The Japanese archipelago stretches from north to south, spanning thousands of miles and multiple climate zones. At the far southern tip of the country, nearly 2,000 kilometers away from Tokyo, lay the Yaeyama Islands - 19 tiny islands scattered around a turquoise subtropical sea like emeralds strewn across panes of stained glass.
Part of Okinawa Prefecture, this secluded island cluster is home to white sand beaches, coral reefs teeming with fish, balmy jungles, lush mangrove forests, and more. Spend the morning hiking through dense rainforest to a hidden waterfall before retiring to a deserted beach to catch some rays from the afternoon sun. Float placidly down a river in a kayak, or climb astride a high tech road bicycle to hit the pavement. Whatever your speed, the Yaeyama Islands are the perfect destination for your next tropical getaway.
Ishigaki is the most populous of the Yaeyamas and the main hub from which to explore the surrounding islands. Accessible via direct flight from Tokyo, it offers a perfect mix of breathtaking ocean scenery, verdant tropical plant life, and a unique cultural cocktail that is one part Japanese tradition and one part laid-back island charm. At Kabira Bay, beachgoers can dig their toes into white sand while strolling along warm, clear waters almost too blue to be believed. A mask and fins become a window to another world beneath the waves, where sea turtles search for food amongst the coral and manta rays glide effortlessly on silent wings.
If Ishigaki is a beach lover’s paradise, neighboring Iriomote Island is a primordial landscape frozen in time. Although it is the second largest of Okinawa’s islands, Iriomote remains largely undeveloped and utterly untamed. Ninety percent of its landmass is covered in dense tropical rainforest; from loop-root mangroves and wild hibiscus, to coconut crabs and the ever-elusive (and critically endangered) Iriomote wildcat, it is an astounding cornucopia of biodiverse flora and fauna. Opportunity for adventure abounds in this sultry jungle setting, where visitors can hike to towering waterfalls, kayak down serpentine rivers, or even descend into subterranean cave systems where the sun’s rays have never shone.
The waters surrounding the Yaeyama Islands are a haven for marine sports enthusiasts. Take the plunge to snorkel or scuba dive among coral reefs teeming with tropical fish, sea turtles, sharks, manta rays, and more. Grab a paddle and climb inside a sea kayak to trace endless miles of pristine coastline, stopping along the way at deserted beaches only accessible by boat. No trip to Okinawa is complete without a dip in these famed waters.
Ishigaki and Iriomote Islands are home to vast expanses of untouched rainforest, where hidden ecosystems flourish under the shade of the dense, green canopies overhead. Join a local guide to walk forest paths in search of exotic animals like giant coconut crabs, Iriomote wildcats, mudskippers, and venomous “habu” pit vipers. Take to the trees as you zipline through the forest like a modern-day Tarzan. Endless discovery and adventure await on these jungle islands.
After the sun dips into the sea and night settles over the islands, millions of stars light up the sky in a dazzling cosmic display. Far from the light pollution of major population centers, the Yaeyama Islands are an ideal location to marvel at the majesty of the cosmos. In fact, Ishigaki and Iriomote Islands are so dark, they are the first location in Japan to be officially designated as International Dark Sky Places. When conditions are right, uncountable stars pierce through the blackness and the Milky Way is plainly visible to the naked eye, a rare and unforgettable sight.