A mere three-hour direct flight from Tokyo, Miyako Island is a set of coral islands with pristine white sand beaches located approximately 300 kilometers southwest of the main island of Okinawa. It goes without saying that a car is essential on this island, however, driving around these small islands is not much of a hassle when one gets rewarded with many kinds of tropical fish, sea turtles and colorful lush coral along with jaw dropping mangos.
Known as some of Japan's most beautiful beaches, the island’s subtropical climate makes it the perfect getaway all year round. Only about 100km in perimeter, the island itself can be driven around within 3 hours. The island consists of four outer islands, Ikema Island, Kurima Island, Irabu Island and Shimoji Island which are all connected by bridges. Each of these islands are small and can drive around its perimeter within just an hour too.
Especially during the summer, there are so many things to do but of course it's the area’s beaches that are its main attraction. Maehama Beach, officially known as Yonahamaehama Beach on the southwest of the island is recognized as one of the most beautiful beaches in the Orient, and also, one of the most popular beaches. Besides the shimmering waters, sunsets seen from this beach are especially spectacular. As the beach is just a short walk from Miyakojima Tokyu Hotel & Resorts, there are many hotel guests on this beach enjoying the clear water with soft white sands.
Breathtaking view of the sunset from Maehama Beach
Driving into the east side, Aragusuku Beach is one of the best spots for snorkeling to see beautiful corals and tropical fishes as the coral reefs extend to the shoreline nearby. The beach is well maintained with changing rooms, toilets, and even showers for washing off the sands. The parking is 1000 yen per day and only accepts cash. However, depending on the day, sometimes the parking may be free of charge. Such marine activities like SUP (stand up paddle) are also popular at this beach. Kenji Nagahama, a local water sports instructor offers a private SUP and snorkel tour taking the visitors to the best tropical fishing viewing spots and even help you find the sea turtles. He says that the sea turtles at this beach are so friendly that they usually swim slowly for visitors to take photos. It is strictly forbidden to touch and go nearby, and visitors must respect the rules. Having grown up on this island, Kenji has an extensive knowledge about the island and will take his guests with SUP to the beaches that best fit the demands of each guest.
Coral reef with tropical fish seen at Aragusuku Beach. The water is so clear that it looks like as if the photo was taken at an aquarium
Kenji Nagahama doing yoga on his SUP board.
SUP lesson by Kenji Nagahama
Not just the beaches but the island offers a range of great foods. Just about a 10 minute drive into the middle of the field from the airport, “Pari Kitchen” which opened in 2015 by a mango farmer offers mango curry and the local noodle, “Miyako Soba” along with other selections of sweets and drinks, but mostly mango related. The restaurant is open only for 3 hours from 12pm (noon) to 3pm, and closed on Monday and Tuesday. There is no parking at the restaurant and people usually just park on the side of the road.
The island is still on the verge of development of new shops, restaurants, and even resort hotels to meet the growing number of tourists annually. Just opened in March 2019, small local airport, Miyako Shimojima Airport Terminal on Shimoji Island offers a delicious sandwich using local food such as green caviar/sea grapes and fresh bonito. And there are a number of other restaurants on the island offering delicious cuisines using local fish, fruits and vegetables but a lot of them offer Miyako Soba the most. This local cuisine noodle called Miyako Soba is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike, and it can be eaten all over the island. The noodle usually comes with kamaboko fish cakes, sliced scallion and a thick slice of stewed pork belly or soki, boneless pork ribs.
Green caviar/sea grape and fresh bonito sandwich
Fresh raw fish served over bowl of rice
The clean clear sea water is perfect for extracting salt and turning it into a very fine powder known as “Yuki Shio Salt”. This salt holds the title for being the most mineral enriched table salt in the world compared to most other mineral salts which are from Rock caverns where the salt has absorbed the minerals over time. There are two types, granulated and powder type. Granulated types are suitable for cooking and the powder types are for seasoning, preparations, mix with water to drink it etc. Its factory along with cafe and official store is located at the tip of the island, just before crossing the Ikema Ohashi Bridge to Ikema Island.
Soda with Yuki Shio Salt, its sweet but salty at the same time
Powder type Yuki Shio Salt
Yuki Shio Salt ice cream only available at the factory
Across the islands of Miyako Island, there are 19 statues (or dolls) shaped as full-sized policemen in uniform. This statue is known as Mamoru-kun, which means “to protect” in Japanese. These statues are placed at dangerous intersections with sometimes no traffic lights to remind the islanders to drive carefully. While the figures look similar at a glance, they are actually all unique with each of their own facial designs. The popularity of such a unique statue spread by word of mouth, and it is now an iconic mascot character of the island.
