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Okinawa Island-hopping Guide: Best islands to enjoy summer in Japan

Okinawa Island-hopping Guide: Best islands to enjoy summer in Japan

Okinawa (沖縄), Japan’s southernmost prefecture, is home to an archipelago of over 160 islands. There’s no other place like Okinawa in Japan because of its unique culture and history. Formerly known as the Ryukyu Kingdom (琉球), Okinawa is blessed with a balmy subtropical climate as it lies in the same latitude zone Hawaii and the Bahamas.

 

Thanks to the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, I spent two life-changing years living and teaching in Okinawa and quickly figured that summer is my favourite season there. Okinawa is breathtaking in summer when the skies and ocean are bluest. One of the best ways to enjoy summer in Japan is to explore the outer islands of Okinawa. Are you ready for a relaxing tropical summer vacation in Japan? Here’s my insider’s guide to the best islands for an island-hopping adventure in Okinawa. 

 

Kerama Islands 

Zamami Island. (Image credit: Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

Designated as the 31st National Park in Japan, the Kerama Islands (慶良間諸 Kerama Shotō) is a cluster of beautiful islands that’s easily accessible from Naha (那覇), the capital city of Okinawa. When I first moved to Naha, I couldn’t believe that I could walk from my apartment to Tomari Port (とまりん Tomarin), hop on a ferry, and reach the islands so conveniently!

 

Kerama Islands are famed for the “Kerama Blue” ocean with teal and turquoise shades illuminating the islands. Out of over 30 islands, there are four inhabited islands—Aka Island (阿嘉島 Aka-jima), Geruma Island (慶留間島 Geruma-jima), and Zamami Island (座間味島 Zamami-jima), and Tokashiki Island (渡嘉敷島 Tokashiki-jima). 

 

Ama Beach. (Image credit: Wendy Ng)

 

The two biggest islands Zamami and Tokashiki are idyllic getaway destinations known for their pristine beaches and vibrant marine life. Zamami Island’s Furuzamami Beach (古座間味ビーチ) attracts beach lovers with its expansive coral reefs and Ama Beach (阿真ビーチ) welcomes sea turtles in the morning. 

 

A short ferry ride away, Tokashiki Island has two popular beaches—Aharen Beach (阿波連ビーチ) and Tokashiku Beach (渡嘉志久ビーチ). Head to the island’s observatories for panoramic views of the island’s rugged cliffs bordered by the brilliant blue ocean. 

 

Connected by a bridge, the smaller Aka Island and Geruma Island are charming islands where you can enjoy slow island life. If you’re lucky, you may spot the rare native Kerama Deers that roam around Geruma Island. 

 

Kerama Islands (慶良間諸)
Access to Zamami Island: 50-70 minutes by express ferry from Tomarin.
Access to Tokashiki Island: 35 minutes by express ferry from Tomarin.
Access to Aka Island and Geruma Island: 50 minutes by express ferry from Tomarin.
There are also smaller ferries that connect Zamami Island, Tokashiki Island, and Aka Island. 

 

Miyako Islands

Yonaha Maehama Beach. (Image credit: Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

The islands with the best beaches and clearest waters are found further away from the Okinawa Main Island (沖縄本島 Okinawa Hontō) and one of such major island chains is the Miyako Islands (宮古島 Miyako-jima). Accessible via a short domestic flight from Naha Airport (那覇空港 Naha Kūkō)(OKA), Miyako Islands is an island hopping haven with eight inhabited islands. You can travel from the main Miyako Island to four islands—Irabu Island (伊良部島 Irabu-jima), Ikema Island (池間島 Ikema-jima), Kurima Island (来間島 Kurima-jima), and Shimoji Island (下地島 Shimoji-jima)—by crossing scenic bridges that rise above the turquoise waters. 

 

Swimming with sea turtles at Wai Wai Beach. (Image credit: Wendy Ng)

 

Miyako Islands are mostly flat and they are renowned for stunning beaches and crystal-clear waters. Voted as one of Japan’s top beaches, Yonaha Maehama Beach (与那覇前浜ビーチ) is a postcard-perfect destination with its endless beach framed by shimmering blue waters. Other beaches popular with locals are Aragusuku Beach (新城海岸 Aragusuku-kaigan) for its kaleidoscopic corals and Wai Wai Beach (わいわいビーチ) for close encounters with sea turtles. 

