Miyakojima Island, Okinawa 宮古島
It's very easy to book a flight to Okinawa from any major Japanese airport. Almost all flights from the mainland will head for Naha, the provincial capital. From there, a multitude of connecting flights to the smaller islands is available.
The question is just: where to finally go? Okinawa is large and the various islands are host to very different cultures and geographical features, which lends appeal to the idea of going again and again to eventually visit them all.
Miyakojima is one of the bigger islands in the Ryukyu chain, stretching about 25km from one end to the other and located very much in the center of Okinawa, about 300km south of the Okinawan mainland and about 100 km north of Ishigaki Island.
Most visitors are drawn there by the prospect of snorkeling or diving in the famous coral reefs.
The reefs are indeed of breath-taking beauty - but let's start with the land above sea level first. The interior of Miyako Island is all flat and covered by sugar cane plantations. It's the coastline that makes Miyako interesting.
Most hotels and inns are concentrated in Hirara, the main town not far from the airport. Hirara is a run-down town and largely consists of typhoon-battered two-storey concrete buildings from the 1970s, the cracked, moldy walls partly overgrown by colorful vegetation. In the daytime, it feels like the place has been left to rot in a strange time warp - never leaving the 70's but with severe decay still setting in. If you like dystopian novels, you will love the place.
Hirara doesn't have much in terms of sights to visit. The old tax stone however is a place not to be missed. It is said that up to 1903 every inhabitant was measured against the about 1.5 meter high stone once a year. If he was taller than the stone, he had to pay taxes if he was smaller he was exempt. The main reason for this measurement was of course to find out from when children had to pay their dues though it certainly gave midgets a break as well.
In 1873, a German merchant ship ran aground near Miyako. The islanders took care of the sailors for a month and then sent them home via China. In 1876, another German ship arrived carrying a large memorial stone expressing the grateful thanks of the German emperor.
The monument can still be seen though it has now been placed in a tiny overgrown park next to a particularly run-down house. The inscription is in both German and Chinese but hard to make out, as the writing has withered away in the subtropical climate. One word in huge letters however stands out in the center separated by large spaces from the rest of the writing: ICH. Meaning I, the German emperor referring to himself. ICH telling the islanders well, at the time openly expressed egomania was not only accepted but expected from royal rulers.
Before heading out of Hirara, it's important to secure a means of transport. Buses run infrequently and are thus of little use. Renting a car is a good idea, renting a bicycle perhaps an even better one considering that the island is completely flat.
Once on the road, watch out for the Mamoru-kun at various intersections. They are funny looking life-size traffic policeman figures and can be found only here. The islanders love them so much, they have even created songs about them.
A first great stop when circling the island is Sunayama Beach, just a few kilometers north of Hirara on the western coast. The beach is wide and beautiful but what makes it famous is the huge natural rock gate located directly at the waterfront. You can walk through it and start your swim right there. The gate is Miyako's best known spot and often serves as an iconic image illustrating the island as such.
As you follow the road to the north the island gets narrower and narrower and finally ends at a bridge that connects it with the tiny islet of Ikemajima.
Japan's largest coral reef, called the Yabiji, starts right here and stretches far into the East China Sea. On the Ikemajima side of the bridge, several tour boat companies offer glass boat rides. These are boats whose floor consists partly of glass, allowing a good view of the underwater world below.
While snorkeling and diving provide certainly more active explorations, the glass boat tours are definitely recommended. The old fishermen running them know exactly where to go to find the most exciting spots. They know where the giant sea turtles rest or slowly swim about down on the ocean floor. They will also show you the biggest single coral in the world, which has grown to a huge underwater mountain in its 1400 years of history.
Then there are, of course, all the colorful coral landscapes, some so close to the water surface that they stretch out of the water when the tide is at its lowest in early March. The tours will also give you a good seaside view of Okamijima, an islet that's reserved for the Gods and which is therefore closed to all non-natives.
While snorkeling can certainly be arranged at the Yabiji reef, the easiest place for an unguided close-up view at the corals is Yoshino Beach in the southeast of Miyako. All snorkeling equipment is readily available for rent here. Don the gear, swim out a few meters and you are right among the coral and all those shoals of colorful fish. It's a bizarre and haunting world you are going to swim through. Be careful, though, some of the creatures lurking on the sea floor can be wickedly poisonous.
Only a short drive further southeast is Higashi Hennazaki, the Eastern Cape of Miyako. At the end of the long narrow peninsula forming the cape sits a lighthouse open to visitors. You can climb up to the observation deck and have a great view of the deep blue Pacific Ocean.
The best place to watch the subtropical sunset is in the southwest of the island. There is a little open air caf called Taka's Parlor. It's not that easy to find but once you get there, you can sit down on the old wooden terrace, sip a coffee and enjoy one of the best sunsets Okinawa has to offer. Simply stunning.
Back in Hirara at night, you will feel the city very much transformed. What looked like a washed-up southern dump in the daytime turns into a lively center of nighttime activity once the sun has set.
There are scores of restaurants offering delicious Okinawan food. One of the best is the Nanraku Restaurant serving traditional local dishes with witty, new twists. Big on their menu are the umibudou, the sea grapes, Miyako's most famous delicacy.
But this is Okinawa and so eating out is only one part of the nightlife the other big one being live music. The Chura Chura club is run by a group of young girls who not only serve the beers but also perform the music. They may not be the most skilled musicians but they make sure that every night is a crazy party. The crowd is mostly young and local.
More geared towards tourists is the Bunmyaa club, run by Koja Masayuki, most likely Miyako's most famous musician. When he is not on tour elsewhere, he performs himself with his band Sha-ca. Koja is a great singer and entertainer and here too, when the evening wears on and the beers have been flowing for a while, the club turns into one big dance party.
Text + images Johannes Schonherr
Taka's Parlor (in Japanese)
Bunmyaa (in Japanese)
Official long name: Minami no shima no shoku to sake no rakuen nanraku
Tel: 0980 73 1855