Iheya Island 伊平屋島: Camping

Iheya Island is the northernmost inhabited island of Okinawa and renown for its natural beauty. In this post I will describe how to get there, cost, and some of the “tourist spots.”

This previous weekend, I convinced my husband to try camping in a tent (first time ever for him). While there was initial resistance, he conceded and we decided to take the morning ferry to Iheya Island with the dog and the car. We made reservations ahead of time (you can call or fax), as per the website, however I don’t think it was really necessary since we went on an off-peak time. Normally we would not take a car on the ferry (it is so expensive to do so, and so much cheaper to simply rent a car), but since we were hauling camping gear, some food, a cooler, etc. we decided it would be easiest and least amount of hassle.

The roundtrip ticket was 15580yen for the car+driver, and the extra person was 4640yen. Our dog was free. We arrived at Unten port (in Motobu) ~30 minutes early to pay for the tickets and line up our car to board. My husband drove the car onto the ferry and we met up on the 2nd floor deck outside (pets are not allowed inside). We chose a nice table in the shade and spread out our snacks for the 80 minute ride, while the dog sat happily on his towel in the chair between us. We got lucky and the weather was particularly gorgeous, the water was glassy smooth.

When the ferry arrived at Maedomari port, we piled into the car and off we drove to our adventure. We circled the main sites on Iheya, as well as Noho, which is connected by bridge. Admittedly there are only a few, and most can be seen within an afternoon (some are described below). Nonetheless, the landscape was quite spectacular. The water was so clear and blue, the beaches felt nearly untouched by mankind. Since we had the dog we ended up not to go snorkeling, instead we opted for playing in the shallow water to cool off. We stopped at a number of quiet, sandy beaches along our route as we explored.

An interesting thing is that rice farming is a main industry on this island and it is not often that people in Okinawa get to see rice growing in fields. The stores sell rice and rice flour to bring home, which makes a nice souvenir.

As we drove, we went to Coral hill observatory where we could look out over the water and see Izena and Gushikawa islands across the way. The actual observatory platform looked perhaps less than structurally sound so we stayed off and just enjoyed the view from the hilltop.

Another legendary spot was “Yagura,” the tomb of the ancestors of Sho Hashi (1st Sho Dynasty, unified Okinawa). Yagura Ufusu is said to be the great-grandfather of King Sho Hashi, who built the first united dynasty of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Yagura Ufusu had two sons (Samekawa Ufusu and Uezato Aji) and two daughters (Gakiya Uyanuru and Gakiya Nuru). Samekawa Ufusu, the oldest son, was the father of King Sho Shisho who is the first king of the First Sho Dynasty. There is a stone grave on the coast and is situated facing the distant Okinawan mainland. Standing there, you can see the ocean and sky in brilliant colors.

Then there was the Nento Hiramatsu Pine Tree, a symbol of Iheya Island and a national monument. This 300 year-old Ryukyu pine was selected as among the most noted trees in Japan. Its wide boughs are beautiful, acting almost like a natural parasol. The park that surrounds is very nice. Off to the side, there is also an Amano Iwato shrine. It was a short walk over to this quaint and small shrine (dedicated to a legend described below).

Further along, we reached Kumaya cave (Hiding place cave), located within a rocky mountain to the north of Dana village. It was created 280 million years ago as the Chert rock was eroded by waves and wind. It is an Okinawa prefectural natural monument. During typhoons and tempests, people would take shelter here, sustained by nearby springs and a plentiful supply of fish and seaweed, heaved up onto the rocks and mudflats outside the grotto. First, we climbed the steps leading up the rock face. From here, there is a very narrow opening to squeeze through. On one side of the cave, there is a small shrine, dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. People say that this cave is related to stories about ancient Japanese gods, that the legendary Amano-Iwato 天岩戸, a rock cave where the sun goddess Amaterasu concealed herself.

Continuing along the road, we saw some shisa and some anpan-man type characters constructed from old buoys– it was very cute.

When we packed for the island it did not look like there might be many grocery stores or markets on island, so we ended up to bring all the food/drinks (and a cooler) we thought we would need. Well, it turns out there is a really nice JA mini-grocery store which has nearly everything. So keep in mind if you visit, JA is the best stop for groceries and you don’t need to overpack. There are a handful of izakaya and small cafe/shokudo places on island, but we did not try any of them since we had the dog with us– our plan was to cook out.

