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Yaeyama Islands

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Okinawa : Yaeyama Islands
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Kondoi Beach, Taketomi

The Yaeyama Islands (八重山諸島 Yaeyama-shotō) are the westernmost part of Okinawa, Japan.

Islands

Map of the Yaeyama Islands
  • Aragusuku - two small, flat islets with only a handful of people living on one of them
  • Hateruma - southernmost inhabited point of Japan
  • Hatoma - small island north of Iriomote; the main attraction here is that there are no attractions
  • Iriomote - largest of the islands, with mangrove swamps, mountains, and extensive forest cover; home of the elusive Iriomote wild cat
  • Ishigaki - second-largest island with Okinawa's highest mountain and famous Kabira Bay; largest town and transport hub of the islands
  • Kohama - small island that houses one swanky resort
  • Kuro - small, flat island with more cows than humans
  • Taketomi - small, flat island next to Ishigaki with a partly preserved Ryukyu village
  • Yonaguni - westernmost point of Japan, famous for its mysterious underwater stone structures

Understand

The Yaeyama Islands are the remotest and most southwestern part of Japan, closer to Taiwan and even Batanes of the Philippines than Okinawa Island, much less the mainland.

Climate

While most of the Okinawa islands belong to the subtropical climate, technically Yaeyama Islands belong to the tropical rainforest climate which results in the winter temperature being 2-4 Celsius degrees higher than on Okinawa Island and the other islands in the northern part of the Okinawa archipelago. Even in January and February, the average high temperature is 21°C (70°F), making the area a popular winter getaway, although it's often cloudy and windy due to the winter monsoon which makes it a bit too cool for sunbathing. Spring, around March and April, is an excellent time to visit. The rainy season starts early in May and continues until June. Summer in Yaeyama Islands is hot and humid but still one of the peak visiting seasons, while September-October brings a succession of fierce typhoons. November and December are again good times to visit.

Talk

Handy Yaeyaman glossary
Some words you may run into:

  • やいま yaima - Yaeyama
  • おーりとーり ōritōri - welcome
  • くよーナーら kuyōnāra - hello
  • にーふぁいゆー nīfaiyū - thank you
  • まーさん māsan - delicious

Note that spellings and pronunciations vary not just from island to island, but according to the speaker's preferred rendering in kana.


Due to their isolation the Yaeyama Islands are a linguist's dream. While standard Japanese is spoken everywhere and the main Okinawan language is also well understood, there is a unique Yaeyaman language (yaimamunii) as well. Ishigaki, Iriomote and Taketomi all have their own dialects of this, and Yonaguni's is so distinct that it's usually considered its own language.

An indigenous ideographical writing system known as kaidā was once employed on Taketomi and Yonaguni, but is now primarily found on T-shirts in souvenir shops.

See also: Yaeyama phrasebook, Yonaguni phrasebook

Get in

The Yaeyama Islands are a long way from anywhere.

By plane

The main airport of the islands is Ishigaki. There are frequent connections to Naha as well as limited direct flights to major Japanese cities like Tokyo. And although there is currently no regularly scheduled international service to neighboring Taiwan, there has been an increasing number of charter flights in previous years, including a trial service with three flights a week between Ishigaki and Hualien, at the east coast of Taiwan, that was offered by TransAsia Airways from November 2009 until October 2010. Whether the service on this route will be re-opened in the spring of 2011 is not yet known, but direct flights between Ishigaki and Taipei, operated by Mandarin Airlines, are scheduled to begin in April of 2011. Interested travelers in Taiwan can get the latest information directly from the airlines' offices as well as from some larger travel agencies, while those in Okinawa can get it from larger travel agencies that are known to handle these flights, such as Okinawa Tourist and Chuo Tourist. The establishment of a year round regular international service is being negotiated at present and would begin at the latest with the opening of the new Ishigaki airport in 2013.

