- Aragusuku - two small, flat islets with only a handful of people living on one of them
- Hateruma - southernmost inhabited point of Japan
- Hatoma - small island north of Iriomote; the main attraction here is that there are no attractions
- Iriomote - largest of the islands, with mangrove swamps, mountains, and extensive forest cover; home of the elusive Iriomote wild cat
- Ishigaki - second-largest island with Okinawa's highest mountain and famous Kabira Bay; largest town and transport hub of the islands
- Kohama - small island that houses one swanky resort
- Kuroshima (Kuro) - small, flat island with more cows than humans
- Taketomi - small, flat island next to Ishigaki with a partly preserved traditional Ryukyu village
- Yonaguni - westernmost point of Japan, famous for its mysterious underwater stone structures
While most of the Okinawa islands belong to the subtropical climate, Yaeyama Islands belong to the tropical rainforest climate which results in the winter temperature being 2-4 Celsius degrees higher than on Okinawa Island and the other islands in the northern part of the Okinawa archipelago. Even in January and February, the average high temperature is 21°C (70°F), making the area a popular winter getaway, although it's often cloudy and windy due to the winter monsoon which makes it a bit too cool for sunbathing. Spring, around March and April, is an excellent time to visit. The rainy season starts early in May and continues until June. Unlike the rainy season in mainland Japan, it rains neither everyday nor all day long in Yaeyama Islands. Summer in Yaeyama Islands is hot and humid but still one of the peak visiting seasons, while September brings a succession of fierce typhoons. October and November are again good times to visit.
Handy Yaeyaman glossary
Some words you may run into:
Spellings and pronunciations vary not just from island to island, but according to the speaker's preferred rendering in kana.
Due to their isolation the Yaeyama Islands are a linguist's dream. While standard Japanese is spoken everywhere and the main Okinawan language is also well understood, there is a unique Yaeyaman language (yaimamunii) as well. Ishigaki, Iriomote and Taketomi each have their own dialects of this, and Yonaguni's is so distinct that it's usually considered its own language.
The Yaeyama Islands are a long way from anywhere.
The only airport of significance in the islands is the New Ishigaki Airport (ISG IATA), which has frequent flights to Naha and Miyako and some direct flights to most larger Japanese cities like Tokyo (3 hours). Regular scheduled fares on these longer flights are quite expensive, with even advance booking fares usually north of ¥30,000 one-way, so this is an excellent opportunity to use the Visit Japan fare if you can.
Low-cost carrier Peach Airlines also flies Osaka-Ishigaki, with promotional fares as low as ¥8,000. As of March 2019, budget carriers Vanilla (soon to be merged with Peach) and Solaseed run flights to Ishigaki from Naha on the main island of Okinawa.
As of April 2019, China Airlines runs seasonal (April-October?) direct flights from Taipei to Ishigaki, and Hong Kong Express has direct flights between Ishigaki and Hong Kong.
There are no scheduled services to Taiwan, mainland Japan or islands outside the Yaeyama group. Between late April and the end of October, Star Cruises operates cruises from Keelung (near Taipei, Taiwan) to Okinawa Island, Miyako Island, and Ishigaki Island, but this is not a ferry service (i.e. you are expected to complete the round trip and return with the ship to Keelung).
There are frequent services from Ishigaki to Taketomi (10 min) and Iriomote (40 min). Regular boats also connect to the other islands, including the more remote Hateruma, and Yonaguni. The major operators are Anei Kankō and Yaeyama Kankō Ferry. Except for the ferry to Yonaguni, you can buy a ticket for any ferry itinerary from any company's ticket office, for the same price.
Uninhabited islets such as Kayama and Uchibanari, as well as barely-inhabited Arugusuku, do not have regular ferry services, but you may be able to reach them by charter boat, water taxi service, or as part of a snorkeling or diving tour.
The Yaeyama Islands are about as off-the-beaten-track as it gets in Japan, but each has its own distinct character. Ishigaki has some spectacular beaches and Iriomote is the only island in all Japan with authentic jungle and mangrove forests, while tiny Taketomi is known for its carefully maintained traditional Ryukyu village.
Thanks to the pristine coral reefs that surround practically all the islands, scuba diving is the number one sports activity. Ishigaki is known for its manta rays, while Yonaguni's star attractions are hammerhead sharks and underwater ruins.
