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.
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
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
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.
**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
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.