South to Yaeyama
I start on Iriomote, the second largest island in Okinawa Prefecture (the Yaeyama Islands are in its southwest). Of its 290 square kilometres, 90 per cent of Iriomote is covered by rugged subtropical jungle and mangrove forests.
One of the best ways to experience the untouched beauty of Iriomote's wild side is by joining a half-day Urauchi River jungle cruise. Urauchi River is the main artery that runs across Iriomote. It’s at its widest in the island’s northwest corner, but tapers off into a cluster of tributaries once it hits the middle of the map. Along its reaches, it is home to a diverse ecosystem of wildlife – both salt and freshwater – and is the jumping-off point for some of the most spectacular waterfalls in Okinawa.
After leaving the port, the journey takes us down the river, flanked by lush mangroves that are themselves backed by views of rolling green mountains. Thirty minutes later I’m at my first destination: a rocky shore and pathway leading into the jungle. I follow the narrow trail to Mariyudu Falls, the first point of interest on the walk. Here the water almost seems to defy gravity, flowing across almost perfectly flat horizontal banks before finally tipping into the pool.
Kanbire (Kanpira) Falls, a 20-minute walk down the path, is the highlight. Like a scene from Jurassic Park, it is oversized and prehistoric in its geological make-up. Looking at its wide ledges flooded with water, it's almost impossible to believe this is Japan. Satisfied with what I've witnessed, it's time to leave Iriomote in search of beachier surrounds.
In recent years, Ishigaki has become the ‘go to’ destination for those who consider themselves in the know. Ishigaki is home to what is regarded as the urban centre of the Yaeyama Islands family, and the region's major airport and ferry terminals. It's tourist-friendly but has avoided any major commercialisation, making it somewhere with plenty of activities to offer visitors but also a dedication to preserving culture.
I visit Tom Sawyer Marine Shop, conveniently located just a short walk from the port, and sign up for a snorkelling trip. I pick up a wetsuit, grab some goggles, hop on board the boat and head out to sea. During the 15-minute cruise, the guide gives everyone a rundown on what’s going to happen, but this isn’t my first snorkelling experience, and the conditions are near perfect, so I don't have much to worry about. Then we’re in the water, free to paddle out over the reef to inspect the vivid coral and sea life below us.
There’s something about the energy of Ishigaki that seems to fuel creativity. I suspect it's a result of the optimistic feeling of freedom that comes with living in a tropical paradise that is at once seemingly removed from the rest of the world, but still imbued with culture. I visit the Minsah Kogei Museum and find a place where history and forward-thinking creativity combine. During Okinawa's Ryukyu Dynasty period (15th century to 1879), a time when Chinese influence and local kings ruled, a local form of weaving known as minsah flourished. Innovative local designs have kept the trade alive to this day and, in the store, you can choose modern accessories adorned with the minsah chequerboard-style pattern.
On my mini-art tour, I also make a stop at Ishigaki Pottery Studio. Also known as Ishigaki-yaki or tenmoku these ceramic pieces were inspired by techniques crafted in China, but the rich blue that features heavily in the design is unmistakable as Okinawan, much like the seas that surround the islands. The pieces are so beautiful they're found across the world in institutions including the British Museum, the V&A, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
On the north coast of Ishigaki is Kabira Bay, which is as close to paradise as you can find in this part of the world. It's the island's most famous beach with good reason – pure white sand, bright aqua blue water and rocky cliffs topped with tufts of green make it seem as if tropical islands across the world have donated their best features. The sprawling beauty that can be seen from the shoreline is only half of what's in store. On a glass-bottomed boat, I see colourful fish, monolithic growths of textured coral and even the occasional turtle surfacing to say hello.
Further inland, the Ishigaki Stalactite Cave is my next stop. The cave was formed more than 200,000 years ago and many of its naturally crafted sculptures are more than three metres high. While passing through I come shoulder to shoulder with the cave's star – a cluster of stalactites that look like the silhouette of Totoro, Studio Ghibli's most famous furry giant. Occasionally the cave plays host to live musical performances, which one can only imagine would have to be some of the world’s most magical gigs.
By way of Banna Park Observation deck – from it you can almost see the entirety of the Yaeyama Island family before you – I head to Yaima Village for a soba lunch and a trip back in time. This amusement park, built in the image of old-world Yaeyama, is the perfect place to get an idea of what Okinawa once looked like. It's home to replica Ryukyu Kingdom houses complete with snarling shisa (lion dog) figures guarding homes against unwelcome guests.
Intrigued by theatrical squeals and singing, I make my way to the back of one of the traditional homes where I find an older couple performing to a pair of bemused but enthralled guests. The woman is like a human tornado leaping, shouting and running, while her male companion is almost still apart from his fingers keeping the rhythm of his sanshin playing.
The izakaya is a stable of Japanese social life. A combination of bar, dining establishment and community hangout, it's where families come to eat, co-workers come to relax, and weary travellers arrive to knock back a few frosty mugs of local Orion Beer before the day is done. While food is a regionally specific experience throughout Japan, it's a whole different level in Okinawa, where the seafood is more diverse and the techniques and flavours are influenced by both the country's proximity to China and Taiwan and the islands’ American military history after World War II. I pop into brightly lit Izakaya Satsuki and order sashimi, goya champuru (a stir-fry of bitter melon, pork and tofu), and umi budo, the salty, pop-in-your-mouth seaweed that's famous around these parts.
As I drain my beer and empty my plates, I feel the grains of sand from Kabira Bay floating around in the soles of my shoes. I think about how sand seems to follow you wherever you go after a beach holiday, hidden in the folds of every shirt, nestled into the fibre of your beach towels. And while it's going to take me a while to get rid of it all this sand, it feels like a gift to be able to bring a tiny piece of this Okinawa back home.
This story is sponsored by JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization).
ANA operates daily flights between Tokyo Haneda Airport and New Ishigaki Airport. From there, high-speed ferries run to two ports on Iriomote: Ohara Port in the island’s south and Uehara Port in the north. Bookings can be made on the Direct Ferries website.