Beautiful Iriomote Island is one of the most remote spots in the Japanese archipelago. Not a lot has changed on the island in recent decades, and 90 percent of it remains blanketed in jungle and mangrove forest, the abode of the rare Iriomote wildcat. While the interior of the island, the second largest of the Okinawa Islands, can be explored via kayak, riverboat or trek, the main draw for most of the island’s visitors are the colorful reefs covered in virgin coral that ring the island.
Snorkelers and divers who explore beneath the surface near Iriomote might spot dolphins and manta rays, who school along the aptly named Manta Way during the spring and summer.
Iriomote Island is accessible via high-speed ferry service from Ishigaki Island, located about 12 miles (20 kilometers) away. Many of the island’s resorts and lodges offer free transportation to and from the port.
Located just southwest of Ishigaki in the Okinawa Islands, Taketomi Island is at once convenient yet remote. Quiet and charming, the small island has no cars and no chain convenience stores, and the population of only a few hundred still live in traditional coral-walled houses with red-clay tile roofs. Visitors wanting to get the full cultural experience can tour the village on a cart pulled by water buffalo, guided by a local who’ll tell folk takes to the sounds of a local instrument.
The island’s beaches also make it worth a visit. Kondoi Beach on the western shore offers beach facilities with white sand and beautiful teal water. Kaijihama Beach on the southwestern coast and Aiyauhama Beach on the eastern coast are both notable for their star-shaped sand formed by the shells of crustaceans.
The only way to get to Taketomi Island is by boat. High-speed ferries depart from Ishigaki every 30 minutes throughout the day, and the trip takes about 10 minutes.
Rolling hills and uninterrupted views set the island of Kohama apart from others in the Yaeyama archipelago. Travelers can wander grassy passes and shaded trails to two of the island’s most popular lookouts—Chura san’s Point and Ufudake. Locals say Chura san offers some of the best views in the region, but travelers agree that the view from atop Ufudake, where the whole of Kohama can be seen, is equally incredible.
Just like other nearby islands, Kohama is home to some beautiful beaches, including a long stretch of sandy shores called Haimurubushi. Visitors love that its clear waters are protected by jellyfish nets, but avid snorkelers say this means underwater wildlife leaves something to be desired. Still, wet and wild visitors can rent masks and jet skis — or opt to chill out on the shores in comfortable chairs under the shade of giant umbrellas.
Kohama Island is accessible by ferry from Ishigaki. The ride is approximately 25 minutes, making it ideal for day trips. Visitors can also hop ferries from Taketomi and Iriomote Islands.
This iconic structure housed royalty during the Sanzan Period in the mid-1300s and later served as the administrative center for the entire region. But between 1609 and World War II this epicenter of culture, history and politics was burned or destroyed multiple times. As a result, the surrounding community came together to rebuild the castle from photographs, drawings and even shared memory.
Travelers who wander the restored grounds can explore the Stone Gate of Sonohyan-utaki, built during the reign of King Sho Shin. Its ornate details exemplify the mastery of stone working skills exhibited by early masons. The Shikina-en Gardens offer visitors a chance to reflect on the century’s long history of Shuri Castle while walking across the delicate Chinese-style bridge. The tiny islands dotting the quiet pond and impeccable landscape are just part of what makes Shuri Castle a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s worth a visit.
Shuri Castle is located just north of Sakiyama Park in Naha.
In 1970 more than 5,000 Okinawans retaliated against years of military occupation in what eventually became known as the Koza riot. Four years later, on April 1, the city recovered its independence and embarked on the path to becoming one of the island’s top destinations for both locals and travelers.
Steeped in history, culture, politics and tradition, the streets of Okinawa City are alive with an electricity and energy that’s practically unmatched. Large shopping centers, international military bases and world-class botanical gardens all exist side-by-side and offer a testament to the diversity of this city’s past and future. Nearby Shuri Castle, popular Daiichi Makishi Public Market and dozens of live karaoke joints make Okinawa a hub of entertainment and history for travelers that’s worth spending a day—maybe even more—exploring.
Okinawa City is located about 20 kilometers north of Naha. It is the second largest city in Okinawa Prefecture. The city is easy to navigate by bus or on foot.
The expansive collection of underwater wildlife living in the Churaumi Aquarium includes some 740 species and 21,000 animals—like three massive whale sharks—that represent much of the marine life indigenous to the oceans surrounding Okinawa.
Travelers can explore the dark hallways lined with illuminated tanks and uncover mysteries hidden far beneath the surface of the sea. From coral reefs to the famous black current, known by locals as the Kuroshio, visitors can get up close with all the animals that live down below and learn more about what makes Okinawa a unique destination.
The aquarium is located in Okinawa’s Ocean Expo Park. It is open daily from 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Entry fee is 1,850 yen for adults, 1,230 yen for high school students and 610 yen for elementary school kids.
Address: Ocean Expo Park, Okinawa, Japan
Hours: Daily 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Admission: Adults: 1,850 yen: Students 1,230 yen; Children 610 yen
While the pebble beaches of Yubu Island may not be ideal for traditional sunbathing, this hidden paradise offers travelers a uniquely authentic island experience that is not to be missed. Visitors can explore the land aboard old-school ox carts and navigate the shallow waters, crystal clear fjords and lush foliage with the help of a local guide and his powerful water buffalo.
In addition to Yubu’s untouched shores, visitors can explore picturesque walking trails and well-manicured botanical gardens, all while experiencing the old-world wonder that lies just beyond scenic Okinawa.
The island is accessible by car and is about 40 minutes from Kanpira-so. Although vehicles are not allowed on the island it’s possible to walk across the shallow fjord between Yubu and Irimote.
Travelers looking to escape the energy and excitement of Okinawa can find a relaxing respite on the shores of Ishigaki Island. Although this popular destination ranks among the Yaeyama Islands’ most populated centers—the silver shores of Ishigaki are a globetrotter’s delight. Visitors can float across the emerald waters of Kabira Bay aboard glass-bottom boats and wander around Kabira Park promenade where epic views are prove to be more than photoworthy.
Well-kept dressing rooms complete with showers and toilets, shaded areas and shallow waters make Sukuji Beach ideal for families looking to wade through the coast’s crystal clear waters. And travelers without small children will love the uninterrupted views of Uganzaki lighthouse in the far distance. Yonehara’s coral reefs attract both novice and experienced snorkelers who say the close-to-shore aquatic life is some of the best on the island.
Although inexpensive boat trips can be purchased last minute from luxury liners that have not reached capacity, there is no official ferry service to the island. Most travelers arrive and depart via Ishigaki Airport, and while taxis, bicycles and buses are available on the island, visitors agree the city is easy to explore on foot.
Stationed on the west coast of Taketomi Island, Kondoi Beach offers travelers unlimited access to vast turquoise waters and perfect white sandy shores. Kondoi is home to some of the best snorkeling in the area, too—but visitors say it all comes at a price. Travelers looking to unwind on the shores of Kondoi should be ready to shell out 1500 yen per day for access to snorkels, masks and beach umbrellas. And while tourists say the beach is quiet, peaceful and perfect for catching sunsets, most agree that greater Okinawa offers other equally beautiful options at more budget-friendly prices.
Taketomi Island is accessible by boat only. Travelers can catch the Anei Kanko or Yaeyama Kanko ferries from Ishigaki.