We ended up camping at Yonezaki campground (Iheya Island Yonezaki 伊平屋愛ランドよねざき). It is a pay campground with many facilities. So, online it says “no dogs allowed.” But since it seemed quiet and uncrowded we went and decided to try rather than rough it at one of the beach sites. When we arrived there were no signs saying “no dogs” and when my husband went up to get a spot none of the paperwork said “no dogs,” and no one said anything about our dog hanging out in the car… so we decided if you were respectful, cleaned up after your pet, and didn’t cause a disturbance, probably no one actually cares. Maybe during peak season, this will be a different story. Anyway, it was 1500yen for the night.

We scoped out a spot close to the beach and set up the tent. It was so peaceful– there was only one other group (father and son) at the campground. We walked around a bit, cooked dinner, and just relaxed. When night came, you could see so many stars and the milky way.

There was an area for cleaning dishes, grilling/charcoal pits, pay showers (200yen for ~5 minutes), toilets, beach access… it was a decent place to stay. However, we only stayed one night, after all this was pretty much my husband’s first experience tent camping/sleeping on the ground, and we had to “test the waters.” Two nights may have been asking too much so we only planned for one.

The return home ferry was as smooth as the way over; my little dog was tuckered out and slept most of the way home. Overall it was a really nice overnight trip exploring the outskirts of Okinawa.

link to pictures: https://imgur.com/a/EbmvFfI


website (Japanese only) for ferry times, etc: http://www.vill.iheya.okinawa.jp/index.jsp

Okinawa Star Sand: 星砂

星砂 Hoshizuna: star sand

There is also a second type called 太陽の砂 taiyou no suna: sun sand

These 2 types of sands are similar but are actually two different microorganism skeletons. Many people just call both of them star sand, not realizing there is a difference. Some people show photos that say, “I found star sand!” but in actuality it is sun sand.


Where can you find star and sun sand? While you may be able to find it various locations, it is not very common to find it on the Okinawa main island (not impossible… just not so common). Below are some places where star and sun sand is easily found! I will add a few more when I have time.

**Special Note: Some of the more famous beaches request that people do not take star sand from the beach! So please be respectful of this.

You can usually buy star sand at various tourist shops all over Okinawa (for instance, try Kokusai-dori if you are looking to purchase some). I have a necklace and earrings with star sand. It is a little cheesy, but I thought it was cute.

fullsizeoutput_3398.jpeg

 


Places you can see star sand first hand:

Kudaka-jima 久高島, Upaama beachウパーマ浜: You can take a short ferry ride here.
https://goo.gl/maps/zMNkBfA8s8L2

Tokashiki-jima 渡嘉敷島, Ura beach 浦ビーチ  and Aharen 阿波連ビーチ: You can reach this island via a 1-hour ferry ride.
Ura beach: https://goo.gl/maps/31UNNdx6UmB2
Aharen beach: https://goo.gl/maps/Yq28JsHBKp12

Hateruma-jima 波照間島, Peh beach ペー浜: You can reach this island by flying to Ishigaki-jima, then taking a ferry ride. It is not convenient for a day trip, so you will need to stay overnight.
https://goo.gl/maps/dLzF1Lydkg22

Taketomi-jima 竹富島, all over: You can reach this island by flying to Ishigaki-jima, then taking a ferry ride. This is an easy day trip from Ishigaki. This is the location of the famous “Star Sand Beach” 星砂の浜.
https://goo.gl/maps/G3X7N75Rvx32

Iriomote-jima 西表島, all over: You can reach this island by flying to Ishigaki-jima, then taking a ferry ride. This is an easy day trip from Ishigaki.

Hatoma-jima 鳩間島, all over: Ferries run here infrequently from Ishigaki-jima, so you will need to plan this one well if you want to visit. This place is rather remote and quiet.

Yoron 与論島, Yurigahama 百合ヶ浜: Actually, this is technically part of Kagoshima, however, you can reach Yoron fairly easily from Okinawa. It is about a 4 hour ferry, or you can fly there from the Naha airport (much shorter). Yurigahama is a sand bar, located off of Ooganeku Beach 大金久海岸.
https://goo.gl/maps/rqQzLDijQ9M2


Star Sand Folktale:

There is a folk tale from Taketomi-jima about the “sandy beach of stars.” It is a story of when the Yaeyama islands were still being created.

