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Sunday, 17 June 2012

Miyako-jima: Okinawa off the Beaten Path

Written by Camille Bromley
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Imagine that a warm evening on Miyako-jima, a small island in the Japanese archipelago of Okinawa, is coming to a close.  You have twenty five kilometers to go until Boraga beach, where you plan to set up camp for the night.  The road is isolated, unmarked by electric lamp posts, and the red-orange glow of the sun is fading fast.  Hills rise up before you, each one steeper than the last.  You start panting for breath, legs getting heavy.  You have only a few minutes to make it to the beach before darkness falls.  Finally you hear the crashing of waves and roll in to a stop, relieved.  But as you set up a tent in the last dim rays of the sun, you realize that all the shops on the beach (meaning, the one restaurant and one souvenir shop) are closed, and you have nothing to eat.  Luckily, you spot a light inside the closed souvenir shop and knock hesitantly.  The man inside draws you a map on a napkin, indicating a small convenience store down the road, where you stock up on bento boxes and onigiri rice balls.  You eat by flashlight inside your tent, listening to the waves crashing in the night.  Satisfied, you stretch out to sleep, every muscle in your body sore.


If this is your idea of an island vacation, Miyako-jima is the place to be.  Even if your idea of a tropical vacation is soaking up sun on the beach, cold beverage in hand and a comfortable bed to sleep in at night, Miyako-jimi is the place to go. 


Miyako-jima is one of the many islands making up Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.  It is closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan, and as a result its climate is subtropical, with temperatures ranging from 60° F/15° C in January to 90° F/32° C in July.  The best seasons to visit Miyako-jima are the fall and the spring, September-October and April-May.  Avoid the rainy season from June to August, as well as the typhoons that occur periodically in July-September.  I visited twice, once in early October and once in mid-April.  Both visits were sunny and hot, but not humid or wet.  In April I took away a sunburn, which reminded me of Miyako-jima for the next four weeks.  Sunscreen is highly recommended.


The island is small (160 square kilometers) and flat, perfect for touring on bicycle over several days. Bicycle rental shops can be found in Hirara, the main city of Miyako-jima, and mountain bikes can be rented cheaply by the day.  The main sights are, of course, the beaches, so a peripheral tour of the island is ideal.  A complete circle of the island takes about five days, allowing for mornings and afternoons to stop at the beaches.  A partial tour of the island, hitting all the most important beaches except the most northern (Ozaki) takes four days.  Two smaller neighboring islands are easily reached from Miyako-jima: Kurima Island, by crossing a short bridge on car or bicycle; and Irabu Island, a fifteen minute ferry ride from Hirara port. 


Although Miyako-jima is circumferenced by breathtaking beaches of smooth white sand and clear waters, the land remains happily clear of high-rise beach apartments, hotels, overpriced restaurants and tourists.  Biking through fields of sugar cane in what looks like the middle of nowhere, you emerge suddenly onto Maehama Beach, seven kilometers of stunning white sand and blue water, with no sound perceptible except the waves and the wind, no footprints in the sand except your own.  Maehama Beach is said to be the most beautiful beach in Japan, and if you hit just outside the tourist season, chances are you’ll have it all to yourself.  Even in peak season, Miyako-jima is never overwhelmed by tourists, and the natural beauty of the beaches won’t be spoiled by modern high-rises and beachside promenades packed with shops and restaurants.


The main island of Okinawa and its capital Naha, while more easily accessible, have a completely different feel.  Although Okinawa Island boasts many stunning beaches, tourist crowds and the flood of businesses that come with them can dampen the experience.  Miyako-jima remains quiet and relatively untouched.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012
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