94km (58 miles) W of Okinawa Island
I first visited Kume Island (Kumejima) in the mid-1980s, when it was still considered rather remote, but I have to say that with the exception of more attractions, it hasn't changed much since then. What always comes to mind whenever I picture the island is its natural beauty, its rows of sugar cane accented against red-colored earth, majestic Ryukyu pines, white sandy beaches, and azure seas. A port of call for trade between China and the Ryukyu Kingdom in Naha, Kume Island still displays traces of Chinese influence, from graves and buildings that follow the principles of feng shui (geomancy) to guardian dogs placed virtually everywhere. It's the perfect destination if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, though sights and activities like castle ruins, the historic Uezu Residence, an outlying island popular for snorkeling, a public bath boasting deep-sea mineral water, and a facility dedicated to local weaving would make it hard to remain idle for long. I think the most telling testimony to the down-to-earth, unpretentious nature of the island's 9,300 residents is the products they're known for: deep-sea salt, handmade textiles, their own miso paste and awamori, and -- unsurprising for an island that's been inhabited for more than 1,000 years -- mineral water. If you want, there's a "school" where you can learn more about the island from islanders themselves.
Getting There & Getting Around -- Flights from Naha take 30 minutes and cost ¥11,800 one-way, though flights go as low as ¥8,600 for advance purchases (July-Sept, there are also direct flights from Tokyo). From Naha's Tomari Port, Kume Line Ferries (tel. 098/868-2686) arrive at Kanegusuku Terminal about 4 hours later and cost ¥3,000 one-way or ¥5,700 round-trip.
Kume Airport is located on the north end of the island, the ferry terminal is on the west side, and Kume Town and Eef Beach on the southeast end. An infrequent bus, with a schedule that coincides with flights to and from the airport, travels from the airport and Kanegusuku Terminal to various locations on the island, including Eef Beach Hotel, the Bade Haus, and Kume Town, with a ride all the way to the last stop costing ¥390. Another bus circles part of the island four or five times a day, but only on certain days. Otherwise, taxis start at ¥450; a taxi from the airport to Eef Beach will cost about ¥2,200. Most convenient is to rent a car. Japaren Rent-A-Car (tel. 0120/41-3900 toll-free) offers its cheapest subcompact for ¥4,725 for 24 hours, plus ¥1,050 for insurance, with free pickup at the airport.
Visitor Information -- The Kumejima Town Tourist Association (tel. 098/985-7115; bus stop: Eef Beach Hotel-mae; Mon-Fri 8:30am-5:30pm) is located on the main road of Kume Town.
What to See & Do -- It's probably safe to say most tourists come to Kume Island for its beaches. Most famous is Eef Beach (bus stop: Eef Beach Hotel-mae) on its southeast end, the island's largest beach at 2km (1 1/4 miles) long and certainly one of Japan's best. Most people make a point, too, of taking a boat to Hate-no-Hama, a treeless sandy island surrounded by crystal-clear, aquamarine water just 7km (4 miles) east of Kume Town (bus stop: Tomari Fisherina). You can rent snorkeling equipment here for ¥1,500 from May through October, but there isn't much else to do (pack a picnic lunch). Hate-no-Hama Kanko Service (tel. 090/8292-8854) is one of several boat companies that will take you round-trip for ¥3,500 on a flexible schedule.
Just off the eastern coast is another island, Oujima, connected to Kume Island by bridge and home to several sites (bus stop: Nishi-oujima). Bade Haus Kume-Island (tel. 098/985-8600; daily 10am-10pm) has the distinction of being the only bathing facility in the world that uses 100% deep-ocean water (from depths of 612m/2,020 ft.). Its main pool opens toward a white sandy beach with outdoor deck chairs and open-air Jacuzzi; there's also a steam room, dry sauna, a spa with indoor and outdoor baths, and a treatment room for oil body massages, hot-stone therapy, and other treatments. Admission is ¥2,000; add ¥500 for the spa. Free shuttles run from several resorts, including Cypress Hotel and Eef Beach Hotel. Next to the Bade Haus is the Sea Turtle Museum (Kumejima Umigame Kan) (tel. 098/985-7513; Wed-Mon 9am-5pm), with tanks of baby and adult loggerhead, green, and hawksbill sea turtles. Explanations are in Japanese only, but a 10-minute film shows Kume Island as a major breeding ground. Admission is ¥300 for adults, ¥200 for children. Nearby on the beach is a natural phenomenon, the "Tatami Ishi," a field of hardened lava divided into distinct pentagonal and hexangular shapes.
My favorite attraction is the Yuima-ru Pavilion (Yuima-ru-kan) north of Kume Town (tel. 098/985-8333; bus stop: Maja; daily 9am-5pm), where you can observe women engaged in making tsumugi, a type of silk textile. Of about 250 Okinawan artisans engaged in the craft, 150 of them live on Kume Island. A 30-minute film shows the painstaking steps of collecting the silk and forming the thread, making the dyes from vegetation found on the island, dying each string according to the selected pattern, and then weaving them together on a loom. Remarkably, the women here are engaged in every step, right down to the cultivation of silk worms. You can watch them at work; a shop sells their products.
If you have a car, be sure to stop by the Uezu Residence (Uezuke) on Hwy. 242 (daily 8am-6pm; to 5pm in winter), built in the 1720s as the home of an important lord during the Ryukyu Kingdom and noted for its tiled roof and -- to protect it from typhoons -- limestone wall and fukugi trees. Admission is ¥300 for adults, ¥200 for junior-high students, and ¥100 for children. The Gushikawa and Uegusuku castle ruins are also worth a stop.
