November 1, 2019

Okinawa's Miyakojima

Found far to the south of the Japanese mainland, Okinawa's island of Miyakojima is a one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

The crystal clear ocean waters of Okinawa Prefecture's Miyakojima

Dear reader,

If I were to ask you to conjure up an image of Japan, what would it be? If you’re like most overseas visitors, you’ll likely envision some amalgam of historic cultural attractions and high tech wizardry. While these mental representations of Japan are not necessarily wrong per se, they unfortunately do not encompass all that the country has to offer. You see, unbeknownst to many tourists, Japan is also a great destination for those looking for a beachside getaway. While Japan may not have the notoriety of Bali or Cebu, the country can actually hold its own against the best of the best in this regard. Frankly, it’s a real shame that more people don’t know about this secret side of Japan.

On that note, as you can probably already guess, we’ll be taking a look at Okinawa Prefecture in this article. Rather than cover the more well recognized main island though, I’ll instead opt to introduce a lesser known set of isles that are collectively called the Miyakojima Islands. After all, this is a blog about getting off the beaten path and I am a bit of a self-admitted snob when it comes to hidden gems. My personal predilection aside though, Miyakojima is nothing short of a top notch contender when it comes to resort destinations. What’s more, it is easily accessible from any of Japan’s major airports, meaning that you can experience a taste of the mainland’s attractions as well.

Before we go any further, allow me to quickly explain why I haven’t yet covered Okinawa on this blog before. Put simply for readers who lack the historical context, the prefecture actually was not part of Japan until quite recently. In fact, for centuries, present day Okinawa existed as a completely independent country known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. Though it technically served as a tributary state to China, the Ryukyu Kingdom was also secretly two-timing with the Tokugawa shogunate in its later years (albeit at swordpoint). As such, Okinawa’s historical narrative is as complex as they come and really deserves its own stand-alone piece.

Seeing as I want to focus on having fun in the sun for this one, I am going to break from my typical style and largely omit the backstory in this article; My apologies to the history buffs out there. Hopefully, one of these days I’ll find the time to properly introduce the Ryukyu Kingdom. At least insomuch as Miyakojima is concerned though, a narrative is not really necessary to truly appreciate the destination. What’s more, much of the cultural side of the island is off-limits to outsiders so at best, narration would add token supplementary information.

Getting to Okinawa’s Miyakojima

A Japan Airlines ticket to Miyakojima from Tokyo

Let’s pause for a minute to cover some logistics and geography. As you can easily see by referencing a map, Miyakojima is actually closer to Taiwan and the Philippines than it is to Japan. Located over 1,700 kilometers from Tokyo, this Okinawan island is only reachable via airplanes and cruise ships (more on that later). Unlike nearly every other destination in Japan, there’s simply no way to reach this one by train. Luckily though, there are many direct flights from any of the country’s major airports. Sadly, you will not be able to use your JR Rail Pass; however, the prices aren’t all that steep for domestic travelers should you choose to visit during off-peak seasons.

Anyway, in my case, I took an early morning flight from Tokyo that departed at 6:40 AM. While flight schedules are subject to change, it looks like both JAL and ANA operate routes to Miyakojima with Jetstar Japan also flying to the nearby Shimojishima. In all honesty, it doesn’t really matter which airline you book so just opt for whichever carrier offers a better rate and/or flight itinerary. Note that public transportation on Miyakojima is rather lacking, at least when compared to major metropolitan centers like Tokyo or Osaka. Though there are some buses, it would be in your best interest to just rent a car or taxi as doing so will greatly increase the quality of your trip.

Okinawa’s Miyakojima is Paradise on Earth

Irabu Bridge, a 3.5 kilometer bridge that gap between Irabujima and the main island of Miyakojima

I’m not really sure how to describe it in words alone but few places on this planet are as beautiful as Miyakojima. Honestly, the picture above just doesn’t even begin to do Miyakojima justice. Of course, with jaw dropping hues of blue like that, is it any surprise that Miyakojima is home to some splendid beaches? What’s more, in addition to the many beaches, there are also a variety of viewpoints from which you can simply savor Miyakojima. To keep this article as succinct as possible, I am opting to just list out the top spots that I think are worth visiting on the island.

