Cycle from beach to beach with local soba for lunch and see the Okinawan town of Taketomi from a water buffalo cart—all 15 minutes away from Ishigaki.
The most visited island from Ishigaki, Taketomi has only around 300 residents and is home to a beautifully preserved Ryukyu village. The dirt roads in the village mean bikes are a better option than cars—and the size of the island means you can even explore by foot if you prefer. This is not Japan as you know it though. There are no convenience stores, few vending machines and you need plenty of change as the island struggles to keep it. The ferry port is the only modern building and others must be built following the strict preservation rules of the Ryukyu style. So enjoy stepping into quiet island life, if only for a day.
The Ryukyu Village
Coral sand roads lined with stone walls bedecked with flowers—there aren’t many places prettier, especially during the flower season. The traditional red-tiled, single-storey houses are each guarded by Shisa—two lion-like guardians of the property. These are an Okinawan symbol and you’ll soon see quite a collection of expressions and designs around the village. There are a few sights in the Village but the streets themselves are the main attraction, so enjoy a relaxed cycle and explore whatever interesting streets you see!
Nagomino Tower and the oldest house in the village
Although it may appear to be a slightly precarious concrete tower reminiscent of fire station practice buildings, this tower offers the only full view of the village on the island. Perched on top of Akayama Hill which was once the site of King Akayama’s castle, you can enjoy the views and try not to fall off! (It is closed on windy days, and although no one has been injured yet, be careful).
At the foot of the hill is the oldest building in the village, easy to spot as it’s right on the corner and has purple nori hanging in front. The red tiles were used to signify wealth compared to the original thatched houses which preceded them.
The craft museums
The Kihoin Shushukan is part of the complex of the southernmost temple of Japan. It displays around 4000 artifacts of the island’s crafts, from torture tools to the only tax scales left in Japan. They explain the island funeral ceremony as well as currency and dialects on the island, although there is not much information in English.
Opening Hours: 9am – 5pm (Closed during the Tanedori Festival)
Taketomi Folk Craft Museum
The Taketomi Folk Craft Museum focuses on the art of fabric dyeing and has weaving demonstrations too. The dyes and ingredients are produced on the island and you can see examples of finished pieces.
Opening Hours: 9am – 5pm (Closed during the Tanedori Festival)
Lunch at Takenoko Soba
The best spot on the island to try Yaeyama soba, Takenoko has seating indoor and out, as well as a much needed names list by the door. You may be faced with a sizable queue, but the turnover is pretty fast; and in nice weather it’s a pleasant place to take a break.
The menu is simple but has everything you need, namely Yaeyama soba. The regional dish has island spices and round, thin noodles topped with pork or sometimes vegetables (normal Okinawan noodles are flat) and a tuna, pork and seaweed broth. It’s delicious and the servings are a good size—with a side of the local fried rice a great accompaniment.
We tried all three of the main soba dishes, with the top dish being the traditional Okinawan soba, and the one on the right being the local specialty—all were delicious though!
Cool off with kakigori
In hot weather, there is nothing better that a tower of shaved ice (kakigori) and why not have one with a view of the famous tower? Haayanogomi Cafe is directly opposite (take the stairs at around the right corner of the building) and has a really relaxed atmosphere, with an English menu and delicious food.
We opted for the specialty of muscovado sugar and milk and it was basically heaven. They have a lunch menu too, as well as selling the small Okinawan donuts you’ll see during your trip—so it’s a great place to try the full gamut of island cuisine. The staff are super friendly too!
Alternatively, the more famous Parlor Painu Island has a great reputation for shaved ice, which is packed especially tight—but they will have long queues.
Hayanogomi Cafe: Taketomi 379, Yaeyamagun Taketomicho Okinawa | 10am – 5pm 7pm – 10pm
Parlor Painu Island: Taketomi 417, Yaeyamagun Taketomicho, Okinawa | 10am -5.30pm
Water buffalo tours
There is one very traditional form of transport on the Yaeyama islands, and that is water-buffalo carts. Using retired water buffalo from all over Japan (ours was from Hokkaido), two companies offer short tours around the village.