Going to School -- You can mingle with the islanders at Shimanogakko (tel. 098/985-3551), which offers excursions and classes for everything from trekking and sea kayaking to trying your hand at tsumugi weaving or playing the sanshin (a three-string instrument). Three-hour kayaking costs ¥6,300, while the 2-hour sanshin lesson costs ¥3,150. Your teacher may not speak English, but you could find the experience priceless.
Hotels -- You'll pay more in peak season, generally from about June through October, Golden Week, and New Year's.
The Yaeyama Islands: Ishigaki & Iriomote
450km (279 miles) SW of Okinawa Island; 2,000km (1,240 miles) SW of Tokyo
The Yaeyama archipelago, closer to Taiwan than to Okinawa Island, is a chain of 19 islands, most of them small. Ishigaki Island, with 80% of the Yaeyama Islands' population, serves as the area's gateway and administrative center. Most famous of the Yaeyama Islands is Iriomote, a rather mysterious island covered mostly with subtropical primeval forests preserved in a national park that you can explore by kayak and on foot. At about the same latitude as the Bahamas, the Yaeyama Islands are also blessed with beautiful beaches and coral reefs. Come here to commune with nature.
Getting There & Getting Around -- Two flights daily from Tokyo's Haneda airport land at Ishigaki Airport 3 1/2 hours later and start at ¥59,400 one-way (as low as ¥21,100 for tickets purchased 28 days in advance). Otherwise, planes depart Naha every hour or less and cost ¥24,100 (¥7,600 for 28-day advance purchase fares on some flights) for the 65-minute trip. A bus travels from the airport to the bus terminal (in downtown Ishigaki near the port) in 15 minutes for ¥200.
Visitor Information -- The Ishigaki Tourist Office, located across from Shinei Park about a 5-minute walk from the bus terminal and Outer Islands Ferry Terminal (tel. 0980/82-2809; www.city.ishigaki.okinawa.jp/International/tourist.html; Mon-Fri 8:30am-5:30pm), has maps and information in English and can help with bus schedules around Ishigaki and ferry schedules to Iriomote.
Ishigaki -- Ishigaki City, on the south end of the island and where most of the island's 48,000 residents live, has an interesting public market just a few blocks inland from the bus terminal and ferry terminal. Of the island's many beaches, Maezato Beach, in front of the ANA Hotel (bus stop: ANA Hotel & Resort), is closest to the city center, but other popular destinations include Sukuji Beach with its long, sandy shoreline (bus stop: Seamen's Club); Kabira Bay, famous for its black pearl cultivation (bus stop: Kabira), and the Yonehara Coast, with its beach, campground, and grove of Yaeyama Palm Trees, found only on these islands (bus stop: Yonehara Palm Grove). Buses are infrequent, so check schedules beforehand; 5-day bus passes range from ¥1,000 to ¥2,000 depending on the route.
Ishigaki is also famous for its corals, many manta rays, and drop-offs. The Umicoza Diving School, 827-15 Kabira (tel. 0980/88-2434; www.umicoza.com) offers diving excursions for the novice and expert alike. Its two-tank dive trip to "manta ray point" costs ¥12,600, including lunch.
Iriomote -- Your main reason for coming this far is Iriomote Island (Iriomotejima), which at 289 sq. km (115 sq. miles) is the second-largest Okinawan island but is almost entirely covered by a dense subtropical forest laced by rivers that drain into Japan's largest mangrove swamp. Its most famous resident is the Iriomote cat, a shy, nocturnal wildcat found only here, but your only chance of seeing one of the 100 or so remaining animals is only a picture of it on many road signs. There are, however, many crabs, birds, butterflies, and other things to see in what is sometimes called "Asia's Amazon."
You can reach Iriomote by ferry ride from the Outer Islands Ferry Terminal in Ishigaki City, with boats departing two to four times an hour for the 40-minute trip. Operated by three different ferry companies, boats travel to Ohara Port on the east coast for ¥1,770 one-way and, less frequently, to Uehara Port on the west coast for ¥2,300. The Iriomotejima Kotsu Bus travels approximately six times a day between the two ports for ¥680; or, purchase a 3-day pass for ¥1,000. Otherwise, each of the ferry companies operates its own buses on Iriomote, which you can ride free only if you purchased their ferry ticket (some drivers, however, don't seem to care).
In any case, because Iriomote is not easy to navigate on your own, this is one of the few times I recommend an organized tour. Hirata Tourism Company, 2 Misaki-cho in Ishigaki City (tel. 0980/82-6711; www.hirata-group.co.jp/english), offers several guided tours in English into Iriomote's remote wilderness that involve hiking and boat trips. The Sangara Falls Tour, for example, available year-round, includes a 30-minute kayak ride along a river beside a mangrove forest followed by a hike over rough terrain to a waterfall, where you have the chance to swim and eat a sack lunch before heading back. Departing at Ishigaki at 8:40am and returning at 4:10pm, it costs ¥14,500 for adults and ¥11,00 for children, including the ferry and lunch.
Although tours provide an up-close view of Iriomote's wilderness, you might want to stay another day or two to enjoy the island's beaches. Hoshizuma no Hama, located north of Uehara Port, is known for its coral and star-shaped sand. Pension Hoshinosuna, a pension/restaurant on the beach rents snorkeling equipment for ¥1,050 for 3 hours, plus a ¥1,000 deposit, and offers diving trips, like a two-tank boat dive for ¥11,000.