The sky star goddess (the Southern Cross) conceived children with Polaris (North Star). When birthing the star children, she asked the heavenly god where she should give birth. He responded that there was an island with beautiful coral and white sand and so she should give birth just off the shore of this island, the current location of Taketomi-jima. The star goddess bore her star babies into the sea. However, the god of the sea was angry that she birthed them into his ocean without asking permission. The furious sea god called upon a sea serpent to swallow up all the star children and not leave any remains. The sea snake swallowed all the star children of the star as commanded by the sea god. Later, only the small white star-shaped bones of the star children were left, washed ashore on the island and mixed in with the sand. The god of the heavens collected the bones, put them in a censer, and burned them with incense to send the souls of the stars children to heaven to be with their mother (in some stories, it is instead a sacred priestess not the god of heavens that performs this ritual). So, it is said that the souls of the star children became stars themselves, brilliantly surrounding the star goddess up in the heavens.


Difference between star sand and sun sand can be seen easily: https://www.shimadzu-techno.co.jp/technical/sand_pore_sem.html

(pictures coming soon).

Ryukyu Onsen Senaga-jima Hotel

South of the airport is the small island of Senaga-jima which is connected the main island by bridge. A very luxurious hotel with an onsen, Ryujin no Yu 龍神の湯 (translation: dragon-king bath; Ryujin is the dragon god believed to lived under the sea near Okinawa), is situated there. The rooms to stay overnight are very expensive (so I have never stayed there), but luckily the onsen and spa is open to the public. The entrance fee for the onsen is also reasonable (middle school and older, weekdays: 1,330円, weekends and holidays: 1,540円, elementary school: 720円, preschool and under free). There is even a foot hot spring for free next to the resort hotel, if you just want to relax your feet for a bit.

Like other onsen in Okinawa, you go to the spa desk to check-in and receive your towels and spa clothes. The onsen has indoor baths as well as some very lovely outdoor baths. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the indoor baths or sauna; mostly I cleaned myself at the shower stations and went almost directly to outside. Outside you have some different choices; there are a few individual rotenburo 露天風呂 and then some large baths (1 is a standing bath, so you stand up in it but it is quite comfortable) that overlook the ocean. I enjoyed all of these and the view was really quite nice, it made it all the more relaxing. The water is a bit salty– it is a unique seaside hot spring for sure! If you stay overnight, half of the hotel rooms even have private outdoor baths…!

The spa treatments offered here are quite nice for some pampering. When I went for my birthday, I got a body scrub, a seaweed-mud wrap, some sort of facial, and a massage… it was not cheap, but it was a birthday present from my husband. I felt amazing afterwards… maybe one day I can return.

As far as food, I have only eaten at the Mediterranean-inspired restaurant inside the resort, which was so-so. Some people really like it, and it was okay, but I probably recommend just going over to Umikaji Terrace うみかじテラス (the small shopping/cafe area on the island) and checking out the food there. There are several options from happy pancakes to food you can eat while sitting in hammocks, each of them with just as nice a view as the resort.

 


address: https://goo.gl/maps/9fsrcNESWES2

website: https://www.hotelwbf.com/senaga/

Adji-jima, “Hideout Island”

アーヂ島 adji-jima (or aadji-jima) in a very tiny island located off the Nanjo coast of Okinawa main island. The name means “hideout.”

As you drive down towards it, you come to a tori gate 鳥居 utility pole… interesting. You can park in an area off to the side of the driving path (I call it a path, because it is really not much of a road). There is a concrete bridge connecting Adji-jima to land. You can walk across but…

It is gated off at the entrance to the island. It is actually a private property, possibly owned by a resort from the 80s and is said to have been a training facility for the resort, but now… no one seems to be sure of ownership from what I have read. It seems well-kept enough, so I don’t think it is abandoned. It is a bit mysterious.

Since you cannot enter, you can walk (at low tide) or wade (during high tide) circling small “island”. It is surrounded by barbed wire fence on the land. There is even a marker for 1983 when it the facilities were made. You can see some various structures and such too. There even seem to be some sort of dock for a boat, but the water must be too shallow for this to be used. It is a bit strange overall. Perhaps the strangest is that there is a sign on the main road for this hideout island even though you cannot enter and it is privately owned. It is close to Hyakuna Beach 百名ビーチ though, so you could just walk over from here and enjoy some beach time.


address: https://goo.gl/maps/7jETrXP6Gaw

 

Things to know when planning a vacation to Okinawa

Some of the FAQs about visiting Okinawa. This is not a complete guide, but hopefully can give you an idea of how to plan your visit. I try to hit the main points to consider when visiting.


Best and worst times to visit: 

**Beaches are closed from around November to April/May. Usually it is too cold to swim during this time anyway.

February is cold, windy, and generally miserable– likely one of the worst times to visit. January and March are also chilly and not suitable for the beach, if you are looking for a beach vacation (which, I think most people coming to Okinawa are expecting).

