The Yaeyama Islands are subtropical and even in winter temperatures rarely drop below 15°C, making the area a popular winter getaway, although it's often cloudy and usually a little too cold for sunbathing. Spring, around March and April, is an excellent time to visit if you take care to avoid Golden Week at the end of April. The rainy season starts early in May and continues until June. Summer in Okinawa is hot and humid but still excellent for the beaches, while September-October brings a succession of fierce typhoons that can bring everything to a standstill. November and December are again good times to visit.
The Yaeyama Islands are a long way from anywhere.
The main airport of the islands is Ishigaki. There are frequent connections to Naha and Miyako and limited direct services to major Japanese cities like Tokyo, but no scheduled international services, even from neighboring Taiwan.
A weekly ferry makes the trip from Ishigaki to Kaohsiung and Keelung (Taiwan) on alternate weeks but there is no return service as the ferries head back from Taiwan on to Naha. There are also 4 services per week between Naha and Miyako, and Ishigaki.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 hissing sounds.
The Yaeyama islands have over 200 utaki (御嶽), also known as ogan or on, which are holy places for venerating the gods. Akin to low-key versions of Japanese jinja shrines, they usually do not have torii gates, but are instead marked off with low stone walls and Japanese signage. Don't venture inside.
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.