Leave mainstream Japan for a spell in subtropical Okinawa, a relaxed backwater with fine beaches and clear waters
Text by Steve White
Extending southwest from the bottom of Kyushu for something like 600 kilometres, most of the prefecture of Okinawa is closer to Taiwan than to Tokyo. That helps explain the subtropical climate which makes this island chain a fairweather destination for Japanese as well as international tourists.
The appeal for most people lies in the seas, relatively warm and invitingly clear, and lined with good beaches. Besides snorkellers and divers, the placid waters lure kayakers and kiters, while on land there are options for hikers, especially on the quieter islands further south.
Besides the physical sights, the other draw is the island life itself, a noticeable shift of gears from the cities of the mainland. Things can take longer here but that’s no bad thing. The best advice is to slow right down and give yourself chance to take in all the small things that make this place at once Japanese and yet not.
If you can’t quite cut the tie to all the amenities of city life, then the main island, also called Okinawa, may be the best choice. Solitude is a much rarer commodity here, with more than 300,000 calling Naha, the main city and prefectural capital, home, not to mention the U.S. servicemen stationed here.
Most tourism is based around large-scale beach resorts that are especially popular with families. Quieter spots do exist though, with the Kerama Islands just 35 kilometres to the west.
Diving and snorkelling
The west coast of Okinawa Island harbours some of Japan’s most famous dive sites, with Maeda Point probably the pick with its profusion of corals. Ease of access is a key selling point, with many sites on this coast doable as shore dives and, being shallow, offering plenty for snorkellers to enjoy too.
That degree of access extends to the sites out in the Keramas too, where great viz helps in spotting more pelagic life such as turtles and rays. Day trips from Naha or Chatan are possible or you can base yourself out there to enjoy the relaxed vibe and get more dives in.
Beautiful Kabira Bay is the focal point of this island. Ringed with resorts, it’s the ideal compromise for those who want a few creature comforts as well as more peaceful surroundings than on the main island.
Diving and snorkelling
Reefs out here are rich and healthy but most divers come for one thing, the so-called ‘Manta Scramble’, not far from Kabira, where giant rays gather to circle outcrops – and awed divers. Another highlight is off Shiraho where there is a gloablly important colony of blue corals – the largest in the world.
Ishigaki has a number of outstanding peaks and while Mt Nosoko, situated in the northeastern corner of the island, is not the tallest, it is a steep and intriguing challenge.
The trail is all roots at first as you traverse the forested lower slopes: long trousers help here to protect against ticks and leeches. Higher up, slippery clay sections are aided by ropes as the views begin to open out. A final rocky scramble and the summit is yours, along with a panoramic view of the whole island.
A 15-minute boat ride from Ishigaki takes you another step away from 21st-century life. Here traditional homes and traditional ways survive alike. There are few cars, with most people walking, riding a bike or using the buffalo-drawn carts driven by elderly residents. Some have been known to strum on their shamisen as they drive: surely an experience of Okinawa you would never forget. Arguably the highlight is the way of life here, but the beaches are also good: empty and rich with marine life should you don a snorkel and paddle out.
An uncut jewel of an island, Iriomote is the second largest land mass in all of Okinawa prefecture, yet has only one road and around 2,000 residents. Lacking an airport it also has to be accessed by ferry from Ishigaki which deters the casual visitor and makes it the province of those looking for solitude and a largely unspoilt environment.
Most of the hilly interior is covered in luxuriant subtropical forest, reaching up to almost 500 metres. The streams and rivers which run off the interior feature waterfalls that are some of the island’s premier natural sights. Still, many visitors stick to the coastline which features several lovely beaches as well as wide tracts of mangroves.
All this remoteness comes at a cost though: even basic supplies can be expensive and any particular needs are better brought in with you. Getting around is not always easy either. With public transport limited, renting a car is the most flexible approach and you may also find bikes or scooters for hire.
Accommodation is in hotels and rustic guesthouses in the villages as well as at several campgrounds.
With such appealing waters to enjoy, people kite off all the islands but according to Aya Oshima, former Kiteboard Tour Asia women’s champion, the best location is the island of Miyako.
“I recommend Miyako which is the island where I used to live. There is one small kite shop, M-air, which has gear for hire and provides lessons. Miyako has couple of flat spots which are perfect for beginners to advanced riders.”
The main season for kiting runs from October to April, though Oshima advises bringing a selection of kites as the winds are variable, peaking at perhaps 25 knots. You’ll also need a full wetsuit during the winter months.
Tourist season is July to September but there’s little wind unless a typhoon comes by. There are though extra-windy weeks called Kahchibai, in June or July.
“If you can kite at this time it’s awesome: like the wind is steady, warm and super beautiful like you can’t imagine,” says Oshima.
The half-day excursion to the prominent Pinaisaara Waterfall in the north of the island is a classic with its kayaked approach followed by hiking up through the forest. Many people engage the services of a guide for this trip but if you are comfortable in a kayak, there is really no need.
Start by heading upriver until you reach the trailhead – often noticeable by the other kayaks left at this point.
Switching to the land, you can follow the stream from here leading to the base of the fall. Alternatively, you can also access its top from where there are great views out across the forested island. Just be careful up there as the trail is not obvious and requires a tricky stream crossing. If you are unsure how to proceed, wait for a guided party and watch how they do it.
There are other hikes here too, including a day-long, cross-island route of around 21 kilometres but the trail has apparently degraded and become confusing in parts so taking a guide is a smart move.
Scheduled boat and kayak tours are a common way to explore, penetrating a short distance up the rivers, but for more flexibility you can rent your own kayaks and even hire a guide too if you plan an extended trip.
Just 100 kilometres from Taiwan, this rocky island is most famous for the Yonaguni Monument, an area of strikingly stepped rock formations offshore. Arguments have raged for decades over whether they are entirely natural or have been shaped by man but few dive here without being impressed by the spectacle.
An altogether natural underwater spectacle is the schooling of hammerhead sharks that takes place from January to March each year. You’ll need to be an experienced diver for this one though as it’s in deep water with sometimes powerful currents. AA
When to go
February to April is a good choice with pleasant temperatures before the heat builds and rains come in May and June. Peak season for beach-goers is from July to the end of September, though there is also the chance of typhoons disrupting plans. October onwards see the typhoons drop off and milder temperatures resume with even the depths of winter staying relatively balmy compared to the mainland.
How to get there
ANA and JAL run multiple daily flights from Japan’s major cities while international carriers including Dragonair and some low cost airlines, connect Naha with Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere.
Wandering in Okinawan forests at night is unwise, not only because you are liable to get lost but also because it is home to the habu, a large endemic species of pit viper which is mostly nocturnal and is said to have an irritable nature. The snake has some reason to be irritated perhaps as locals use them to make a traditional form of sake.