„This is the largest shop, it’s open all day without a lunch break!“, the guest house owner explains on the way into the only village of Hateruma Island. “And this is one of the three restaurants we have – that way, you get to the lighthouse...“
Hateruma Island is the southernmost inhabited island of Japan and belongs to the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. It takes an hour to get there by speedboat from Ishigaki, the main island, but the boat – which should run several times daily – is often cancelled due to high waves.
Not surprisingly, the island is largely self-sufficient, and although it has a great subtropical location, tourism plays a minor role – agriculture is trump. Most of the nearly flat surface of Hateruma is covered with sugar cane fields, and to our surprise, for the sake of the sugar cane trucks there are numerous well-paved roads criss-crossing the fields and the island although the population of Hateruma is only around 500.
There are three small factories: The sugar factory, a cement production, and the Awamori factory which produces a rather limited amount of the traditional Okinawan rice spirit. The Hateruma brand, Awanami, is only available on the island and much sought-after, and it is quite tasty, too.
The main reason for most Japanese to visit Hateruma however is the fact that it is the officially southernmost point in Japan, at an altitude of only 24° North – in some months, you can even see the Southern Cross in the night sky.
A memorial stone marks the Southern tip of Japan, and a small observatory allows a good view of the stars – at least on clear days. That night, it’s somewhat cloudy, and a fellow traveller who tried at 3 am to see the Southern Cross reported that he got up in vain (we also had briefly thought about getting up in the middle of the night, but decided lazily against it).
We linger a bit at the cape and then move on along the South coast of Hateruma towards an ancient watchtower built from coral stones and rather reminiscent of towers we have seen on Menorca – but presumably, they are totally unrelated.
Suddenly, there’s a strong smell of goat cheese in the air. Very strong, actually. Walking through the sugar cane fields we encounter numerous goats, walking about in small gangs or tethered to a stick on a small patch of grass. Nearly all of them are intended as a meat supply for the islanders who don’t have much cattle or other animals. “Only two of the goats are held as pets,” explains the owner of the BooBoo food stall at the edge of Nishihama Beach who is teaching her pet goat, Coco-chan, some tricks.
Nishihama Beach is said to be Japan’s most beautiful beach with its soft sand slowly descending into coral-studded water and the perfect gradation of blue. A sweet smell is hovering over the beach from the nearby sugar factory and we have a soft ice with sugar molasses at BooBoo’s to go with it, watching the waves and Coco-Chan the pet goat.
The adjoining Pêhama Beach has an even more perfect scenery with palms and mangroves behind and just a few picturesque rocks visible in the water, but swimming is prohibited due to treacherous currents.
The next day we come across a completely overgrown ancient fortification, the Shimodahara Gusuku. The enormous coral stone walls date from the 16th century AD and are arranged in strange curves just like the castles (gusuku) on Okinawa mainland. Nearby shell mounds have confirmed that people already lived here around 1800 BC, with cultural influences from as far as Indonesia and Melanesia.
Altogether we spent two days and one night on lovely Hateruma and were able to see most of the island, but we could have done with one or two more beach days.
The speed boat from Ishigaki takes 60–70 minutes and costs 5800 Yen return. Quite often it is cancelled due to bad weather or high waves. As Hateruma is very small you can easily walk the whole island in two days, or rent a bicycle to get around.
* Our ferry ticket was sponsored by Hirata Kankô, Ishigaki.
There are about 20 pensions, guest houses and hotels on the island, some of them not more than a room or two in a family home. The cheaper accommodation choices without any meals start at around 5500 Yen for the double room in low season and go up to 8000 Yen in high season. We stayed at the Lagoon guest house (5600 Yen for a small double room with shared bathroom and guest kitchen) and enjoyed it very much.