Explore the Yaeyama Islands, Japan's Secret Paradise

Discover the Yaeyama, Okinawa Prefecture’s most remote region, where outdoor adventure, relaxing sandy beaches, world-class stargazing, and delectable cuisines intersect at the edge of the ocean.
Explore the Yaeyama Islands, Japan's Secret Paradise

Crystal clear blue waters and white sand beaches likely invoke visions of Aruba, Bermuda, and Curacao or the picturesque Mediterranean. And while each of these sun-kissed destinations may be the first that come to mind when you imagine “paradise,” Japan beckons you to think again.   

Located within the Okinawa Prefecture, the Yaeyama Islands are Japan’s most remote areas. A total of 23 islands make up the archipelago, with major islands Ishigaki, Iriomote, and Yonaguni among the most popular. And despite their outlying position on the map, the Yaeyama Islands not only offer outdoor adventure but savory cuisines and once-in-a-lifetime experiences to discover. 

Your exploration of the sights, sounds, and wonder of the Yaeyama Islands begins when you touch down on the second-largest island within the bounds of Okinawa Prefecture, Ishigaki Island. 

Ishigaki Island is home to the largest airport in the Yaeyama, New Ishigaki Airport, and serves as the area's transportation and business hub. In addition, this gateway to the Yaeyama is renowned for its natural areas, which include some of the darkest, star-filled night skies in Japan and alluring scenic areas like Kabira Bay that draw travelers from across the globe. 

Often referred to as the Caribbean of Japan, the scenic Yaeyama Islands offer a tropical escape from the buzz of city life. Here, the unparalleled landscape of Japan’s tropical islands is brimming with lively coral reefs, lush ancient jungles, explorable mangrove forests, and mysterious underwater ruins. 

All that and more are yours to explore in Japan’s secret paradise — the Yaeyama Islands. 

Cruise around Ishigaki Island’s Kabira Bay and visit an ancient temple

Cruise around Ishigaki Island’s Kabira Bay and visit an ancient temple 

With scenic observation points, pristine beaches, an ancient hilltop temple, and opportunities for water recreation, it's easy to see why Kabira Bay has a reputation as one of the Yaeyama's most breathtaking sightseeing locales. 

What to do in Ishigaki: Located on the island of Ishigaki, Kabira Bay is famous for its black pearl cultivation. In fact, not only was it the first place where black pearls were found, Kabira Bay is only one of two locations throughout Japan where black pearls are cultivated, the other being neighboring Iriomote Island. Due to the sensitive ecosystem where the black pearls are cultivated, there is no swimming allowed in Kabira Bay. However, exploring the bay by boat is not off-limits. 

In Kabira Bay, you can get acquainted with the undersea world without getting wet by hopping aboard a glass-bottom boat. Knowledgeable guides know exactly where to see wildlife like clownfish and turtles, and guided tours are available throughout the day. 

After your excursion on the bay, wander into Kabira Village and pop into one of the many storefronts lining the bustling streets to shop for souvenirs and refuel with snacks.

And you cannot miss Kabira Kannon Temple when visiting Kabira Bay. The 17th-century temple resides on a hilltop not too far from the village center. The humble temple and shrine are surrounded by lush tropical trees near an observation point that overlooks the scenic area. 

Explore Iriomote Island’s hidden mangrove forests, waterfalls, and rivers

Explore Iriomote Island’s hidden mangrove forests, waterfalls, and rivers

Iriomote Island is the largest of the Yaeyama. It is a wild, vast place made up mostly of natural areas that is accessible by ferry from Ishigaki Island. More than 90 percent of the island is jungle, and the entire island is designated as a national park. 

The wild landscape of Iriomote Island doesn’t detour eager adventure-seeking travelers. Actually, it’s exactly what draws them in to visit this area of the Yaeyama Islands. 

Iriomote is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. The island is best explored either by hiking on foot or kayak—journey along the Nakama River and Urauchi River, the longest river in Okinawa. Or, paddle your way through mangroves and encounter the region’s diverse wildlife and discover scenic waterfalls, including Mariyudu Falls, Kampire Falls, and Okinawa’s tallest waterfall, Pinaisara Falls. 

When your boat comes to shore, the real adventure begins. Many of the waterways found around Iriomote lead to hiking trails that can take you even closer to nature. Remember, hike with caution. Many of the trails across Iriomote are quite strenuous, even for the most avid hikers.

Expert-led hiking tours and kayaking tours (often called canoe tours by the local guides) are available. And for a more leisurely experience, consider booking a seat on a jungle boat river cruise. These informative guided tours are a great way to learn about the region while taking in all of the sights around Iriomote Island. 

Snorkel alongside sea turtles at Kohama Island's remote beaches

Snorkel alongside sea turtles at Kohama Island's remote beaches

Take your adventures from land to the water at Kohama Island. This island is renowned for its marine sports, including scuba and snorkeling. And there's only one way to get there — by ferry.

