Japan – Ryukyu Islands
Japan may not immediately come to mind as a great place for a visiting yacht, but the southern Ryukyu Islands offer plenty of remote beaches, intriguing cultural stops and dramatic landscapes, and great dive spots, all within a short distance from Hong Kong.
Stretching from the main island of Okinawa down to tiny Yonaguni Island (Yonaguni Jima), which lies just 50 miles east from Taiwan’s northeast coast, are the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. This chain of islands (Ryuykyu Shoto) runs along a 700-kilometre arc, continuing north to Kyushu and the historic city of Kagoshima, which marks the beginning of mainland Japan proper. Within this arc, there is a delightful mix of rural culture, culinary treats, excellent dive spots and gorgeous anchorages to enjoy.
The Ryukyu Shoto first came to the attention of the mainland Japanese in the seventh century BC, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s, during what became known as the Meiji Restoration when Japan assumed its Imperial form, that the Ryukyuan people came to be completely part of what is now Japanese territory. To this day, there are remnants of an Okinawan language that can be incomprehensible to normal Japanese speakers, while younger people tend to speak Okinawan accented Japanese.
While Japan may not pop up much on the radar of many superyacht owners in Asia looking for places to cruise, the southern islands of Japan may prove an interesting tour stop – either on the way to Japan or Alaska or other Pacific destinations. Japan itself has plenty more for visiting superyachts to do, with the southern main island of Kyushu itself being a major destination. Yet, the Ryukyus can turn what would be a few days at sea into a fortnight of touring that can whet the appetite for all things Japanese.
Visiting yachts can enter the Ryukyu Shoto directly, either in Okinawa or in Ishigaki, which is one of the most southern islands in the chain. Ishigaki, though smaller, is better suited for this purpose. Yachts can enter from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China or the Philippines with no difficulty.
The main town on Ishigaki Jima has a small village atmosphere, with many trendy small dining establishments and bars. Souvenir shops here are also a pleasure to visit with many local handicrafts available and a fun twist on the traditional Shiisa, statues of mythical lion dogs. The Shiisa dogs are often found in pairs guarding homes (or in some cases, villages), and traditional versions can be spotted on rooftops and gates. In their modern form, these guardians of the gate come in all colours, sizes and animation styles.
The people in Ishigaki are very friendly, with a laid-back and easy-going attitude. It may just be that they are happy to have escaped the rat race of mainland life in Japan.
Dockage in Ishigaki consists of the town wall alongside Coast Guard facilities for larger boats. There is a marina that will take visiting yachts. The advantage of both of these docks is the close proximity to town, and all the officials are housed in one building right nearby. The small-town, friendly attitude of the officials, and the fact they are all in one building, makes Ishigaki the place to register.
Just ten minutes by boat (or ferry) from Ishigaki is Taketomi Jima, known for its traditional houses, stone walls and sandy streets. Visitors can meander the streets, rent a bike or ride on an ox and cart while taking in the quaint traditional atmosphere. Here, you can get a glimpse of a more traditional form of life in the Japanese islands. Taketomi is a like a living museum, and though everything is very rural, the houses and streets are absolutely immaculate.
Heading west from Ishigaki, approximately 30 kilometres out, there is the remote island of Iriomote, with a population of less than 3000. Much of the island is preserved, with 80 percent designated as State Land. Iriomote is Japan’s version of Land’s End, and the vistas are amazing.
Funauki Bay in Iriomote is not only a stunningly peaceful place for boats to enjoy the clear water, it is also an excellent haven from typhoons. Large mooring balls have been made available in the bay and these offer safe tie ups for large vessels in the event of a typhoon. With a depth of 50 metres inside the bay, there are no concerns over draught. Iriomote is a Closed Port and a certificate of permission to visit must be obtained from the Ministry of Land and Transport on Ishigaki. It is well worth the effort though, as nature hikes, coral beaches and hot springs can all be enjoyed on this island, making it a fantastic stopover destination.
For those wanting to make the journey, there is one last island to visit before reaching the southern-most extreme of Japan, and that’s Yonaguni Island. This remote place, just 50 miles off the coast of Taiwan, is not only the last stop, but for Scuba divers, possibly the most intriguing. It is here that you find the Yonaguni Monument, an area of rock formations that begins at about five metres depth and continues downwards. The shapes of the rock look eerily like that of Macchu Picchu or some other ancient city. The diving world is split on whether it marks a submerged dwelling lost to history, or is just a spectacular rock formation.