With the rising popularity of the Mamoru-ku statue, there are now many gifts such as T-shirts and even sunscreen printed with his character as a way to remind the tourists to stay “safe” and protect themselves from the sun. Over at the center of the island in the district of Hirara, Machiko Shimoji, a designer and a owner of the shop, Design Match offers a variety of T-shirts, bags and other items with unique illustrations symbolizing the island. She even sells a Mamoru-kun T-shirt which is some of the best selling items.
“Design Match” at Hirara district
Irabu Island/Shimoji Island
In 2015 at 3,540m, the longest toll free bridge, “Irabu Ohashi Bridge” that connects the main Miyako Island with Irabu Island opened. The view from the bridge is the epitome of spectacular scenery with no obstacle on either side of the bridge where drivers can enjoy driving in the blue seascapes of Miyako Island. It's hard to distinguish which part of the island is Irabu or Shimoji as these two islands are connected. However in short, the western side of Irabu is considered to be the Shimoji island, where there is an international airport which just opened in 2019.
Triangular Spot (Sankakuten) and “Toguchi no Hama Beach” is a must not be missed place to go on Irabu. The Triangular Spot (Sankakuten) has been on a rise in popularity these recent years. It overlooks the beautiful ocean dynamic view on the tip of the sharp cliff but has no handrails nor fences to guard off from falling over. It is located between the Cape Funausagibanata Observatory Facility and Sarahama Village in the northeast of Irabu Island. There are no direction boards that help you find the exact place but usually, tourists park the car nearby so this should be a good landmark to find the entrance. Although a tourist spot, there is no parking so make sure to park as close to the edge to let the other cars pass by. Because the tip is so narrow and dangerous, roughly 2 people can fit at once and there may be a queue of waiting.
Gazing out at the horizon
Watch out when looking down from the cliff!
On the southwest of Irabu Island, there is a gentle curved natural sand beach, “Toguchi no Hama Beach” which has highly transparent water. Its beauty is as equal to the Yonahamaehama Beach which is looked on as one of the most beautiful beaches in the Orient. On bright sunny days, the pure white sand on the sea bottom of “Toguchi no Hama Beach” shines with incredible beauty.
Toguchi no Hama Beach
Close to Irabu Island, Ikema Island located on the northwest of Miyako Island is designated by the national government as a wildlife refuge. The center of the island is covered by the largest wetland in Miyako Island. The most popular tourist destination on this island is the heart rock on semi-secluded Ikizu Beach. There are nests of common terms hidden on this beach and there are cases where the common terns try to attack you to protect their nests.
Heart Rock at Ikizu Beach on Ikema Island
Sit inside the heart rock to take some instagrammable photos
On the way back from Ikema Island, just on the end of the Ikema Ohashi Bridge that connects the island and the main Miyako Island, at low tide, a sandbar appears. Swimming is strictly prohibited here and at one’s own risk, only at low tide, visitors can step foot inside to walk on this smooth white sand with clear water.
Ikema Ohashi Bridge
Sandbar at the tip of the Ikema Ohashi Bridge on the main Miyako Island side
To the southwest of Miyako Island lies Kurima Island connected by Kurima Ohashi Bridge. During summer, Kurima Island’s Nagamahama Beach is recommended for one of the best stargazing spots on the whole island of Miyako. Due to the small number of villagers living on Kurima Island, at night, the island is so dark and makes it easy to see billions of stars shining above. Many visit the beach during summer to see the milky way.
Milky Way shot at Nagamahama Beach in late July
On the other hand, during daytime, the island is packed with people to buy smoothies at the island's only smoothie shop, “Aosora Parlor” which opened in 2013. Using the natural materials and fresh fruits purchased from the nearby farm, Aosora Parlor offers many different flavors of smoothies. Its colorful and beach-like interior has few seats inside for those who wish to sit and enjoy the smoothies on spot. And there are 2 gift shops adjacent to the parlor.
Acai Berry Special (left) and Berry Lassi (right)
Definitely not for the fainthearted but Okinawan snake wine known as Habushu Sake is something to go for a challenge. This sake is an awamori-based liqueur made in Okinawa where awamori is mixed with various herbs and honey to give the clear liquid a yellow hue. Then, a pit viper is inserted into the liquid and stored until consumed. Some brands of habushu come with the snake still inside the bottle like seen in the photo below.
Going for a more traditional side, items using the traditional Okinawan method of dyeing called Binagata might be of something to consider. Using a single stencil to produce richy polychromatic design, Bingata comes as costumes, bags, small accessories and etc.