Dip your toes into the water at Coral Beach, a sleepy spot marked by coral reefs, jagged rocks, and pristine coastline. The calm waters at Coral Beach are ideal for snorkeling and sea turtle encounters. And the sandy shores make for a great spot to lay out a beach towel and soak up the sun.

At Kohama Island’s Kubasaki Beach, you can see Iriomote Island in the distance; all that’s between you is a sea of crystal blue waters. The serene, nearly untouched natural landscape and the peaceful sound of the gentle ocean washing against the shore are sure to put you at ease. 

Experience once-in-a-lifetime stargazing at Japan’s first Dark Sky Reserves

Experience once-in-a-lifetime stargazing at Japan’s first Dark Sky Reserves 

You don’t have to be an astronomer to appreciate the Yaeyama starry night sky. Here, shimmering stars blanket the night sky, unlike anywhere else in Japan. 

Of the 88 recognized constellations, 84 of them can be seen from the Yaeyama Islands. The Yaeyama, notably Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park, was the first location in Japan to receive recognition from the International Dark Sky Places Program, making it the second to receive such accreditation in all of Asia. 

Astronomy buffs will delight in the fact that the Southern Cross Constellation can be viewed from the Yaeyama Islands. In fact, Okinawa is the only place where this brilliant display can be seen. The illustrious constellation represents the southern sky and can be viewed from the end of December through early June annually.  

For the best stargazing in Okinawa, take in the magical night sky from the rooftop of the Starry Sky Cafe. Adjacent to Haimurubushi Beach, this spot provides unobscured views of The Milky Way and the starlit sky. And, you can enjoy an evening of stargazing in Japan while sipping on original cocktails and snacking on dishes made with local ingredients from the comfort of a cozy lantern-lit pod. 

Escape to Taketomi Island and unwind at Hoshinoya Taketomi Island, where tradition meets modernity

Escape to Taketomi Island and unwind at Hoshinoya Taketomi Island, where tradition meets modernity

When you need a break from adventure, relax at Hoshinoya Taketomi Island, a luxury resort where old world traditions and the Ryukyu heritage harmonize with the contemporary comforts of today.  

Located on Okinawa’s Taketomi Island, this retreat-like getaway provides the opportunity to slow down and unwind, providing jetsetters a welcome respite from city life. And while it may seem like it is a world away, arriving at this luxurious escape is actually quite simple. Hoshinoya Taketomi Island is just a quick ferry ride from Ishigaki Island.  

The tranquil island resort is tucked away within a landscape that reaches across white sands and is strewn with serene gardens and artisan stone walls where colorful “shisha” (Okinawan for lion) figures stand guard from the intricately tiled rooftops of the pavilions. These ornate shisha figurines are said to ward off disasters and evil spirits, a time-tested custom that is said to keep these nefarious entities from entering the village and homes.  

At Hoshinoya relaxation can be found just outside of your own pavilion. Unwind at the resort’s onsite 24-hour heated pool. Open day or night, the sparkling pool provides views of blue skies and a star-covered night sky when the sun goes down. For the ultimate in rest and relaxation, book a massage at Hoshinoya’s luxury spa and breathe easy as time and stress melt away while you gaze out into the lush, green courtyard as an island breeze gently washes over you. In the evening, tune in for a live “sanshin” (Japanese guitar) performance at the resort. Make time to catch an iconic sunset, too. The best views are said to be from the island’s far-reaching pier after all of the boats have departed.  

And, when you’re ready to refuel, savor the region’s unique neo-authentic Okinawan cuisines. Called Nouvelle Ryukyu, this style of cooking draws inspiration from the French culinary technique. While the French influence is undeniable, Nouvelle Ryukyu enlivens the senses and satiates the tastebuds with a fresh approach to Okinawan cuisine. Hoshinoya Taketomi Island has innovated a modern way to grow crops on the small island within its own facility. A variety of local herbs and spices, including rosemary and parsley, are grown, harvested, and used in the dishes offered at Hoshinoya Taketomi Island.   

When it’s time to depart and say your final goodbyes to Hoshinoya Taketomi Island, you’ll surely be refreshed and ready to take on any adventure that comes your way. 

Getting around the Yaeyama Islands 

Getting around the Yaeyama is simple. Here, eco-friendly transportation options such as electric bikes, motorbikes, and buggies are the norm. But, if you’d rather set your own path, booking a rental car is also an option. And, when traveling from island to island, the ferries can get you exactly where you wish to go. 

Plan your trip to the Yaeyama Islands today 

Despite their remote locations, traveling to the Yaeyama Islands is uncomplicated. It’s easy to fly from Osaka, Nagoya, or Tokyo, as many of Japan’s major city airports offer direct flights to Ishigaki Island. And, with Japan Explorer Pass, you can conveniently access more than 30 cities across the JAL network when wanderlust rings. 

With JAL, you can book your entire adventure from departure to destination. Okinawa, a hub for JAL member Japan Transocean Air, offers direct flights from Naha to the remote islands of the Yaeyama. So you can spend more time at the beach and less time at the baggage claim. 

Getting There