Next up the chain is Miyako Jima; once again the central town walls are available for dockage for a small fee. The entrance into this port is blasted through the reef so extra care is needed and entry at high tide is recommended. Despite that, Miyako offers stunning white sand beaches, such as at Maehama. This is widely regarded as one of Japan’s most beautiful beaches, with gently sloping white sand that descends into aquamarine waters.
The Eastern Cape, which stretches for two kilometres out into the open Pacific, offers visitors a stretch of rugged coastline (with lighthouse) that has crystal-blue waves crashing into the rocky outcrops. Here, guests and visitors can take in spectacular sunrises, with a coffee or a bit of warm sake, as required.
Heading further north, one comes to Okinawa, which is at the heart of the Ryukyus, and the former seat of a power of a Ryukyuan government. The main city is Naha, but unless for provisioning, Naha offers visiting guests relatively little. It is simply a port city, and often frequented by US military personnel. There are some historical stops that a visitor can include, such as a trip to the Shuri Castle, which was once the home of the King of the Ryukyus. The castle was completely destroyed during World War II during a massive bombardment by the USS Mississippi, but was painstakingly rebuilt with the help of old photographs as references.
Visitors wandering around in Okinawa may also consider this the time to tuck into some Okinawan food – the means by which the people of these islands are thought to be the most long-lived on Earth. The greatest number of centenarians per capita lives in Okinawa, owing to a healthy, heart-smart diet. In fact, a number of Ryukyu dishes include a fine powder created by grinding coral sand. It may be included in your food without you even knowing it, but the calcium is said to be excellent for your body.
Nonetheless, visiting superyachts will likely be keen to move off Okinawa to the surrounding islands sooner rather than later. Thankfully, there’s not far to go to find more natural beauty. Just off the main island of Okinawa is the delightful Zamami Shima, an island consisting of near deserted beaches, fantastic diving and a sleepy little village.
Anchorage is available between the port and small island in the bay, though the current can be strong here and ferries pass by frequently during the day. An ideal anchorage is located round on the east side of the island in a very protected bay, where there are large boat moorings big enough to handle yachts of any size; this is the perfect place to launch tenders and toys as there is no current. From here, it is a short ride to the port, beaches, diving/snorkelling spots and other islands in this group. This area may be far more appealing than mainland Okinawa but with the convenience of provisioning, an international airport and shopping available a short trip away on the mainland.
Zamami is the main island of a cluster of 22 small islands referred to as the Kerama-Shoto. All are incredible, with plenty of coral reefs, white sandy beaches and crystal clear blue waters to enjoy. For divers interested in the natural world, this is the place to stop and spend some time searching out marine life.
The Ryukyus are a particular haven for marine life, thanks to the Black Current (Kuroshio Current), which brings warm water from further south, up past the entire Ryukyu Islands and helping to moderate the temperature, even in the cooler months. It is off the Ryukyu Islands that one finds the world’s northernmost coral reefs. Visiting yachts and their owners and guests can comfortably enjoy themselves here from February through to November. Though typhoons do occur with some frequency between June and October, there are numerous places, natural and purpose built, to find adequate shelter.
Though the islands from Yonaguni up to Okinawa constitute the Ryukyu Shoto proper, there are more islands in the chain leading up to Kyushu, which is the southern island of mainland Japan. Along the way, there are plenty more stops that a visiting superyacht can enjoy. Among them are Yakushima, an island well-known for its forests that are pristine and estimated to be thousands of years old. It is a hiking trip that will leave a huge mark on the memory. At the moment, it takes special permission for a foreign yacht to moor or anchor nearby, but it is possible with advanced planning.
Most yachts will allow up to two weeks to tour the Ryukyu Islands. In fact, the Ryukyus often serve as a fantastic touring place that connects Hong Kong/South China to Japan. During the summer of 2013, a visiting 50-metre superyacht will make the overnight journey from Hong Kong to Kaohsiung, Taiwan. After touring up Taiwan’s own remarkable eastern coastline, the yacht will then make the jump to Ishigaki and begin a tour through the Ryukyus up to Japan proper.
Seeing many a rising sun from the back of a yacht may inspire guests and crew to come back for plenty more cruising in Japan.
– With special thanks to Nigel Beatty of Super Yacht Logistics Japan