  • Irabu Bridge
    Miyakojima’s main island is connected to three of its smaller neighbors by a set of elongated bridges. Of these, the one that spans the 3.5 kilometer gap between Irabujima and the main isle is the lengthiest. Depicted above, this viaduct allegedly is the longest toll-free bridge in all of Japan. Note that you can occasionally witness sea turtles swimming amongst the coral from Irabu bridge.
  • Yonaha-Maehama Beach
    This seven kilometer long stretch of white sand is often hailed as one of the best beaches in Japan. In addition to its cobalt blue waters, the shore also boasts many washrooms, shower facilities, and shops. Likewise, Yonaha-Maehama beach is also perfectly designed for play. Here, you’ll find many venues for renting kayaks, jet skis, etc. By the way, the best location to view the beach is from the Ryugu-jyo observation deck. You’ll find this on the island of Kurimajima which sits just off the coast of the main isle.
  • Sunayama Beach
    This secluded cove is located to the north of Miyakojima’s main isle. Boasting a natural limestone arch, this spot is one of the area’s most iconic attractions. Despite its unforgettable beauty though, Sunayama Beach’s powdery white sands are rarely ever crowded. If you just want to get away from it all, this is the seascape for you.
  • Cape Higashi-Hennazaki
    Located on the most southeastern part of Miyakojima’s main island, this two kilometer long strip of land is home to a gorgeous lighthouse. For a meager fee, you can clamber to the lookout on the upper levels and take in the entirety of Cape Higashi Hennazaki’s splendor. The view is easily worth the climb up the one-hundred steps.
  • Shigira Ogon Onsen
    This natural hot spring holds the distinction of being both the southernmost and westernmost onsen in Japan. Located right along the coast of Shigira Beach, here you can enjoy a relaxing soak while blissing out to the rhythmic sounds of nearby ocean waves. Entry will run you around two-thousand yen or so but the panoramic views and lush greenery easily justify the cost.

Note that not all of the beaches allow swimming. While this may feel like a bit of a downer, you should know that there’s a good reason backing the prohibition. Simply stated, poisonous jellyfish and deadly riptides are not hazards to be taken lightly. Sadly, every year a few individuals refuse to heed the warnings and end up losing their lives due to their own stupidity. Unless you want to win yourself a Darwin Award, don’t try to swim at restricted locations!

Miyakojima’s Many Fun Activities

Okinawan chomeiso, a herb that is said to help prolong life

Those who know me well are already aware of this but I am absolutely obsessed with living as long as possible. Seeing as the Okinawans have some of the longest life spans around, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I’ve been itching to learn more about their diet and lifestyle. Recently, while visiting Miyakojima’s neighboring island of Irabujima, I got the chance to partake in a local food foraging tour with the island’s residents. As we explored the small islette together, my guide explained the importance of various herbs in Okinawan cuisine. For example, the cutting pictured above is called chomeiso (lit. “long life grass”) and is said to extend life.

While I cannot say that I hold all the answers to the Okinawans’ longevity, it was insightful to spend time cooking up what we collected with the residents of Irabujima. As we prepared our lunch together, it became apparent to me that considering diet alone might not be enough to see the whole picture. Though the meal was certainly made with the freshest of ingredients, it wasn’t exactly what I’d call low carb. In light of this, I have a hunch that the long lives of the Okinawans have a lot more to do with the lack of chronic stress and a strong sense of community versus one’s daily nutrition.

