Taketomi, a tiny island in the Yaeyama Islands of Okinawa, is the perfect place for catching a glimpse of traditional Ryukyu culture, which has been well-preserved here.
The Kingdom of Ryukyu was an independent kingdom from the 15th century to the 19th century when the islands came under Japanese rule. For 450 years the Ryukyuan nation and its sea trade-based economy flourished and it developed its very own culture.
It is busy on Taketomi during the day when there are crowds of tourists who make the 10-minute ferry ride from Ishigaki, which is the neighboring island and a transportation hub in the Yaeyama’s. However, once the last ferry back to Ishigaki has left at 5pm, the island goes back to an almost sleepy state of quiet beauty and “slow life”.
Just imagine that there are only about 330 inhabitants but they share the island of just over five square kilometers with over 450 cows!
The only village on the island is also named Taketomi, which is quickly reached by a short walk from the ferry terminal.
The village consists of a bunch of houses built in the traditional Ryukyuan style, ie bungalows with terracotta-tiled roofs. The houses are surrounded by rocky walls which are over-grown with colorful hibiscus and bougainvillea.
On top of the roofs there usually sits one, or at the gates two, shiisa, Okinawa’s mythical creature, half lion and half dog, which is a very common decoration in Okinawa. The shiisa is not just a pretty object but serves to protect the house from evil spirits.
In my opinion, walking is the best way to explore Taketomi Island. With a circumference of a little less than 10km one can actually easily cover most parts of the island on foot.
Look out for the school in the middle of the village. Its entrance is decorated with many colorful flowers giving it a very friendly image. Standing there, you wish that your school had been as nice-looking as this one.
Alternatively, you could rent a bicycle on an hourly basis at the ferry terminal. Criss-crossing the small dirt lanes of Taketomi village on bicycle is interesting but you might soon realize that you will be done with your sightseeing in half an hour and hence you might want to slow down a bit, go with the flow and soak up the atmosphere of Taketomi.
The perfect way for doing so is using the highly unusual transport option of riding across the island in a carriage pulled by a buffalo. As you can imagine, this suigyusha is probably the slowest way to get around. So, be patient, sit back, relax and let the buffalo do the walking. The buffalo ride takes 30 minutes and it will set you back at yen 1,000 per person.
During the warmer season, which is almost always, on Okinawa, make your way to the “star-sand beaches” of Taketomi. It consists of tens of millions of tiny corals in the shape of stars, hence the name. These beaches are excellent spots for watching a beautiful sunset in case you stay overnight.
While most tourists come for a day or even a half-day trip only, it is worth staying overnight. There are a number of Japanese family-type pensions (minshuku) providing tatami-mat rooms.
Once the crowds of day trippers is gone, the village becomes lovely quiet and you are forgiven for thinking that nothing much has changed here over the years.