Okinawa: an island-hopping adventure in Japan

Okinawa Prefecture provides a wealth of natural and cultural highlights for visitors to discover

Okinawa: an island-hopping adventure in Japan


Iriomote Island has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site

By Alex Smith |

The subtropical islands of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture, located around 400 miles to the south of the Japanese mainland, offer a one-off experience for cruise guests. Isolated beaches, pristine tropical forest and a plethora of unique wildlife provide a range of adventures for cruise travellers interested in visiting a destination off the beaten track.  

Ponant has become one of the first cruise companies to offer a voyage through the heart of the islands during an expedition cruise in 2023, a milestone which has been a long time coming. 

“The ‘Okinawa Expedition’ has been postponed for several years due to the Covid-19 crisis,” says Ryu Ijichi, expedition leader for Ponant. “It is finally scheduled to operate this year, and we have already set multiple sailings for 2024.” 

The 13-day itinerary will visit several of the islands in the Okinawa Prefecture, as Ponant’s vessel Le Jaques Cartier navigates a course not usually accessible to visitors. 

“Each of Okinawa’s isolated islands has its own unique charm and its nature, culture and cuisine all have their own appeal,” says Ijichi. “However, since there are not many sea routes connecting remote islands, it is currently quite difficult to do ‘island-hopping’ on regular journeys. On the Okinawa Expedition, guests will move from one island to another during the night, so when they wake up every morning the ship will have arrived at a new destination. They can therefore enjoy multiple islands without any of the stress of normal travel.” 

Among the islands visited by the cruise line will be Ishigaki Island, located about 250 miles south-east of the regional capital Naha. The island offers sites of scenic natural beauty including Yaeyama Palm Grove, a designated national natural monument, and Kabira Bay, famous for its clean white sand. In addition, guests can watch artisans weaving Yaeyama Minsah, a fabric traditionally given as an engagement gift from a woman to her new husband. The fabric is weaved in an alternating pattern of four and five squares in a row, which represents the wish for unchanging love. 

The expedition will also call at Iriomote Island, located about 22 miles west of Ishigaki Island. The island is characterised by a rich natural landscape distinctive of the subtropical region, including an evergreen broad-leaved forest, Japan’s largest mangrove forest, and coral reefs. The island also has a rich cultural landscape, with locals preserving historic traditions such as folk songs and dances. 

In recognition of its outstanding natural value, Iriomote Island is one of four islands in the chain south of Japan to be designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The designation was intended to help protect the many unique species of plants and animals that inhabit the site, among the most notable of which is the Iriomote Cat, which only exists on Iriomote Island. The cat has been designated as a national monument by the Okinawa government, which is working to protect the species from extinction. 

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

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