April through early May is generally pleasant, not too hot but not too cold (usually). The water temperature however is cold as it has not warmed up yet. Some people may not mind the chilly water, but I would advise having some sort of rash guards for swimming/snorkeling during this time.

Late May-mid-June is typically the rainy season (some variation year to year). There can be a lot of rain during this time and you may not get lucky enough to have much outdoor time. So be advised, while the weather is occasionally clear, there are bouts of heavy rainfall which will keep you indoors during this time.

Late June (right after rainy season ends) and July can be hot, but usually bearable. However typhoon season begins in June and ends in October time frame. Again, it changes year to year; some years there are nearly no typhoons, other years there are several. It is a bit of a gamble, but often late June and July do not see typhoons, so you are usually safe to choose this time.

August is very hot and humid. But lots of great festivals during this time, so keep all this in mind. The kids are off of school, too, for summer vacation, so prices will skyrocket and some places may sell out during this time. If you want to go to an outer island via ferry you MUST get reservations during August, even during week days.

September is still hot and humid, plus it is still typhoon season. Kids are usually back in school though, so the tourist scene calms down a bit. October can be pleasant but sometimes moving into cooler weather (especially in the evening). This being said, the water temperature is usually still decent at this time of year since it has not cooled off all the way yet; you probably don’t need rash guards, though you may want to wear them anyway if going to a beach without nets, or snorkeling somewhere near coral or possibly jellyfish, etc. But once you get out of the water, the air temperature in October can be pretty chilly, so you will want to get out of those wet clothes quickly. It’s not really the best beach weather, but can be tolerable, depending on your tolerance to cold.

November and December can be hit or miss; sometimes pleasant and other times cold. Typically a little too chilly to swim comfortable, plus most if not all (manned) beaches are closed during this time. You can find some quiet unmanned beaches and swim if the weather just happens to cooperate. The water temps are usually still warm enough from the summer (takes awhile to cool down), but the air temp can be chilly.

Check out this page for links to special events and holidays in Okinawa: Calendar


Where to stay:

This is a difficult question to answer… there are many places depending on what you want to do. The southern near Naha is prime location for several tourist activities, but there are only a few beaches compared with other areas. Naha is also a concrete jungle, and not the romantic island image you see on the tourist postcards of Okinawa; to be honest I don’t particularly recommend staying here. If you stay in the south, perhaps try closer to the Itoman area. The central area near American Village has shopping and a few beaches, but again it is not the perfect postcard picture. It is however convenient to many areas around the island, so it makes it an okay place to stay. In the North near the Onna resorts it is a little prettier, a bit more scenery, more beaches, and a little less city. There are still plenty of tourist opportunities up here (the aquarium, some parks, etc), so this area is one of the nicer places to stay during your vacation. Just keep in mind it is a decent drive down to the southern part of the island where there are a lot of tourist activities. There are some other small locations not close to anything, nor particularly fancy… it depends on what sort of vacation you are looking for, really.

If you really want the Okinawa that the pictures promise you I recommend going to an outer island: any of the Keramas, Miyako-jima, or Ishigaki-jima. These places are very beautiful and have the best beaches + snorkeling/diving.

The types of accommodations vary like anywhere else: hostels, guesthouses, hotels, resorts, and even a few “ryokan” type establishments. AirBnb is also an option to check out, though I don’t feel like it is very popular here so your choices may be limited. It just depends on the type of experience you are looking for (and your budget!).


How to get around: 

I highly recommend renting a car or scooter. The monorail only takes you from the Naha airport to Shuri. The public bus runs all over island, but is not always on time, or convenient, and is actually pretty expensive. Taxis, while convenient, are very expensive. If you really don’t want to rent a car, then look into joining some bus tours to hit up the main attractions you would like to see.

I have a guide on getting to the outer islands here: Okinawa: Outer Islands & How to reach them. Most of them are walkable, but some you may want to rent a bicycle, scooter, or car. If you stay overnight, many accommodations will pick you up at the ferry port.


For now I will end here, and perhaps add more later. Questions about food/drink you can look through the blog for some recommendations and types of foods you may see here. Same with on “what to see”; I list a few things here on my blog, but there are many that I haven’t written posts for. Have questions? Leave a comment or send me a message from the contact page.

Okinawa: Outer Islands & How to reach them

There are many islands make up Okinawa Prefecture (the Ryukyu archipelago). Some are connected to the main island by bridge, others require a ferry or plane. From Okinawa main island (where Naha airport) is located, I list how to get to each. Ferry port addresses are linked at the bottom of the post.

