The Yaeyama Islands (八重山諸島 Yaeyama-shotō) are the westernmost part of Okinawa, Japan.
- Aragusuku - population 7
- Hatoma - the main attraction here is that there are no attractions
- Hateruma - southernmost inhabited point of Japan
- Ishigaki - largest town and transport hub of the islands
- Iriomote - covered in mangrove swamps and jungles inhabited by the elusive Iriomote wild cat
- Kohama - tiny island that houses one swanky resort
- Kuro - with more cows than humans
- Taketomi - small island off Ishigaki, known for a carefully restored Ryukyu village
- Yonaguni - westernmost point of Japan, famous for its mysterious underwater stone structures
The Yaeyama Islands are the remotest and most southwestern part of Japan, closer to Taiwan and even Batanes of the Philippines than Okinawa Island, much less the mainland.
While most of the Okinawa islands belong to the subtropical climate, technically 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. Summer in Yaeyama Islands is hot and humid but still one of the peak visiting seasons, while September-October brings a succession of fierce typhoons. November and December are again good times to visit.
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 all have their own dialects of this, and Yonaguni's is so distinct that it's usually considered its own language.
An indigenous ideographical writing system known as kaidā was once employed on Taketomi and Yonaguni, but is now primarily found on T-shirts in souvenir shops.
See also: Yaeyama phrasebook, Yonaguni phrasebook
The Yaeyama Islands are a long way from anywhere.
The main airport of the islands is Ishigaki. There are frequent connections to Naha and Miyako and limited direct services to major Japanese cities like Tokyo, but no scheduled international services, even from neighboring Taiwan.
As of 2008, following the liquidation of both Ryukyu Kaiun and Arimura Sangyo, there are no scheduled services to Taiwan, mainland Japan or islands outside the Yaeyama group.
Star Cruises  operates cruises from Keelung (Taiwan) to Miyako, Ishigaki and Yonaguni irregularly; as of summer 2009, they're available again.
Japan Transocean Air and Ryukyu Air Commuter have limited flights (1-2 services daily) from Ishigaki to Yonaguni and Hateruma.
There are frequent services from Ishigaki to Taketomi (just 10 minutes) and Iriomote (40 minutes). 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.
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 spots are probably Nakamoto Beach on Kuro Island and Star Sand Beach on Iriomote.
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 ¥400-500 a bowl.
The local beef is also renowned, although needless to say 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.
The Yaeyama islands have over 200 utaki (御嶽), also known as ogan or on, which are holy places for venerating the gods. Akin to low-key versions of Japanese jinja shrines, they usually do not have torii gates, but are instead marked off with low stone walls and Japanese signage. Don't venture inside.
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 ¥1200, 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.