A purple heron is wading through the shallow water, followed by a couple of ducks. Only some unpaved roads and small foot paths lead towards the lakes and wetlands in the interior of Ikema Island, a small island north of Miyakojima Island in Southern Japan.
Not many tourists venture out here and even the circumferential road around the island providing access to the wetlands, a lighthouse, an unusual stone formation on the coast, and a few hotels is not very busy. Since 1992, Ikema is linked to the larger island of Miyakojima by a long bridge over beautiful coral sea. But still, it is among the most distant attractions from Miyakojima’s main port town of Hirara.
A retreat for sailors
Hirara itself is a rather gritty sailors’ town with run-down quarters near the harbour, a couple of streets with pubs and nightclubs, and a small tourist centre. Catering mostly to Japanese travellers, almost every restaurant is offering a show of local sanshin music in the evening.
Hirara’s history is dating back into the time of the Ryûkyû kings. These local rulers governed Miyakojima Island from 280 km away Okinawa mainland, and there are some historic remains from this time. They include tombs of local rulers from the 15th century and a tax marker that indicated who was tall enough to pay taxes! The logic is that children growing taller than around 1.40 m were considered old enough. In addition, we find a memorial stele sent by German Emperor Wilhelm I in 1876.
A German castle on tropical Miyakojima Island!
Emperor Wilhelm I was impressed by the islanders’ altruistic rescue of the sailors of a German trade ship. Oh, and perhaps he appreciated the opportunity to establish diplomatic relations with a small kingdom strategically located off the Asian coast in the Pacific.
The long-established friendship with Germany also led to the foundation of a “German Culture Village” on Miyakojima.
The main attraction in Miyako’s German village is a 1:1 model of a mediaeval German castle – the Marksburg. Its strong walls and mediaeval European look strangely contrast with the lush green and the blue ocean in the background.
Fantastic beaches, turquoise blue water and coral reefs surround Miyakojima. When you aren’t diving or snorkelling, the fun thing to do is driving around the island and over to several other islands connected by bridges. Rental cars are pastel-coloured “light vehicles” and feel like bumper cars. The speed limit is 40 km/h everywhere on Miyakojima.
Kurima-jima (Kurima Island)
Kurima-jima is a tiny island south of Miyakojima, connected by a bridge. With its laid-back atmosphere, plus nice beaches, it attracts a small community of divers, esoterics and dropouts. The Kurimajima Bridge was built in 1995, when the island’s population consisted of less than 200 sugar cane farmers.
The islands Irabujima and Shimojima
The newest addition to the bridges is the huge Irabujima Bridge. It is stretching 3.5 km over the coral-studded sea towards Irabujima Island. Or rather, towards the twin islands of Irabujima and Shimojishima, only divided by a canal of brackish water.
Dozens of large rocks are scattered around the bay on the northern side of the two islands. Picturesque and peaceful, we feel. But then we read how the rocks arrived in the bay! In 1771, a great tsunami struck the Ryukyu region, carrying huge rocks such as these and drowning whole islands. On Ishigaki, just 100 km from here, the wave was reportedly up to 80 m high. On the way around the island we notice the red tsunami warning signs detailing one’s elevation above sea level. “5 m”, “10 m”, we read, and where most of the houses are, “20 m”. At least the latter signs are not red – but yellow. Nowhere on Irabujima is “green” with regard to tsunami warnings.
Most of Shimojishima, the smaller and more distant of the two islands, is off-limits: A fully-fledged airport runway takes up most of the island. It has mainly been used as a training airport for commercial airlines. But in 2019 the Shimojishima Airport also opened for passengers – currently on a few domestic routes. For Miyakojima Island, this could mean a huge increase in tourist capacities for the future, especially if it starts bringing in international travellers.
The Island of Great Gods
But one small island may withstand the tourist influx nonetheless: Ôkamijima, the Island of Great Gods, is the only nearby island without a bridge to Miyakojima Island itself. A ferry boat leaves 4 times a day for Ôkamijima, only 15 minutes away from Miyakojima. The island has only one road, about 1 km long, and a settlement of about a dozen houses and about 30 inhabitants. Mostly they are elderly – and did we mention the red cats? There are no cars, but lots of interesting rocks and old tombs. A large part of the island consists of a holy mountain, and several other holy areas are not accessible year-round.
If you want to travel to Japan and like beaches, snorkelling and exploring, Miyakojima might be the place for you. Would you like to visit? Also have a look at some of our other posts about beaches and islands in Japan, such as the Kerama Islands or Hateruma Island.
Access to Miyakojima Island
Currently there are only a few domestic Japanese airline connections to Miyakojima. They tend to be more expensive than to the other islands of Okinawa.
Once on Miyako Island there are only a few bus connections (also over the bridges to the smaller islands). Renting a car is neither difficult nor expensive.
Accommodation on Miyakojima Island
Most hotels and tourist facilities are in Hirara, but especially the Southern part of Miyakojima is also quite populated. Accommodation is available near the beaches and on all islands. So far, the Miyakojima Islands tend to be somewhat more exclusive and expensive than other areas of Okinawa.
Note: We paid all expenses ourselves and we did not get any sponsoring for our trip to Miyakojima Island.
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