These islands are beautiful, and allows you to escape the urban jungle that is the city of Naha and Okinawa main island! I have not made separate posts for all the islands I have visited (I have been to most of these), but I will slowly work on it and update as I go.

Note: uninhabited islands that you could possibly swim or kayak to will not be included in this list.


First I will start with the drive-able islands, connected by bridge. These are “organized” by area.

North, off Motobu peninsula

  • Yagaji 屋我地島
  • Kouri 古宇利島
  • Sesoko 瀬底島

Central, off Uruma

South


Very short ferry rides, half hour or less. Again, I have indicated if the port access is North, Central, or South. I have also provided a link (in English if possible) with ferry times and fares. Since they are subject to change, it is easier to post the link than try to write out all the info.


You can reach the Kerama islands 慶良間諸島 via ferry. All of the ferries leave out of Tomari Port in Naha. Again, links to fares and timetables are provided.

  • Zamami 座間味島, high speed ferry 50-70 minutes, slow 120 minutes. Ferry info: http://www.vill.zamami.okinawa.jp
  • Aka 阿嘉島, high speed ferry 50 minutes, slow 90 minutes. Geruma 慶留間島 is then accessible by bridge. It is on the same ferry line as Zamami, so click the link above for fare and time schedule.
  • Tokashiki 渡嘉敷島, high speed ferry 35 min, slow ferry 70 min. Ferry info: http://www.vill.tokashiki.okinawa.jp
  • Kume 久米島: I recommend flying a short 35 minutes instead of a 4 hour ferry! It is well worth the small extra cost. From Tomari Port (Naha) for ferry, from Naha Airport for plane. Ferry info: http://www.kumeline.com

Long ferry ride (2 hours or more), or alternatively a short plane ride. Ferry information provided when possible.

  • Izena 伊是名島. From Unten Port (Nakijin, North). Ferry info (Japanese, ferry info is in the sidebar under フェリー): http://vill.izena.okinawa.jp
  • Iheya 伊平屋島. From Unten Port (Nakijin, North). Ferry info (Japanese, ferry info is in the sidebar under フェリー): http://www.vill.iheya.okinawa.jp
  • Aguni 粟国島. From Tomari Port (Naha), but there is only 1 round trip per day as weather conditions permit. You can also fly here, which is probably much more convenient.
  • **Yoron 与論島, technically Kagoshima prefecture, but you can get there easily from Okinawa main island. 3 hours from Motobu Port (North) via ferry. Alternatively you can fly into the airport there much quicker, via Naha Airport.

**Some notes about the ferries: most ferries will accept reservations in advance– during the peak season (Golden week and summer) I highly recommend you reserve ahead of time! Some ferries can also take cars… for a very expensive fee, and you must reserve in advance since spaces are filled quickly. It is always cheaper to rent a car/moped/bicycle where you are going rather than take your own, unless you are going for a week or more.


You can reach the Yaeyama islands 八重山諸島 and Miyako islands 宮古列島 by a short airplane ride (an hour or less) from Okinawa main island. There are no passenger ferries from Okinawa main islands down to these islands (and even if there were it would take over 20 hours to reach). It is easy to rent a car or scooter on these islands to get around.

To reach the Miyako islands, first you fly into Miyako-jima 宮古島. Most are easily accessible via bridge.

  • Kurima 来間島 (bridge)
  • Shimoji 下地島 (bridge)
  • Irabu 伊良部島 (bridge)
  • Ikema 池間島(bridge)
  • Tarama 多良間島 (ferry)
  • Ogami 大神島 (ferry)

To reach the Yaeyama islands, first fly into Ishigaki 石垣島. From here you can also reach the other islands, all via ferry:

  • Taketomi 竹富島
  • Iriomote 西表島
  • Kuroshima 黒島
  • Kohama 小浜島
  • Yonaguni 与那国島
  • Hateruma 波照間島, southern most island in Okinawa prefecture.

