On our first afternoon in the Yaeyamas, we took the easy, 15-minute ferry to Taketomi Island, renowned for its strong Ryukyu culture and architecture. I had hoped to cycle along the gravel paths, or at least take a slow water buffalo cart ride, through the traditional village.
Unfortunately, there were no kids’ bicycles for rent at the visitors center and no taxis were available, so we waited 20 minutes for the bus to Kondoi Beach. (This was to be a consistent issue during our island explorations: how to get our family of seven around!) Kondoi was fairly crowded with Chinese tourists, but the water was clear and warm and the views across the channel to Kohama and Iriomote Islands were beautiful.
The next morning, we all sprinted (even Grandma Joan) to the terminal only to be told that the once-daily ferry service to Hateruma Island was fully-booked. We managed to score standby tickets, but we were the last to board so the boys and I ended up wedged between other passengers’ legs and their bags on the outer deck. Hateruma is the southernmost island in Japan, and the boat journey from Ishigaki took 2.5 hours. By the end of the trip, the boys were mega-bored and nauseous from the engine fumes.
Hateruma’s famous Nishihama Beach (voted “#1 Beach in Japan” by JTS) was just down the coast from the port, but we didn’t know that and the limited Japanese signage didn’t help. So we walked a long, hot and unnecessary loop into the center of the island before being pointed in the right direction by a bemused farmer. As we descended the steep, paved road to the beach, the ocean opened up below us. Wow! Maldives colors. Sardinia colors. Cook Islands colors. You just wouldn’t expect these blues or these views in Japan.
As soon as we got sunscreened up, I took the boys out snorkelling. The coral started just 5m from the beach. The water was clear but very shallow: the boys easily floated over the coral while I just scraped by in a few areas. Already, the marine life was excellent: Picasso triggerfish, parrotfish and wrasses. As the water deepened, we glided over coral canyons and past little caves and the boys were in awe. When we hit the edge of the reef and the bottom dropped straight down to sand 5m below, I could see the wonderment in their eyes!
We swam along the edge of the reef for almost an hour, the boys diving down to explore niches in the coral or to chase interesting fish. It was such an amazing experience for them. They had to show me every creature that they spotted. No complaints. No exhaustion. And they didn’t even have floaties or life vests! They were strong swimmers already and so amped to be there! And I was grinning the whole time, so proud of them and so happy to share that incredible experience with them.
The boys spent at least four hours playing on the beach with hermit crabs. They designed obstacle courses in the sand or traced a wide circle around the crustaceans and saw which one reached the edge first. Later, they placed them at various locations on a rock that jutted up through the sand. They called this “Hermit Crab Parkour”. Each boy had named his favorite crab: Fatso (Tai), Snowball (Logan), Baby (Drake) and Whiplash (Kiva). They howled with laughter as the crabs picked their way over the ‘mountains’ and ‘cliffs’ of the rock.
“Snowball is a five-time winner. But today, he’ll be going up against the nearly unstoppable Fatso – a seven-time winner,” Tai said in his best announcer voice.
They were making a lot of noise, which annoyed some of the people sunning nearby. But I loved the way that they were playing, inventing their own games – and no fighting! There was no way that I was going to stop them. It was a long beach after all; plenty of room for everybody.
The last ferry back to Ishigaki departed at 4:50 p.m. We had one hour left on Hateruma. Since the boys were still playing, Nori proposed a final adult snorkeling session out to the old sea wall. I didn’t expect to see much; no one else was snorkeling there. But we walked 300m down the beach and waded in. Maybe ten minutes later, Nori shouted “Turtle!” I couldn’t believe it, but there it was, a critically endangered hawksbill turtle chomping casually on seagrass.
We saw 3-5 more turtles nearby; it was incredible! We hadn’t seen that many turtles since Sipadan Island, Malaysia. We beckoned a Japanese couple over that was snorkeling nearby to share the discovery. Nori convinced me that there was enough time to show the boys, so I swam quickly to shore and sprinted down the beach. When they heard about the turtles, they rushed to get their goggles and followed me back. They were so excited to see the turtles in the wild and Logan and Kiva claimed to have touched the shell of one as it flapped by.