Even with just a snorkel and mask, it's possible to see a good assortment of tropical fish and other marine life among the reefs just a short distance from the beaches. The best spot beach for shore snorkeling in the islands is probably Yonehara on Ishigaki, with extensive coral growth just a few meters out from the shore. Nakamoto Beach on Kuro Island and Star Sand Beach on Iriomote are probably the next best, and at low tide these two are great for snorkeling novices, with shallow, sheltered lagoons and plenty of colorful fish.
Yaeyama's best-known dish is the ubiquitous Yaeyama soba (八重山そば), which bears little resemblance to soba on the mainland: the Yaeyaman version consists of white wheat noodles in a mild pork-based stock, garnished with chunks of pork (sōki), some slices of fish cake and red ginger. Available everywhere for ¥400-700 a bowl.
The local beef is also renowned, although in Japan prime steaks don't come cheap. The tiny island of Kuro, in particular, is known for having more cows than people.
Some of the more exotic local fare on offer includes snake soup and mimigā, a salad of pork ear, cucumber and vinegar.
As elsewhere in Okinawa the tipple of choice is awamori, the best known local brand being Yaesen (八重泉), but Yonaguni is also known for its deadly 60° hanazake. In addition to the ubiquitous Orion beer, Ishigaki also houses a microbrewery.
Yaeyama poses no health risks apart from those found elsewhere in Okinawa. Use plenty of suntan lotion and don't insert your hands into holes in trees that make suspicious hissing sounds.
Take care not to snorkel where there are posted warnings of the indigenous jellyfishes. These areas are usually clearly marked. Also, the highly venomous Crown-of-Thorns seastar sits on the reefs, though the local diving service operators actively eliminate them when found as that species of seastar seriously damages the reefs and is extremely dangerous to humans. And as with all tropical seas, the rule of thumb is not to touch or step on anything — some fish and other sea creatures can give you a nasty cut or sting, though most are rarely fatal, and they almost never bother you if don't bother them.
When swimming or snorkeling, be aware that some lagoons can have rip currents, especially during falling tides. Before going out on your own, make sure you know what to do if caught in a rip current (swim sideways out of it, not directly against it, and don't panic). Also be mindful of signs warning of strong currents — on some beaches these feature a big map or satellite image showing the location of rip currents with red lines. If you want to completely play it safe, Star Sand (Hoshizuna) Beach on Iriomote and Nakamoto Beach on Kuro are very safe at low tide, when the lagoons become completely separated from the rest of the sea like giant tide pools.
The Yaeyama islands have over 200 utaki (御嶽 otake), known in the local language as ogan or on, which are sacred sites (places for venerating the gods). By order of the Japanese government, those "on" pertaining to villages (some of which only survive in the form of city sections now) as well as other more official "on" were outfitted with shrine gates (torii) after the annexation of the Ryukyu kingdom (today's Okinawa Prefecture), but there are subsequently still many that don't have such gates but are instead marked off in other ways, for example, with low stone walls and Japanese signage. Please don't venture inside.
The culture here is more conservative about nudity than in some parts of the world: you're welcome to enjoy the beach in your bikini or speedo, but put on your clothes before venturing into the towns or villages near the beach. It is considered disrespectful to walk the streets wearing only swimming gear.
There are few options for withdrawing cash on the islands using foreign credit or debit cards. Ishigaki City has a number of "international card" ATMs, mostly operated by Bank of the Ryukyus (including in Family Mart) and 7-Bank, but on other islands you'll be limited to post office ATMs — better be sure they work with your card, or bring a lot of cash!
Likewise, outside of Ishigaki there are no 24-hour convenience stores. You can be caught without anywhere to eat or buy food as early as 19:00 in some areas.
The definitive reference to the islands is Nanzansha's Yaeyama Guide Book (やえやま Guide Book, ISBN 4876413886, Amazon.co.jp), but alas, the only words of English in this yearly-updated tome are in the title. Still, the maps and thorough listings are invaluable, particularly for the smaller islands. Available in better bookstores throughout Japan for ¥1,200, and older copies can almost always be found sitting around in Yaeyaman lodgings.
The free Yaeyama Navi (八重山ナビ) pamphlet with large, detailed maps is also quite good, but the listings inside are limited to paid advertisements.
The ferry companies offer package tours to the islands, and information is available at the ferry terminal, though most of it is in Japanese.