You can see the buffalo resting in the village center and will no doubt have to avoid the carts as you’re cycling. They are reasonably priced, with a 30-minute village tour costing 1,200 yen, although the information is mainly in Japanese. Some tour guides will sing traditional Okinawan music during the tour too!
If you’re here during good weather, the beaches here are stunning, and perfect for a dip, although a couple do prohibit swimming (Aiyaru and Misashi beaches). You can walk to them or bike, but in the heat it can be quite a trek on foot if you’re planning to go between them.
There is a main road which runs around the island (less than 10km in total), and you can basically follow it all the way, turning off whenever you see an interesting path (we found many a small beach this way) . Be prepared for many beach-reveal moments where you suddenly see a bright blue sea and yellow sand appear through a tunnel of trees… it doesn’t get any less impressive each time it happens.
Slightly west of the southernmost tip of the island, Kaiji beach is famous for star sand and is popular for swimming as well as sand-sifting. The tiny white stars are actually the skeletons of tiny sea creatures (but that name isn’t so cute), and can be found by careful searching to bring good luck. If you aren’t the sand-sifting kind you can browse the sea-side stalls for little sand souvenirs. This beach is the one above!
With the longest stretch of golden sand on the island, this is one of the most popular spots for summer and is often very busy. It is very close to Kaiji beach on the west side of the island. This is the only beach with public facilities and also has a lot of very friendly if quite scruffy cats (definitely a win for some). You can swim and snorkel during high tide, but the waters are very shallow otherwise.
So kind of a beach, but this one is more about the stone pier that stretches out into the sea making for some very photogenic spots. The pier was where local villagers would set off by canoe to tend to their rice field in Iriomote Island. If you are staying on the island, this is an amazing place to watch the sunset!
A great beach for shell collectors, this beach has lovely views, located on the northern edge of the island to the west of the port. The path is pretty rocky so be prepared for some shaking if you’re on a bike. Although it is listed as non-swim on the local maps, it is also a well-known snorkeling spot with amazing coral reefs to explore.
The only main beach on the east side of the island, this is a no-swim beach too but has beautiful stretches of white sand for the sunbathers to enjoy. The path leading up to it is also known as Butterfly Lane, as you will see hundreds as you make your way there, no matter what time of year it is.
Tips for Taketomi
Just a few tips to remember:
- Bring cash, especially small change as there is always a shortage on the island. You can only get cash out from the Post Office which has limited opening hours
- Out of season many places are closed entirely, so keep this in mind
- When cycling, be sure to park your bike in designated parking spots as you could cause problems on the narrow streets for cars or buffalo
- Do no enter holy grounds on the island, these remain very private for residents
- There are no convenience stores, only a small village shop, so come prepared if you are not planning to eat at a restaurant
- Be sure to check the final ferry times!
If you are thinking of renting a bike, there are a few options on the island, one being Tomori Kankou. Their bike rental prices are between 300 yen for an hour and 1,500 for a full day. They have a few good bonuses: they will take you from the ferry port to their shop in the middle of town and back again when you return your bike, will store your luggage if needed, provide children’s bikes and free rain covers. You can also get a 10% discount if you show this voucher, as well as vouchers for overnight use and groups. If you decide to take a bike and arrive relatively early in the morning, there is plenty of time to see the south, west and north beaches before seeing the town, enjoying lunch and taking a water-buffalo tour, all well before the final boat at around 6pm!
Ferries run from Ishigaki to Taketomi regularly and take about 10 minutes. If you buy both tickets in advance, be sure to check the times of the corresponding service, as not all boats accept all tickets. When you buy tickets at Ishigaki terminal, they will inform you of which one to take (giving you tickets for the next available boat).
When you arrive at the port if you are planning on renting a bike or using the buffalo cart you can head over to one of the mini-buses and ask to be taken to their shop for free!