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.
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. Although Ikema has since 1992 been linked to the larger island of Miyakojima by a long bridge over beautiful coral sea, it is among the most distant attractions from Miyakojima's main port town of Hirara.
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 where 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 who governed Miyakojima Island from 280 km away Okinawa mainland.The historic remains of this time include tombs of local rulers from the 15th century, a tax marker that indicated who was tall (and thus old) enough to pay taxes (around 1.40 m!), and a memorial stele sent by German Emperor Wilhelm I in 1876. 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, complete with a 1:1 model of a mediaeval German castle – the Marksburg, which strangely contrasts with 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 tend to be pastel-coloured "light vehicles" and feel like bumper cars – the speed limit is 40 km/h everywhere on Miyakojima.
Kurima-jima is a tiny island south of Miyakojima with a laid-back atmosphere and a small community of divers, esoterics and dropouts, plus nice beaches. The Kurimajima Bridge was built in 1995, when the island's population consisted of less than 200 sugar cane farmers.
The newest addition to the bridges is the huge Irabujima Bridge 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 height above sea level. "5 m", "10 m", and where most of the houses are the signs are yellow and read "20 m". Still…
Most of Shimojishima, the smaller and more distant of the two islands, is taken up by a fully-fledged airport runway. So far it is being used as a training airport for commercial airlines – but plans are under way to open the Shimojishima Airport for passengers, which would mean a huge increase in tourist capacities, especially if it's going to be an international airport.
But one small island may withstand the tourist influx nonetheless: Ôkamijima, the Island of Great Gods, is the only nearby island not linked by a bridge. 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 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 is taken by a holy mountain, and several other holy areas are not accessible year-round.
If you like beaches, snorkelling and exploring, Miyakojima might be the place for you. Would you like to visit?
Currently there are only a few domestic airline connections to Miyakojima, and they tend to be more expensive than to the other islands of Okinawa. Once on the island, there are limited bus connections (also over the bridges to the smaller islands). Renting a car is neither difficult nor expensive.
Most hotels and tourist facilities are in Hirara, but especially the Southern part of Miyakojima is also quite populated, and accommodation can be found 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: All expenses were paid by ourselves.