Port Locations:

*Azama Port:  https://goo.gl/maps/TQ2x3vZjt652

*Heshikiya Port: https://goo.gl/maps/2Q6MbXJvFhA2

*Motobu Port:  https://goo.gl/maps/raBGDa9SJvA2

*Toguchi Port:  https://goo.gl/maps/TVZxMUCRLZw

*Tomari Port, Naha: https://goo.gl/maps/ENhdVrKXucv
Parking is NOT free at Tomari Port! But there is a large parking garage. Parking fee calculator here: https://www.tomarin.com/info/calc/index.php

*Unten Port: https://goo.gl/maps/8rd1xEUhatH2

 

Minna-jima: 水納島

Minna-jima 水納島 is a small crescent-shaped island off the Motobu Peninsula in Okinawa. There is a ferry service that runs between Toguchi Port and Minna-jima, and takes approximately 20 minutes (it is actually fairly close to Okinawa main island, not so remote). During the off-season (Oct-June), the ferry service only runs 2-3x per day; during peak season, July-Sept, the frequency increases to 6-12x. We showed up on a Sunday in November (off-season), and there the ferry was almost completely empty… only about 12 other people (the ferry capacity is over 100). So even on a weekend day with gorgeous weather, it was easy to get a seat on the ferry during non-peak times. We took the first ferry of the day at 10am. I suppose during the peak summer season, it would be better to reserve in advance since I hear it gets quite crowded though. Also, there was a lot of parking at the Toguchi port ferry terminal (and it is free).

The population of the island is very few (maybe 100 residents). There is not much to the island except for the marine activities (scuba, snorkel, boating, swimming). The entire islands coastline is less than 4km; the whole island can be walked in about an hour.

During the peak season, a few food stands are open, as well as coin lockers, coin showers and a changing room. As we confirmed NOTHING except for the marine sports rentals and one soba stand was open during the off-season. Nope, not even the showers/changing room! There are, at least, bathrooms available in the ferry terminal, as well as 1 drink vending machine (albeit sold out of about half the drinks)… okay, there were 2 but one was broken, so I didn’t count it. So, basically, if you are coming to Minna-jima during any time other than peak season, BRING your own food and drink! Which, luckily, we packed a lunch, some snacks, and drinks after reading the scant few “reviews” of Minna-jima (we almost didn’t).

Since the island was fairly empty, we ended up leaving our lunch bag and snorkel/swim gear in a shady spot on the beach right next to the ferry terminal building. And because this is Japan, no one messed with it. We walked to the “secret” beach past the tiny elementary/middle school and some small farms, then over towards the marshy lagoon area, next crossing some diving shacks towards the lighthouse, and back to the main beach. It was pretty, while not terribly exciting, still a nice way to spend a Sunday.

Back at the beach we sat on the wooden porch of the ferry terminal building and had our packed lunch, looking over the water. At this point, I was ready to get in the water a bit, even though it was a little chilly. So we made our way across the entirety of the tourist beach in the direction towards the lighthouse. If you swam out, you could see some interesting things by the reef edges, otherwise towards the water by shore itself was not very exciting. I also recommend wearing your water shoes (of course I did not, and my feet are answering for it), as the beach is not that sandy and filled with lots of sharp little shell and coral bits. I saw dark spot in the water near the shore, to realize it was a crazy swarm of minnows. Around the curve of the island brought us to some large rocks, so at this point, figured it was time to head back.

The showers and such were locked up (grr), but there were 2 foot showers that were outside of the building at the very least. Not ideal, but better than nothing. We cleaned up a bit, until the 1pm ferry to go back to Okinawa main island. For the off-season, 3 hours was more than enough time to explore this tiny island– during peak season, it might be nice to enjoy some food and beer at one the small stands if you can get extra time. Just keep in mind during peak season, this places gets packed and the beach turns into a sea of parasols from people trying to get a bit of shade. You can bring your own breach umbrellas or small shade tents, which from what I understand is almost a necessity during the summer months.

If you want to stay overnight, there are maybe 2-3 minshuku (inns) and 1 log house (managed by Marine Sports Mermaid); these places typically provide meals. You can also book snorkel and diving tours, which will take you on a boat so you can enter further from the shoreline (also, as a bonus, during the off-season, they have their own changing and showering facilities). There are also a few other marine leisure activities available.

**the nickname of the island is “Croissant Island.” For some reason, I find this funny.

Tsuken-jima: 津堅島

Tsuken-jima, aka “Carrot Island,” is a short and cheap ferry ride (~15-30 minutes) from the Okinawan main island. I can see this island from the window of the second story of my house.

The word carrot in Japanese is ninjin 人参 but oddly enough you may see it as キャロット “kyarotto” in katakana.

It is an easy day trip and the whole island can be seen on foot. There is no need to bring a car or rent a car. There is a trail, mostly paved, that runs along the island. There are several utaki (Okinawan sacred forest/spots), a few hiijaagaa (water springs, usually somewhat sacred), and an observatory shaped like a rusty orange carrot with panoramic views. Basically, it is a nice walk. The water is beautiful, so water activities are also a possibility here.

