Taketomi Island: A place of history and tradition

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The fierce red lion looks down from the tiled roof of a traditional house on Taketomi Island. Those guardian lions are called shîsâ in Okinawa, the most Southern province of Japan. Some say that they came to Okinawa via the Silk Road; perhaps they are related to the Egyptian Sphinx. After finishing the tiled roof, and thus the house, the roofer traditionally made a small shîsâ from leftover tiles. This shîsa would sit on the roof in order to protect the house. Today numerous shops sell ready-made shisas of all varieties and sizes.

Everything is in walking distance

At a circumference of just over 9 km, Taketomi is so small that you can walk around the whole island in a few hours. There is only one village with a school, a post office, a couple of restaurants and pensions. And you will find a considerable number of bicycle rental shops. The passenger ferry from the main island of Ishigaki takes about ten minutes, and day-trippers flock to Taketomi because of its rich history, nature, beaches and butterflies.

A road sign points out the former site of the residence of Governor Nishitô. He was a 16th century politician from mainland Okinawa (then the Ryûkyû Kingdom) who ruled over the Yaeyama islands. Back then, the tiny island of Taketomi housed the administration of the whole archipelago for a few decades. Even now the official address for most of the Yaeyama islands except for Ishigaki Island and Yonaguni Island is still „Taketomi Town“. Although the actual administration offices are today situated on Ishigaki Island. It is also worth to spend a few days on nearby Ishigaki island and explore the Chinese Heritage there.

Beautiful Hoshizuna Beach – Starsand Beach

A group of younger Japanese on bicycles follows the sign to the historic residence but then leave the cycles at a designated bicycle parking area nearby. The guy in the rental shop had explained:

“You won’t need a lock. Just remember which one is yours and walk down to the Hoshizuna beach, the “Starsand Beach”

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Hoshizuna Beach is famous for the tiny stars you can find among the sand grains if you look hard enough. These are the star-shaped parts of the skeletons of very small animals in the water. Conveniently, a stall at the beach sells the star sand in small bottles. So instead of frantically searching for those tiny stars, you are free to just enjoy this beautiful stretch of beach and the turquoise water, before boarding your bicycle again.

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The tour groups, who also visit Taketomi Island, do not move about on bicycles. Instead they generally ride around the village in an ox cart. The mighty water buffaloes were only introduced around 1900 from nearby Taiwan, which at that time also belonged to Japan. In fact Okinawa itself had only recently become Japanese. The former Kingdom of Ryûkyû only became part of the Japanese Empire in 1879.

Malaria-free Taketomi

Taketomi was still a major settlement until WWII, not least because it was free of Malaria. It was therefore a safe place to live, contrary to the larger islands. Ironically it was the Japanese army who forced islanders to live on the large, malaria-infested islands such as Iriomote and Ishigaki during the war. In contrast, the Americans, who occupied Okinawa from the end of the war until 1971, managed to extinguish the disease.

While the tourist groups in the ox-carts don’t get much further than the viewing platform and perhaps the small history museum, individual tourists on their bikes have plenty of time. They can amble through the village roads and down some rural paths leading through mangrove forests to some old shrines.

An archaic religion

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In the archaic religion of Ryûkyû, which still flourishes in Okinawa, ancestor shrines are important. They are dedicated to the founding fathers who originally settled on Taketomi and built the village. On Taketomi the name for these shrines is “on”. The shrines originally consisted only of groves of wood. Later a concrete worship building and a Japanese-style gate were usually added. And still these old shrines are power-spots on their own which even we could feel. As most tourists go back to Ishigaki in the evening the village gets quiet after 5 pm. That’s just right if you want to get away from everything for a while.

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Transport to Taketomi Island

Taketomi is only 10 minutes by boat from Ishigaki (around 1200 Yen return). Usually several minibuses belonging to the bicycle rental companies wait at the pier to shuttle customers the 1 km into the village to their shop. All of them have identical prices. Last time we visited (2019) it was 300 Yen for the first hour, then 150 Yen per hour up to a maximum of 1500 Yen per day. Cycling or walking are the best ways to get around on Taketomi Island.

Accommodation on Taketomi Island

The cheapest accommodation is the Je t’aime Guesthouse with dorm beds for around 3000 Yen. Other accommodation, usually Japanese-style pensions with shared bathroom and two meals, start at around 5800 Yen per person. Hirata Kanko at the port in Ishigaki might help with reservations.

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We have visited Taketomi three times since 2009. It was always as part of our work writing German-language travel guide books for Japan, namely the Stefan Loose Japan and the Baedeker Japan.

Read also our posts about the other islands of the Yaeyama Archipel in Southern Japan. Visit Hateruma, Japan’s southernmost island or go kayaking on Iriomote island, Japan’s wildest island.