By boat

Since Ryukyu Kaiun took the last passenger ferry out of service in 2006 and Arimura Sangyo went out of business altogether in 2007, there are no scheduled services to Taiwan, mainland Japan or islands outside the Yaeyama group. (Between late April to the end of October, Star Cruises [1] operates cruises from Keelung (near Taipei, Taiwan) to Okinawa Island, Miyako Island, and Ishigaki Island, but this is not a ferry service.)

Get around

By plane

Japan Transocean Air and Ryukyu Air Commuter have limited flights (1-2 services daily) from Ishigaki to Yonaguni and Hateruma.

By boat

There are frequent services from Ishigaki to Taketomi (just 10 minutes) and Iriomote (40 minutes). Regular boats also connect to the other islands, including the more remote Hateruma, and Yonaguni. The major operators are Anei Kankō and Yaeyama Kankō Ferry.

See

Kabira Bay, Ishigaki

The Yaeyama Islands are about as off the beaten track as it gets in Japan, but each has its own distinct character. Ishigaki has some spectacular beaches and Iriomote is the only island in all Japan with authentic jungle and mangrove forests, while tiny Taketomi is known for its carefully maintained traditional Ryukyu village.

Do

Thanks to the pristine coral reefs that surround practically all the islands, scuba diving is the number one sports activity. Ishigaki is known for its manta rays, while Yonaguni's star attractions are hammerhead sharks and underwater ruins.

Even with just a snorkel and mask, it's possible to see a good assortment of tropical fish and other marine life among the reefs just a short distance from the beaches. The best spots are probably Nakamoto Beach on Kuro Island and Star Sand Beach on Iriomote.

Snorkeling around Hatoma Island

Eat

Yaeyaman luxuries: Steak and beer, Ishigaki

Yaeyama's best-known dish is the ubiquitous Yaeyama soba (八重山そば), which bears little resemblance to soba on the mainland: the Yaeyaman version consists of white wheat noodles in a mild pork-based stock, garnished with chunks of pork (sōki), some slices of fish cake and red ginger. Available everywhere for ¥400-500 a bowl.

The local beef is also renowned, although needless to say in Japan prime steaks don't come cheap. The tiny island of Kuro, in particular, is known for having more cows than people.

Some of the more exotic local fare on offer includes snake soup and mimigā, a salad of pork ear, cucumber and vinegar.

Drink

As elsewhere in Okinawa the tipple of choice is awamori, the best known local brand being Yaesen (八重泉), but Yonaguni is also known for its deadly 60° hanazake. In addition to the ubiquitous Orion beer, Ishigaki also houses a microbrewery.

Stay safe

Yaeyama poses no health risks apart from those found elsewhere in Okinawa. Use plenty of suntan lotion and don't insert your hands into holes in trees that make suspicious hissing sounds.

Respect

The Yaeyama islands have over 200 utaki (御嶽, Japanese pronunciation: "otake"), known in the local language as ogan or on, which are sacred sites (places for venerating the gods). By order of the Japanese government, those "on" pertaining to villages (some of which only survive in the form of city sections now) as well as other more official "on" were outfitted with "torii" (鳥居)- Japanese shrine (神社, "jinja") gates - after the annexation of the Ryukyu kingdom (today's Okinawa Prefecture), but there are subsequently still many that don't have such gates but are instead marked off in other ways, for example, with low stone walls and Japanese signage. Please don't venture inside.

Cope

The definitive reference to the islands is Nanzansha's Yaeyama Guide Book (やえやま GUIDE BOOK, ISBN 4876413886, Amazon.co.jp), but alas, the only words of English in this yearly-updated tome are in the title. Still, the maps and thorough listings are invaluable, particularly for the smaller islands. Available in better bookstores throughout Japan for ¥1200, and older copies can almost always be found sitting around in Yaeyaman lodgings.

The free Yaeyama Navi (八重山ナビ) pamphlet with large, detailed maps is also quite good, but the listings inside are limited to paid advertisements.

The ferry companies offer package tours to the islands and information is available at the ferry terminal though most of it is in Japanese.



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