Walking on Drift Ice
The southernmost of the Amami islands, set amidst blue waters and coral reefs, Yoron offers a chance to commune with nature and experience island culture
Yoron is located at the southern tip of the Amami Islands, which belong to Kagoshima Prefecture. This elevated coraline island is located just over 14 miles away from Okinawa's main Island. Resembling an angel-fish in shape, bounded by azure seas and coral reefs, and colored by white sands, the island has been called a "pearl of the orient" because of its striking beauty. One of Yoron's distinctive features is its unique blend of cultural elements drawn from Kagoshima, Amami and the Ryukyu Islands. In its warm climate, abounding with vibrant and colorful flowers throughout the year, visitors can enjoy the leisurely pace of island life and explore the intricacies of its culture.
Attracting large numbers of tourists with the charms of its natural setting, Yoron boasts a long-established and highly popular sporting event all of its own: the Yoron Marathon, held in March each year. To showcase the island's attractions, a JAL cabin crew member will now show you around the Yoron Marathon route.
Held in March each year, the Yoron Marathon is a popular event offering the opportunity to take in the island's wonderful scenery and mingle with the locals. Many visitors return to run again time after time, and every year the event attracts over a thousand participants. The Yoron Marathon, comprising both a Full-Marathon and a Half-Marathon course, is run along the 15.5-mile perimeter of the island. Let me show you round the landmarks on the route I ran in person!
The starting point is on Mykonos Road.Yoron is twinned with the Greek city of Mykonos, so this road is lined with white, Greek-style monuments. There's even a "Throne of Champions" engraved with the names of previous Marathon winners. Just over there, the beautiful coastline extends into the distance!
This is the Coral Way, a road of pure white coral sand. It's a great spot for close-up views of airplanes taking off and landing, several times a day! Running past these unique scenes of island life is part of what makes the Yoron Marathon so special.
This hill is spanned by Shoryu Bridge and Kotoryu Bridge, which both provide spectacular views. You can see as far as Okinawa Island in the distance. This is another of the Yoron Marathon's famous landmarks: Shinzo-Yaburi no Saka, which translates roughly as "Heart-Attack Hill". It comes at just before 22 miles, where full-marathon runners start to confront fatigue and exhaustion. But once you've pushed through the pain barrier and made it to the top, the view is really amazing!
This statue of an Okinawa rail was presented to Yoron in 2012, by Okinawa Prefecture's Kunigami District, to mark the 40th anniversary of the return of this endangered species to Okinawa. When you see this monument, you know you've finally arrived at Shinzo-Yaburi no Saka!
Oganeku Kaigan is Yoron Island's longest beach, with over a mile of white sand. A little way offshore lies Yurigahama, an other-worldly expanse of white sand that is only exposed by particularly low tides in the spring and summer. The outward leg of the Full Marathon is the only stretch of the marathon route where you can run beside the ocean.
Local residents gather here to cheer on the runners, so this spot is much loved by those who come back year after year to take part in the event. This store is named "Paruyadoi". I'm told that in the island dialect, it means "the hut in the field". It sells shaved ice in the summer, and the interior is crammed with old clothes and old-timey toys! It's just like a huge toy box, or a small museum. Returning visitors bring gifts from home, and looking around, I can see quite a collection.
One of the owner's proudest possessions is a large-scale model of the Queen Coral, a ferry boat that used to carry goods between Yoron Island and the mainland. It weighs about 2 tons! So large it had to be lifted into the store by crane, this elaborate scale model is obviously a valuable object.
Now that I've freshened up after the day's exertions, it's time for a delicious meal and something to drink! This izakaya (pub/restaurant) is named "Hyokin". Ever since it opened, thirty years ago, it's been a firm favorite with locals and visitors alike. The island has its own drinking custom known as "Yoron kenbo". A cup of "yusen", the local liquor made from fermented brown sugar, is passed around the table, and everyone drinks in turn. It's a great icebreaker and soon has strangers turning into new friends. When it comes to the local food, I recommend the mozuku somen noodles - the izakaya's own signature dish - and the suuna, a unique seasonal seaweed that is not usually on the menu. Suuna is harvested from the sea off Yoron from late May until about July, and eating it is supposed to bring you luck!