*** Our ferry tickets to Taketomi were sponsored by Hirata Kankô this time, but we did not receive any further sponsoring for our trip to Taketomi.

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  1. You already won my heart with the red lion – sooo beautiful! Since I had only three weeks for my trip to Japan, I rather focused on the must-see cities. I was even thinking about going to the beach of Okinawa for a couple of days but finally, my fomo won and I paced from temple to temple 😉 Since I enjoyed Japan a lot, I’ll be back – and Okinawa is definitely on my list.

    1. Okinawa is like a different Japan. Much more relaxed, less stiff, more alternative. A lot of people who do not fit into the Japanese society migrate to Okinawa.

  2. We did not explore enough of the Okinawa area of Japan when we visited. And missed a chance to visit Taketomi Island. We would certainly want head over my boat and to visit for the beach. And hope we find one of the star-shaped skeletons. Good to know we can see the whole island by bicycle.

    1. Dear Linda, most people make it only to Okinawa mainland. But the Yaeyama islands are really worth a visit too. Plan one week to see some of the main islands there.

  3. I love travelling in Japan! The furthest south we’ve been so far is Kyushu but Okinawa appeals very much and I’m thinking it would be a great choice for our next trip. Taketomi Island looks delightful, I love tha you can walk around the whole island in a few hours. Though I’m tempted by that ox cart village tour instead! I’d be interested to visit the Ryûkyû shrines too.

    1. Most visitors to Okinawa aim for the beaches, but this is a shame. There is so much more you can do and see apart from snorkeling and diving. Make sure you have a week or more and visit some different islands.

  4. This Shisa tradition is very interesting. We have a very very similar one in southern India called the Drishti bommai which is also hung near the terrace or tiles once the building of the house is completed. Not as far as Egypt, I guess they came from India!
    I love these tiny islands where you can walk and cover the whole place. The mini star fish skeletons at Hozhizuna beaches is very intriguing. Do you prick your feet? Now I really want to see them. I believe in the power on ancient religions and I’m glad to know about Ryûkyû.

    1. Dear Busha, this is interesting! I have to google the Drishti Bommai tradition and see some pictures. The Ryukyu Islands had trading connections with a lot of countries – so the tradition might very well have come from Southern India.

      1. Taketomi island in Okinawa, Japan looks like a quaint small town with everything at walkable distance. And the traditional lion on the rooftop made out colorful tiles looks so enigmatic. It’s interesting how it protects the homes as guardians. It’s interesting how tourists explore the island on oxcarts the ancient Ryukyu religion is still being practiced in the ‘On’ shrines. Also the island has a great historic importance as a previous WWII settlement.

  5. I have actually met someone from Taketomi Island in December, she was in the same tour as me. I remember her saying how small the island was, and also stories about her life back home. She is now living in Europe, but it was still fascinating to hear how she left, and how big of an issue that was for her family, who is very traditional. I like that the main transportation on the island are bikes, keeping the air clean. I also like that you can just leave your bike unlocked, and nobody will take it. That is unheard of in other places of the world. I think that Taketomi Island is a great place to go for a few nights if you want to just relax, away from the city noises.

    1. Dear Joanna, what a coindidence! I think I have never accidently met someone from Taketomi somewhere other than on Taketomi or maybe some other islands in the region. Taketomi is definitely a great place to relax and to learn about the history of the Yaeyama Islands.

  6. Discovering the history of Taketomi Island while exploring the island itself is fascinating. Hoshizuna Beach looks pristine and beautiful, and I want to swim there. I was also drawn to the ancestor shrines. My next journey might take me to Japan, which I’m considering.

  7. I admit that I have not even heard of Taketomi Island before, but I was intrigued by the lion sculpture, as I am from this zodiac. It’s an exciting story that they are related to the Egyptian Sphinx. This small island is unusual on the map of Japan, with beautiful beaches. I imagine that resting here from the hustle and bustle of Japanese cities is possible. The great news is that the island is only nine km long, and it is easy to walk or cycle around it.

  8. This place is indeed worth the visit. The beach looks pristine and beautiful and I find it very relaxing. Its rich history is enough reason for me to hop on a boat and go to this island. Happy to know that accommodations are available and prices are reasonable.

  9. Taketomi sounds enchanting. Easy to explore by bicycle and full of fascinating history and tradition, it seems like a great place to visit. Love the cute little lions perched on the rooftops!

  10. Oh wow I hadn’t even heard of Taketomi Island before reading this post but now it’s on my bucket list as I have been hoping to visit Japan within the next 2yrs. I love that everything is in walking distance and you can cycle around the island as well as the beaches – looks like such a beautiful place to explore

    Laura x

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