Spotlight: Taketomi Island

Last weekend, my family and I returned to Okinawa. It was a surprisingly emotional trip in a way. We left Okinawa when my daughter was 1.5 years old and returned twice when she was around two years old. But this was the first time that she could form actual memories of the island and she was eager to see the home she used to live in, the places we once frequented, etc.

We also managed to cover new ground with a two night trip out to Ishigaki Island, one of the islands in the Yaeyama group, the southernmost of Japan’s many islands. While Ishigaki has its own appeal, we decided to make the short 15-minute ferry ride to Taketomi Island, just to the west.

Taketomi is a bit of an anomaly among the islands in the Ryukyu chain (Okinawa prefecture). The small island, measuring only 9.2km in circumference, has made a concerted effort to retain the traditional feel of the village and its surroundings. The homes are mostly still traditional one-story bungalows, with red-tiled roofs boasting shisa guardians and himpun (rock walls) guarding the property entrance. The village roads, barely wide enough to fit the minivans that bring visitors to and from the port, are made from sand and gravel. Subtropical flowers abound, from bougainvillea creeping up the stony walls to bright hibiscus in front gardens.

A view of Taketomi village from the watchtower in town
A view of Taketomi village from the watchtower in town

Despite its small size, there are quite a few things to do on Taketomi, many of which are perfect for families:

1. Buffalo cart rides

Water buffalo cart
Water buffalo cart

Taketomi is home to a number of water buffalo, originally brought over from nearby Taiwan. Today, they are mostly used to pull visitors in carts around the village. The animals begin their training at the age of 2 and start working officially at the age of 3. They’ll pull you through the sandy streets for 30 minutes, while the driver shares stories of life on Taketomi and serenades passengers with a local ballad on the sanshin, a three-stringed guitar.

2. Star Sand Beach

Kaiji Beach
Kaiji Beach

The official name for this beautiful stretch of sand is Kaiji Beach and its located on the western side of the island, a short bike ride from the village. The beach is known for its unique star-shaped sand, which is actually the skeletons of miniscule sea creatures that live amongst the sea grass offshore. It’s not easy to find, initially. They have a sample of the star sand under a magnifying glass so you know what to look for, but it’s a lot smaller than expected. Once we got a handle on the size, though, we actually found quite a number of star-shaped grains.

A sample of the star sand
A sample of the star sand

**Be careful. Despite how lovely this sand looks, you can’t swim in the water here. For that, just go a bit up the road to Kondoi Beach.

3. Shisa tour

A shisa on a Taketomi rooftop
A shisa on a Taketomi rooftop

While a buffalo cart ride is a cool way to tour the village, you’ll get to cover a lot more ground on your on two feet. As you peer down alleyways and poke around small lanes, don’t forget to look up at the rooftops for the ubiquitous shisa, lion-dog guardians that are popular on all of the Okinawan islands. They protect the house from evil spirits and natural disasters, and – if we understood our buffalo cart driver correctly – they once were placed on the roof at the spot which was directly overhead the butsudan (family altar) inside the home. I had read online that the shisa of Taketomi often held special objects in their clutches to represent the residents’ arrival at a certain age – a ball for age 60, a ladder for age 70 and a pinwheel for age 80. I saw a pinwheel attached to a bush shaped like a water buffalo but that was it. If you go yourself, keep a lookout for these!

You can spend the night on Taketomi Island, in either a local minshuku (guesthouse) or at the VERY lovely (and accordingly, VERY pricey) Hoshino Resort. But if all you want is a quick trip, you can see most of the island’s sights in about 4-5 hours.

8 thoughts on “Spotlight: Taketomi Island

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  1. You’re so lucky that you got to live in Okinawa once.
    I’m such a huge fan of Okinawa and have visited many times. Of course, I’ve also been to the Yaeyama Islands.
    I visited almost all of the tiny islands there and have a hard time deciding which one I liked the best, but Taketomi is certainly up there. 😉

    I also enjoyed Yonaguni, the westernmost island of Japan. 😀

    1. I always feel awkward when people tell me how lucky I was, because I truthfully didn’t like it very much! Granted, there were a lot of factors involved that made it a difficult time for me but I am so much happier in Kyushu. I much prefer hiking mountains to lying on the beach and humidity was never my thing. 😉 But this trip was so nice that I wouldn’t mind going back again, especially to visit more of the outer islands.

      1. Well, it’s not like I don’t understand.
        So many people in Okinawa told me to come and move to Okinawa, but I never wanted to. I’m bad with the heat in Japan and the humidity as well. And I couldn’t handle having that all year round. And all the bugs and stuff. T_T …
        For me, Okinawa is a great place for visiting regularly.

        Sorry, I was of the impression you really liked it there, but I’m happy to hear you enjoy your live in Kyushu instead! ^___^

      2. It’s funny, but I am much happier now when I visit Okinawa for a few days than when I lived there. It IS a beautiful and incredibly unique prefecture to visit, but I am much happier making my “home” in Kyushu!

    1. Masa-chan, I can’t say if it would be better or worse. All I can say is that it would be different. But this is a travel blog, so I prefer to focus on the beautiful sites the islands have to offer.

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