Of course, there are many carrot fields and bags of carrots are sold here, as well as various carrot products, like cakes and breads. There is even a “carrot cider” (however the word cider サイダー in Japanese actually refers to soda, just as an fyi).

On this particular trip, I slipped and ended up breaking my camera, so the only photos are from the beginning of the hike… but I promise, it is quite nice the rest of the way, too.

Ishigaki-jima: 石垣島

石垣島 Ishigaki-jima is one of the southern islands in the Ryukyu chain, known as one of the Yaeyama islands 八重山諸島. To get there, you need to fly from Naha, Okinawa main island into Ishigaki airport. The fare is somewhat reasonable, typically ~15000円 roundtrip. Once you get there, it is probably best to rent a car, or at least a moped. You can also rent bicycles many places.

As far as sights go, there are a few must-see stops. Kabira Bay is probably on the top of the list, with stunning natural beauty. There are some other things “to see,” but Ishigaki is more about natural beauty than man-made sights. I recommend snorkeling or diving, kayaking, hiking, star-gazing… or just enjoying the outdoors! Perhaps check out Banna Park or the limestone cave, maybe one of the observatory viewpoints.

According to my sensei, whose cousins grew up here and thereby he visited often, eating beef soup on Ishigaki is highly recommended. Many people also recommend some of the more expensive Ishigaki yakiniku (BBQ) if you are in the mood for something a little fancier, but usually these place do not open until dinner time. Another cheap option would be Yaeyama soba, which is slightly different from Okinawa main island soba.

For me, Toufu no Higa is a must. I know it is not exactly on the “tourist path,” but as a foreigner, I found it unique and fantastic. It is a meal for the average working man (and woman).

Obviously there is locally produced awamori should you want to try it, but there is also a craft beer brewed in Ishigaki, which is definitely worth a try while you are there.

**Bonus trips from Ishigaki, via ferry (I will make separate posts for these later):
-Taketomi-jima: Recommended. See the old traditional houses with their colorful reddish roof tiles, explore the small streets, take an ox-cart ride, visit the squirrel monkeys.
-Iriomote-jima: Popular visit among tourists. Ox-carts, squirrel monkeys, and the Iriomote wildcat.
-Hateruma-jima: the southernmost island in Okinawa prefecture! This is on my list of places to go, and I hear the night sky is breathtaking here.

Kume-jima: 久米島

Kume-jima probably ranks as our #1 trip among the outer islands of Okinawa (so far). Honestly, it was a combination of things, but it was a pretty great trip away from the hustle and bustle of life.

There are 2 ways of getting to Kume-jima: 4 hour ferry ride or 35 minute plane ride. Not going to lie… take the plane, it is so much better. It was about 150$ roundtrip, so yes, it is more expensive, but it is a very short ride. The ferry is cheaper by half, but over 4x the travel time. So… for me, no questions.

After a short plane ride, we arrived and rented a car. There is a tourist map, which points out the major sites; these can be done in a day, but take it slow and enjoy. It is a beautiful island. Some of the sights may not be terribly interesting, but just enjoy the raw beauty of this island. There are some magnificent views and crystal clear water. Check out the tatami rocks that make an interesting pattern on the beach, and look for some sea turtles. Maybe check out the local awamori distillery.

We coincided our trip with the season of ホタル or 蛍, pronounced hotaru meaning “firefly” (month of May). Okay, yes, I planned my entire trip around fireflies! But Kume-jima is home to rare and special fireflies, so it very much worth it! As matter of fact, the mascot for Kume-jima is a firefly! Be sure to visit the firefly museum during the day, and then the park areas (close to water) in the evening when the magical little fireflies come out. It is really special to experience this sort of beauty, once the sun sets and they start flitting about with bursts of light. Also, the guy at the museum is an alumni of Ryukyu Daigaku and speaks some English, so please visit him! He will tell you many interesting facts and explain why fireflies here in Kume-jima are special.

We stayed at Eef Beach Hotel, and while not grand by any means, it was comfortable and close to restaurants, as well as a nice beach to stroll around. There is a supposedly nicer hotel on the airport side of the island, but we chose quaintness over luxury.

For food, well, you better like either shrimp or local Okinawa grub because there is not much else. Kume-jima is known for 海老 (えび or エビ “ebi”), meaning shrimp. It is fresh! My husband ate shrimp for both lunches and dinner we were on the island. You can get it a number of ways; grilled, battered and fried in tempura, cooked in butter… it is a popular food here, so it is highly recommended you try it. Some of the restaurants have English menus and some do not, so take a chance and just stop in, order whatever is recommended that day. Preferably shrimp. I will post some addresses of the best meals we had later.

