Cruising to a natural paradise in Japan

The islands of Japan’s Okinawa region provide ideal cruise stops for small expedition ships, where guests can explore the natural wonders and ancient culture

Cruising to a natural paradise in Japan
Hatenohama Beach lies seven kilometres from Kume and gives visitors the opportunity to experience 360-degree sea views

Okinawa Prefecture is one of the premier resort destinations and the southernmost jurisdiction of Japan. Formerly the independent Rykyu Kingdom, this area of 160 small and large islands maintained a flourishing trade industry with various East and Southeast Asian countries. Between 1950 and 1972, Okinawa was governed by the USA, which has given the area a culture and history that is unique from other regions of Japan.

Okinawa is the largest island, but there are many other smaller ones that exclusively welcome small expedition ships. Each has its own character and set of activities for cruise guests.

The Kerama Islands, for example, are located 30 kilometres west of Naha City – the capital of Okinawa. Among these is Zamami, which is surrounded by clear and beautiful waters known as Kerama Blue. Nature is a key part of life in the area, which has been a designated national park since 2014 and is home to humpback whales and a variety of corals. Visiting cruise guests are able to witness an abundance of tropical fish swimming between the colourful coral reefs.

For those who prefer their activities on terra firma, Zamami also boasts a number of stunning beaches. Two highlights include Furuzamami Beach, which has been awarded two stars in the Michelin Green Guide, and Ama Beach, which is known for its lively community of sea turtles.

A little further out in the East China Sea – 100 kilometres from the Okinawa Main Island – sits Kume Island, a natural park with white sand beaches. Hatenohama Beach is an uninhabited sand bank seven kilometres from Kume, which gives visitors the opportunity to experience 360-degree sea views, as well as activities such as snorkelling, swimming and sunbathing. And visitors can also experience spectacular views from the Hiyajo Banta Cliff. Atop the 200-metre-high precipice is a look-out spot where one can enjoy the surrounding landscape.

There is more to the island than its natural geography, though, with many ancient attractions to discover. Lying in the north-west of the island is Mifuga Rock, a rock with a hole in the middle that is of religious significance and has been worshipped as the sacred dwelling place of a female deity for centuries. Visitors can also learn more about the island’s centuries-old silk craft – Kumejima Tsumugi. Recognised as an Intangible Cultural Property of Japan, the process sees craftsmen use plants and mud as natural dyes, and hand weave the threads to create elegant, textured silks. There is also something for food lovers, with the island known for its farming of Japanese tiger prawns and sea grapes.

Cruise guests wanting to further explore nature can head to Iriomote, the second largest of Okinawa Prefecture’s islands. A national park, the island is mostly jungle and invites many tourists each year to experience the rich biodiversity it has to offer through a range of activities such as trekking, canoeing and kayaking.

Among the local animals is the Iriomote cat which lives exclusively on the island. A subspecies of the leopard cat, these islanders have been critically endangered since 2008 and visitors can enjoy the unique opportunity to glimpse one of the few remaining in the world. Also native to the island is the crested serpent eagle which can be spotted throughout Asia. This bird of prey is so called for its diet of reptiles and is renowned among ornithologists for its distinctive markings which can be seen during flight.

At the westernmost point of the Ryukyu Archipelago is Yonaguni – an island where a unique culture and nature have taken root. Located just 108 kilometres from Taiwan, Yonaguni has been heavily influenced by the island and, as such, offers experiences different to those of the other Okinawa isles. For example, Yonaguni is famous for its coriander (“Kushithi” in the local language), and it is said that this specific variety of the herb originated from Taiwan.

Also unique to the island is the Yonaguni pony, an indigenous breed of which most are semi-wild. Having formerly played an essential role in the island’s industry and agriculture, these ponies are now a key part of Yonaguni’s tourism. The Yonaguni Pony Society – founded in 1982 – promotes the conservation of the breed and their place in the island’s community. As such, visitors can experience horse-back riding on the beach or observe the horses from afar.

The island is also well known for its underwater ruins on the southern coast, which are popular among divers. The area is a topic of debate among many geologists, scientists and historians as it is still not known if the ruins are the remains of man-made structures or natural rock formations. Visitors can observe the ruins from above the water on a glass-bottomed boat tour.

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Elly Yates-Roberts
By Elly Yates-Roberts
02 February 2021

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