October 24, 2023
By Trevor Kew
Miyako-jima is all about the beaches. There are sugarcane plantations and mango trees and a few other things to see, but the island’s main attractions are its powdery white sand, warm clear water, and spectacular abundance of undersea creatures.
Because my family and I arrived at Miyako airport in the late afternoon, we chose to try out Sunayama Beach first. Sunayama is about 15 minutes north from the main town of Hirara and is a popular, attractive little beach with a natural stone arch (unfortunately blocked off by rather unattractive metal fencing). Snorkeling there was decent enough around the edges with a few schools of fish and it proved an easy introduction for my young son, who was nervous to be swimming in the ocean for the first time.
The magic really began the next day, however, when we traveled cross-island to a broad expanse of sand known as Aragusuku Beach. Just a few meters offshore, coral reefs extend far out into the ocean, teeming with fish of all different sizes, shapes, and colors. The clear shallow water made it the perfect spot for a beginner to don a life-jacket, a mask, and a snorkel.
“Down there, the forest is the coral, Daddy,” enthused my son after we climbed back onto the beach. “The animals are the fish.”
Up next was Shigira Beach on the southern coast. Its proximity to a large resort and description in the guidebook as “family friendly” filled me with dread, but it actually proved to be one of the best snorkeling spots we found. The key was to swim out of the small, murky, and rather crowded lagoon out under the bridge into a small sheltered bay. Amidst bright blue plumes of coral, we saw parrotfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, and tiny blue iridescent squid that zinged away as we approached. There were then squeals of “Nemo!” through the little snorkel next to me. Obligingly, creamsicle-colored clownfish peeked back at us through the pale pink swirl of anemone tentacles.
Miyako is linked to its neighboring islands by three large bridges. These bridges are attractions in themselves, rising up dramatically to provide panoramic views of green, blue, and turquoise. We crossed the bridge to the northern island of Ikema to explore two remote beaches known as Rope and Block. Secluded and picturesque, these were my personal favorites, though my family found swimming there slightly intimidating. Across the southern bridge we found Nagama Beach hidden away on the far side of tiny Kurima Island, the perfect place for a sunset swim. The largest and most dramatic bridge leads to Irabu and Shimoji islands. On Shimoji’s west side (past the new airport) is 17END, a walkway that extends out over one particularly stunning stretch of sea.
Less impressive were the city beaches of Painagama and Yonaha Maehama. Fronted by large concrete steps and looking out on the port, Painagama was run-down and somewhat dirty. Yonaha Maehama, a large stretch of sand south of Hirara dotted with jet-ski rentals and barbecue restaurants, was crowded and slightly tacky, though for those in search of a party, it might be the best bet.
As for food, Miyako-soba was tasty and all the usual Okinawan standards (goya chanpuru, rafute, umi-budo) could be found at local restaurants. I’d also recommend a trip to the local co-op store to buy fresh or frozen mangoes and homemade sausages. While there, you can also stock up on Orion beer and awamori (as well as SPAM flip-flops and fishing spears…) at the Donki Hote next door.
Renting a car is by far the better option on Miyako, as public transportation is limited and infrequent. Exploring the back roads through the sugarcane fields, some unpaved and dotted with old stone Okinawan tombs, is a nice interlude between beaches. I’d also recommend bringing your own snorkeling stuff, as rentals are expensive. If you are into scuba diving, there are plenty of companies that offer tours and equipment rentals.
On our final day, we returned to Aragusuku Beach, hoping to find one of the large sea turtles that swim in with the morning tide. We arrived early, before the snorkeling tours from the big hotels, and happened upon an immense dark-shelled fellow grazing placidly on seagrass. We drifted near this graceful creature for a while until it was time for him to head back out to sea and for us to head back to the beach, and to Tokyo.