If you’d like to follow in my footsteps and forage for your own food, shoot hitoki@plannet4.co.jp an email. Alternatively, you can check out the tour offerings on their website as well. Seeing as I speak Japanese fluently and ended up doing the entire interaction in the native tongue, I cannot comment on their English capabilities. That said, to really really get the most out of the experience, you should try to drag along a Japanese friend if possible (or hire a bilingual guide if your pockets are deep). The added context really enhances your wild foraging adventure.

In addition to these tours, keep in mind that Miyakojima is also known for its great snorkeling and diving. Seeing as the island has some of the clearest waters around, it should really come as no surprise that these activities are big draws. Still, it can seem daunting to make the arrangements if you don’t speak the local tongue. To circumvent this problem, I suggest you contact Eco Guide Cafe. Their friendly staff are quite proficient in English and will ensure that you have no issues.

Finding Okinawan Culture on Miyakojima

Donny Kimball dresses up as Okinawan royalty at Miyakojima Taiken Craft Village

While I know that I said I wouldn’t touch much on the culture, I do want to break with that for a second to introduce some hands-on experiences. Unlike the mainland, where shrines and temples almost beckon you to come in, similar sites on Miyakojima feel a bit more private and are not as inviting. Because of this, getting your cultural fix while on Miyakojima is comparatively a bit of a challenge. Though there are of course some intriguing spots to see, this area of Japan is more for those who are looking to savor nature or catch a few rays before going back to the daily mundane.

Nevertheless, if you’re feeling the need to scratch that itch, there’s a location in the center of the island known as the Miyakojima Taiken Craft Village. Here, visitors can dress up in the traditional ensemble of a Ryukyu Kingdom courtier as can be seen above. For my female readers, know that they also have some exquisite Ryukyuan kimono to try on too. I ended up doing the entire exchange in Japanese so I can’t exactly vouch for English language capabilities but you should be able to get by with the assistance of something like Google Translate.

Not into playing dress up? Don’t worry, there’s something for the artists out there too. Immediately adjacent to the venue where you procure historical garments, you’ll find a craft workshop. Here, you can try your hand at making figures called shisha. The sculptures can be found all over Okinawa and are analogous to the komainu lion-dogs that you find throughout Asia. The figures are said to bring good fortune and make for great memorabilia. Just note that you’ll need to wait up to a month for the clay to be fired in the kiln meaning you’ll need to have your creation shipped to you.

Oh, and if you are more of a museum type of person than hands-on, know that the nearby Miyakojima City Museum also features some decent exhibits to enjoy as well. While the majority of the explanations are available only in Japanese, the main points have been summarized for those unable to read the local language. You’ll find the museum located here. Entry will run you only three-hundred yen.

Attractions Near Okinawa’s Miyakojima

A cruise ship from Costa Cruise departs from the port of Miyakojima

OK, I have a confession to make. As amazing as Miyakojima is, I’d be hard pressed to recommend just visiting the island alone. If you’re going to make the effort to go all the way down to Okinawa, it would really behoove you to visit some of the other islands too. Alas, while some of the nearby isles are accessible by smaller crafts, locations like the picture perfect Ishigaki and the rest of the Yaeyama Islands will require that you fly. Sadly, I’ve heard that this can end up being as expensive as a flight back to the mainland.

Thankfully for you, the reader, there’s an alternative. As you can probably surmise by looking at the above image, this solution is to visit Miyakojima and the rest of Okinawa as part of a cruise itinerary. While you’ll need to make do with the limited port call windows (which really feel far too short), a cruise ship will handle the accessibility issue. Though you will certainly need to make some sacrifices, I can think of no better way to sample the entirety of the Okinawan Islands.

Seeing as I am not blessed with the ability to see the future, I am going to have to leave it up to you to do your own research. As of this writing, I can comment that Costa Cruises has a great itinerary that departs from Okinawa Prefecture’s capital city of Naha and then continues on to Miyakojima and Ishigaki. If you do opt for a cruise though, be sure to do research on what to do once you’ve arrived in port so that you don’t waste time. That challenge with cruises is that you only have a few hours to enjoy each destination so make it count!