Bicycles and buffalo on tiny Taketomi Island

by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Contributing Writer

With only 300 residents, the small Yaeyama island of Taketomi is one of the most popular day trips from neighboring Ishigaki Island. Yet despite this daily influx of tourism, it manages to retain its traditional feel and simple way of life.

The coral sand streets that run through the island’s small village (also named Taketomi) are far more suited to bicycle tires than cars and, as my companion and I pedal between flower-covered walls, I quickly find myself considering plans to abandon mainland life for good.

Along the streets, single-story houses with traditional red tile roofs are guarded by gnarled shisa statues: the lion-esque guardians of Okinawa homes. We meander through the narrow lanes, greeted by friendly island cats and glimpses of golden beaches and turquoise seas through the canopy of trees. It’s a warm welcome to the island for sure.

We pedal in a southwesterly direction for Kaiji Beach, home to the elusive “star sand,” the remains of small sea creatures known as foraminifera, said to bring good luck. After sunbathing and sifting through the sand, searching for stars, we turn back northward and whizz on to next-door Kondoi Beach — the most popular swimming spot on the island. It is not hard to see why, the waters are pristine and delightfully warm.

With appetites stirred after a swim, we cycle further north, stopping off for a view from Nishi Pier. Built for villagers who would venture out in canoes to tend to their rice fields on nearby Iriomote Island, its west-facing vista is the island’s most famous sunset spot.

Heading back into town, we stop at Sobadoroko Takenoko to try the local specialty: Yaeyama soba. Made with island spices and thin, round noodles, the dish differs from the traditionally flat Okinawan noodles and is served in a tuna, pork and seaweed broth. While you may have to queue for a space, outdoor seating and a relaxed atmosphere makes it a great chance to chat with locals and visitors alike.

Sated, we pedal a little further down the lane to Nagomi Tower, a concrete observation spot that’s hard to miss. Perched on the original site of Akayama castle, it offers views of the village and beyond, including the oldest house in town.

From the top, we spot water buffalo on their daily rounds and decide to join a half-hour tour, during which our guide sings traditional songs and explains island life. After the trip, we stay to chat with him a little longer and learn that the buffalo were once working animals on farms across Japan, but have been brought to Taketomi to enjoy a slower pace of life.

For a final treat in town before heading back to the beaches, we sit down to a tower of glistening ice: kakigōri (shaved ice) topped with local muscovado sugar and milk. In a bright and airy room overlooking the town — across from the tower — we survey the island and savor its flavors before heading back out on our bikes and on to the rest of our adventure.

Taketomi Island is a 10-minute ferry ride from Ishigaki Island (¥580/one way). There are a few choices for bike rental on the island, including Tomori Kankou (tomori-kankou.com/bicycle), which will pick you up from the ferry port and store your luggage. It costs ¥1,500 for a full day’s rental or ¥300 an hour, with discount vouchers available on the company’s website. At Taketomi Port, there are minibuses waiting to take visitors to bike rental shops or buffalo tours.