 

Other than hanging out at the beaches, you can explore the islands’ diverse landscape like the wetlands in Ikema Island and the dramatic cliffs at the southernmost tip of Miyako Island, Cape Higashi Hennazaki (東平安名崎). 

 

Enhance your island-hopping trip with café-hopping as the islands are a treasure trove of hip cafes and quaint shops selling local products and handicrafts. If you love live music, join the locals to celebrate summer at the well-known Miyako Island Rock Festival (宮古島ロックフェスティバル). This highly-anticipated music festival usually takes place around June each year, but this year the festival will be held in October to celebrate its 15th anniversary! .

 

Miyako Islands (宮古島)
Access: 45 minutes by plane from Naha Airport to Miyako Airport (宮古空港)

 

Yaeyama Islands

Kabira Bay. (Image credit: Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

Like the Miyako Islands, Yaeyama Islands (八重山列島 Yaeyama Rettō) are a short flight from Okinawa Main Island. As Okinawa’s southernmost group of islands, these islands have a reputation for their world class beaches and unspoiled nature. There are more than 20 islands to hop around so get ready for non-stop summer fun.  

 

The main island of the Yaeyama Islands chain, Ishigaki Island (石垣島 Ishigaki-jima) is the hub for your island-hopping expedition. Before venturing to the other islands, make a stop at the picturesque Kabira Bay (川平湾 Kabira-wan), where swimming is not allowed because of its black pearl cultivation. Don’t forget to check out the island’s observatories and lighthouses for spectacular views of the island’s scenery framed by lush greenery and azure waters. 

 

Iriomote Island. (Image credit: Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

Take a ferry from Ishigaki Port (石垣港 Ishigaki-kō) to Iriomote Island (西表島 Iriomote-jima), a UNESCO protected site that forms part of the Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park (西表石垣国立公園 Iriomote Ishigaki Kokuritsu Kōen). Nicknamed the “Galapagos of the East”, Iriomote Island boosts Okinawa’s tallest waterfall, Pinaisara Falls (ピナイサーラの滝 Pinaisāra-no-taki), and longest river, Urauchi River (浦内川 Urauchigawa). The island’s primeval subtropical forest and mangroves offer incredible outdoor experiences like hiking and kayaking. Spend a few days on the island to immerse in its tranquil nature and rich biodiversityyou may get the chance to meet the island’s endemic wildlife like the rare Iriomote Cat. 

 

Taketomi Island. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Continue on the island-hopping circuit to Taketomi Island (竹富島 Taketomi-jima). This rustic island is a photographer’s dream with its well-preserved traditional village lined with Okinawan houses—characterised by their iconic red-tiled roofs and shisa statues (シーサー), the island’s guardian lions. 

 

If you have more time, include more islands in your itinerary like Hateruma Island (波照間島 Hateruma-jima), Japan’s southernmost inhabited island that’s famous for star-gazing. Another special island to add to the list is Yonaguni Island (与那国島 Yonaguni-jima). As Japan’s westernmost island, this remote island is a divers’ mecca because of its mysterious underwater ruins and hammerhead sharks. 

 

Yaeyama Islands (八重山列島)
Access to Ishigaki Island: 1 hour by plane from Naha Airport to Ishigaki Airport
Access to Iriomote Island: 45 minutes by express ferry from Ishigaki Port
Access to Taketomi Island: 10 minutes by express ferry from Ishigaki Port
Access to Hateruma Island: 70-100 minutes by express ferry from Ishigaki Port
Access to Yonaguni Island: 30 minutes by plane from Ishigaki Airport to Yonaguni Airport 

 

Tips to enjoy island hopping in Okinawa

Image credit: Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau

 

Before you embark on your island-hopping trip, here are some tips for you to enjoy a relaxing summer break in Okinawa. 

 

  1. Book your transportation in advance—summer is a busy travel period in Japan; many air and ferry tickets may sell out fast.
  2. Pack your sunscreen (reef-safe sunscreen that’s friendly for the ocean), sunglasses, cap, and anything that will protect you from the blazing summer sun.
  3. Be careful when you swim near the coral reefs. Don’t step on the reefs or touch them. Protect yourself by wearing rash guards and aqua shoes.  
  4. Respect the islands and the islanders. Don’t trespass the locals’ private properties and litter their beaches. 
  5. Summer is also the typhoon season so plan a flexible itinerary where you can adjust your destinations based on the weather updates.

 

Header image credit: Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau

 

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