Lush mangroves, star-shaped sand beaches, UNESCO world-heritage sites and more in Okinawa
It’s no secret that Team Sassy Mama has a love affair with Okinawa. Having travelled to the main island of Naha with my family earlier this year, we realised that there was still so much more to explore. A short fight in just under two hours will get you to the beautiful islands of Okinawa. From the hustle and bustle of our city, you are transported into a tropical paradise that is unique to these Japanese islands. Loaded with scenic views, world-heritage landmarks and a homely and delicious cuisine. Having had the opportunity to explore three very different islands, Ishigaki, Taketomi and Iriomote, this family-friendly area has our stamp of approval. While there are countless reasons for you to visit Okinawa with the gang (turquoise blue water, friendly locals, waterfalls, rich history and the sweetest pineapple you’ll ever eat…), here are my top five.
How to get there: Direct flights with Hong Kong Express from Hong Kong (HKG) to Ishigaki (ISG) takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes. Ferries to Taketomi and Iriomote are accessible daily from Ishigaki. The ferry terminal is conveniently located a couple minutes walk from the town centre. Click through the slideshow to see how to get to each gorgeous location.
If there’s one thing that stands out the most about Ishigaki, it definitely has to be the arts and culture scene that is completely unique to the area.
When exploring the different art galleries, pottery studios and weaving stores, you will notice an alternating pattern of five and four small rectangles called “minsah”. The pattern symbolises an undying love between a married couple. In the past, a woman would make this pattern on a belt for her man to represent her love and loyalty. Not only is this a beautiful sentiment, it’s gorgeous to look at! Try your hand at creating a minsah pattern at the traditional weaving looms at Minsah-Mineya Kobou.
The Ishigaki-yaki Pottery Studio run by master potter, Haruhiko Kaneko has drawn many visitors to try their hand at creating a unique piece to call their own. What makes this pottery studio different is that this was the first place in the entire world where glass was incorporated and adhered to the clay before firing, also known as the Yoron-yaki technique. The results are simply stunning. Gorgeous hues of turquoise and navy blue are blended across each piece which reflects the crystal blue water you see all around the island. The studio encourages families to come and try their hand at this unique art and getting your hands dirty is a must, so little ones are welcome! The studio will then mail you your finished piece after it’s been fired.
The islands of Okinawa are synonymous with stunning views. You’ll get everything from vibrant bright blue waters to beautiful evening views of the stars. There are many ways you can experience the beauty of the islands.
There are glass-bottomed boats that leave from Kabira Bay on Ishigaki island, out into the water to see the vibrant coral, sub-tropical fish and my personal highlight, sea turtles. On our excursion, we were able to see several! The tours are usually conducted in Japanese, however there are printed photos of what to look out for in English posted along the boat. This is also a great opportunity for you and your kiddos to play a game of ‘I-Spy’ while you take in the sights.
In the evening, there are chartered boats that go out for star gazing. And boy, stars you will see! Ishigaki island is the only place in Japan where you can see the Southern Cross as well as 84 out of the 88 constellations on most clear nights! If you’re lucky, you’ll even see a few shooting stars. The evening cruise is done in both English and Japanese and the guide is equipped with a super laser which is used to point out the different constellations in the sky.
Drinks are included with most tours. Make sure you sit on the top deck of the boat with something to lean your back and head against to avoid any neck cramps!
At just a short 40-minute ferry ride from Ishigaki island, you will arrive at the Uehara Port on Iriomote-Jima where you are welcomed with lush mountains, thick jungles and crystalline waters. If you’re lucky, you may even spot one of the native endangered Iriomote cats roaming the island!
While there are many areas to explore on this island, we would recommend signing up with a local guide provider who will take you on a kayaking and trekking tour. There are plenty to choose from once you arrive at the port.
The trek begins with a short hike (water shoes are provided by almost all the tour providers) to the kayak base where an easy row along the
Take a short ferry to Taketomi Island which is just a short 2.5 miles away from Ishigaki Island for a rich cultural immersion. Your eyes will immediately be greeted by traditional Ryukyu-style single story houses with its iconic red tiled roofs. Stone walls made from old shells line the entire island with beautiful blooms draping over the walls. Explore the island by foot, bicycle or by water buffalo wagon rides.
For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, (aka a splurge treat yo’self option) stay at the luxurious Hoshinoya Hotel on Taketomi Island. Inspired by the red tiled roofs of the traditional homes but with a gorgeous, modern design for the interior, you can truly find the time to slow down and find your zen. Fully equipped with a spa, fine-dining and a large pool, what’s not to love? A resort like this would not naturally seem to be a place for children, but all ages are welcome and the attentive staff make the stay a breeze. Japanese children are included in every aspect and not seen as an inconvenience or burden even at places that appear adult-only. We highly recommend staying at this special spot.
For more budget-friendly options, there are plenty of Air BnB’s to check out as well.
When traveling to Okinawa, don’t expect to find sushi restaurants dotting the streets as its cuisine is totally unique (like many of the other factors mentioned before!) to the islands themselves. With special options like the tart, vinegar seaweed noodles, the local black pork to umi bodo aka sea grapes (essentially delicious clusters of seaweed that resemble mini grapes on a vine).
As for veg, the popular choice is goya, also known as bitter melon which is usually stir fried with pork slices and egg – a simple yet delicious dish. It’s so popular, that you’ll find stuffed goya toys sold in every gift shop! Speaking of which, the second mascot of these islands are pineapples which are 100% sweeter than any other pineapple we’ve ever had!
If you have a hankering for noodles, you also can’t go wrong with Okinawa soba. The chewy and springy noodles cooked in pork broth will satisfy every palette. For mamas and papas, the local rice wine, awamori, is something you must try if you’re into the strong stuff.
If you’re all about bringing the humble yet delicious Okinawan cuisine back home, check out cooking classes that are offered by local farmers. We highly recommend Marutaka Farm run by a mother and daughter team on Ishigaki island, who take you into their organic farm to pluck the produce straight from the soil and then prep and cook in their outdoor kitchen. It was truly a delectable and memorable experience!
All images taken by Kat Lau