Tokashiki-jima: 渡嘉敷島

Tokashiki-jima is an island in the Keramas off the coast of the main island of Okinawa. It is an easy ferry ride from Tomari Port in Naha, with a few trips per day. It is a gorgeous island, far from the concrete jungle that makes up Naha.

It is enough time to do a day trip if you leave on the first ferry of the day, then the last coming back. It is possible to stay overnight if you wish (there is a camp ground and a few small guesthouses/hotels to stay).

When you get off the 40 min- 1 hr ferry ride, there is an information area and buses. The bus will shuttle you to the other side of the island where the popular beach Aharen 阿波連ビーチ is located. There is also Tokashiku beach, which is a bit smaller, but less crowded 渡嘉志久ビーチ and a higher chance of seeing 海亀 sea turtles (honu, to the Hawaiians). The bus only runs between the ferry port and Aharen beach, so visiting any other sites on the island requires your own mode of transportation; taxi, moped, car, walking.

You can rent a car, scooter, or bike. But there is a large hill, so I really do not recommend bicycle. To be honest though, my husband and I walked one way (it was a healthy walk) and it was not unbearable, it probably took less than an hour, even with all the stopping and photo-taking. We admittedly took the bus back, since we were tired after a long day.

You can rent all sorts of beach gear and snorkel gear here (but I recommend bringing your own if possible). There are also glass bottom boats and a service that will take you to another small uninhabited island Nagannu-jima ナガンヌ島 for excellent snorkeling adventures (keep in mind there is no shade, so be prepared). You can even stay overnight camping or in a cottage on Nagannu-jima as well (just don’t expect much in the way of amenities…).

As an avid snorkeler and occasional diver, the beaches are decent for snorkeling (free if you have your own gear), but going with a professional boat tour is worth the money. I have done a Keramas dive tour with Seasir out of Naha on their private boat (no ferry to deal with), and it was very good. So, just keep this in mind.

As far as food goes, it is very tourist-friendly. That is to say, basically everywhere had English (and even Chinese and Korean) on the menus. Of course, being able to speak Japanese will make it easier for everyone, so give it a shot and practice! We went to a nice small place located by Aharen beach serving Okinawan food called Maasaanoten まーさーの店; my husband got fried fish and I got yakisoba, and of course a beer. After swimming, we went to the place that had beer and a view on the upper patio– what a relaxing way to end the day before climbing on to the bus to go back to the ferry.

***Some important things to know:

  • There are no ATMs on Tokashiki-jima and none of the places take credit card, so BRING YEN. There are signs all over the ferry terminal and you will be reminded when you purchase tickets.
  • The Ferry service will sell out during peak season (summer) and holidays. Reserve your seats in advance.
  • I do not advise taking your car. It is a hassle, and the cost is not worth it. Rent or take the bus, it is cheaper.
  • There is plenty of parking at the ferry terminal, but you do have to pay to park.
  • Bring sunscreen– don’t be those lobster red tourists.
  • There are vending machines on the ferry, and a few around town, so it is not necessary to bring your own drinks unless you want to. There are a few snacks at the small shop, but it is better to bring your own.

Toufu no Higa:とうふの比嘉

Toufu no Higa is located on Ishigaki-jima, a small island in the southern Ryukyu chain (Yaeyamas). If you find yourself on this island that has world class diving sites, you must make a stop here.

Yes, tofu is in the name because they make tofu products. No, it is nothing like the prepackaged junk they sell in the US. It is DELICIOUS. Even if you say “I don’t like tofu, that is slimey hippie stuff,” you must try it. It is amazing.

The best part is they are even open for breakfast (no they do not have Western breakfast foods). It is always busy with local workmen, so you know it is cheap and good. Their menu is all in Japanese, so if you have no working knowledge of Japanese language, just point to what everyone else is ordering and hold up the number of fingers of how many set meals you want.

One of my classmates was asking me questions about where I have traveled in Okinawa. When I mentioned I went to Ishigaki, she said she was from there and asked what I liked about, what I did there. I told her how much I loved Toufu no Higa, she burst out laughing and she explained her father ate there every day. She was baffled and could not believe a westerner would like such a place.

We had the yushi-doufu set. It came with fresh soymilk and it was seriously just amazing.

Address:

English: 570 Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture 907-0023

Japanese: 〒907-0023 沖縄県石垣市 石垣島石垣570