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.

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.



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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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


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