2297-1 Chabana, Yoron-cho, Oshima-gun, Kagoshima Prefecture
"Pricia Resort, where I stayed on this visit, looks out on Sunset Beach on the western edge of the island, and is handily located five minutes' drive from the airport. White sandy beaches and emerald-glinting, coral-filled ocean extend as far as the eye can see. Breakfast, which features plenty of locally-sourced island produce, is served buffet-style. They do gorgeous country-style dishes like pickled island vegetables with wakame seaweed, Okinawa sweet potatoes and Kagoshima satsuma-age (deep-fried minced fish and vegetables). Desserts are great too. I particularly enjoyed the tropical fruit, the local brown-sugar cane and the mango rice-cakes.
358-1 Riccho, Yoron-cho, Oshima-gun, Kagoshima Prefecture
Tomai Beach was the filming location used for the white-sand beach scenes in the 2007 Japanese comedy film "Megane" ("Glasses"). Its powdery white sand feels great to walk on barefoot! This spot is known as the "beach where the dragon lives", and it's supposed to be the gateway through which power enters and leaves the island. Because there are so few people around, it's usually as deserted as any private beach, which adds to its atmosphere of power and mystery.
This museum offers a chance to learn about Yoron Island's history. At one time, red-brick roofs and jars of the strong liquor known as "awamori", both cultural imports from the Ryukyu Islands, were commonplace on Yoron. However, due to the shortage of raw materials during the war, they went out of use. Unable to brew awamori, the islanders developed their own local liquor, yusen, distilled from brown sugar cane. The war also explains why Yoron is not more strongly influenced by Ryukyuan culture, despite being closer to Okinawa Island than to Kagoshima Prefecture.
693 Higashi-ku, Yoron-cho, Oshima-gun, Kagoshima Prefecture
"Yoron Castle Ruin, situated at the island's highest point, was destroyed in the days of the Ryukyu Dynasty, back in the 15th century. Due to the downfall of the Ryukyuan Kings of Hokuzan, onetime rulers of this island, the castle was abandoned when it was half-built, and survives in its unfinished state to the present day. Two Shinto shrines, Tokunushi-Jinja and Kotohira-Jinja, provide lofty vantage-points offering excellent views of the island. Another popular prospect point is marked by this monument to the blue Okinawa Rail, which was presented to the island by Okinawa as a symbol of friendship.
At Shima no Aji Hachiro, a restaurant located at the island's northern tip, you can enjoy stunning views while you eat. I particularly recommend the counter seats in the large-windowed indoor terrace! I had the set lunch, a mouth-watering selection of local dishes including seasonal island vegetables, fish caught locally by the owners, Sagama fried chicken and sponge gourd. I'm told that in old times, the islanders used a type of vinegar called "peh" to season their sashimi. Eaten nowadays with sweet soy sauce and vinegar, the island's sashimi is deliciously distinctive.
Shima no Aji Hachiro
2523 Nama, Yoron-cho, Oshima-gun, Kagoshima Prefecture
Ryukyu Air Commuter Co., Ltd.
Located just north of Okinawa Island, beautiful Yoron is surrounded by gentle blue ocean.
As I traveled around the island, what struck me most of all was the warmth of the islanders. Friendly and cheerful, they're always happy to start conversations with visitors, and given half a chance, they'll ply you generously with tea and cakes. I found myself treated like one of the family, and I had a truly wonderful time.
Yoron Island already has plenty of fans, and after my holiday there, I've definitely joined their ranks!
I'll always remember the smiling ocean, the warmth of the islanders, and the leisurely pace of island life.
On my recent visit, I enjoyed some solitary jogging, but if you prefer things a little more lively, you might want to visit in the spring, when the Yoron Marathon takes place, and the whole island community turns out to cheer the runners on.
Besides the flights to Yoron Island from Kagoshima, there is also one flight a day from Okinawa on the Ryukyu Air Commuter service. The flight time from Okinawa is about 30 minutes. If you see me on board your flight, be sure to say hello!
Yoron Island has so much to offer, and I heartily recommend it to everyone as a holiday destination.