upscale Eco Village iriomote resort on the northeast coast is a good choice for those who want some comfort. Rooms range from simple ones in the main building to detached beachfront suites. They have a restaurant and kayaks are available for rent (from US$130;

 taketomi's traditional villages

Takana Ryokan consists of a youth hostel and an upmark-et ryokan. Basic hostel dorms are a great budget option, while the Japanese style tatami rooms in the ryokan are charming (dorms with/without meals US$55/US$37, rooms per person with meals from US$105; 81 0980 85 2151).

Paikaji is a popular local restaurant that serves all the Okinawa and Yaeyama standards. Try the ikasumi chahan (squid ink fried rice; US$8) and the goya-champuru (stir-fried goya; US$9) (81 0980 82 6027; near the main post office).

Just 200m south of the port in Uehara, the no-fills Shinpachi Shokudo noodle shop is the perfect spot for hot bowl of soki-soba (US$9) or a goya champuru (US$10), washed down with a nice draught beer (81 0980 85 6078).

Soba Dokoro Takenoko is a tiny restaurant on the northwest side of village, look out for the blue banner and the umbrellas. They serve soki-soba (US$9) as well as Orion beer to wash it down with (81 0980 85 2251).

The sea around ishigaki is famous for its large schools of manta rays, particularly from June to October. Dive operator Umicoza has Englilsh-speaking dive guides (1/2 dives US$120/160, equipment rental US$67; 81 0980 88 2434; 827-15 Kabira).

Take a boat trip up the Urauchigawa, a winding brown river. From the mouth of the river, after which a further 2km-walk brings you to the scenic waterfalls Mariyudo-no-taki.

In the centre of the village, the Nagomi-no-to lookout tower has good views over the island. For some culture, Kihoin Shushukan is a private museum with a diverse collection of for artefacts. Taketomi Mingei-kan is where the island’s woven minsa belts and other textiles are produced.

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