We all know about lighthouses, optical beacons that are usually installed to navigate ships. These are historical reminders and important cultural landmarks in many countries. The sub-tropical Okinawan minor archipelagos of Miyako and Yaeyama, which are now major tourist destinations in Japan, together are called the Sakishima Islands and have cultural landmarks of their own.
During the 17th century A.D., the politics of East Asia turned murky and shaped the history of Japan in many ways. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, which dominated the political system in Japan, borders were closed and no one from the outside could enter Japan without permission. What could be called a self-imposed embargo limited Japanese interaction with China and the west.
This policy is referred to as “Sakoku” and it resulted in the establishment of many watchtowers along the western borders of Japan. The Sakishima Islands were an important part of the tributary Ryukyu Kingdom on which the Satsuma Domain hailing from Kagoshima had great control over. The Ryukyu kings constructed beacons for both security and trade purposes on different islands in the Sakishima Group with regards to the wishes of the Satsuma overlords.
Out of the 18 beacons, ten can be found on different islands of the Yaeyama Group. The names of the Yaeyama cities or towns where you can find these observation platforms are Ishigaki, Taketomi, and Yonaguni. Miyakojima and Tarama, on the other hand, which are the main centers of the Miyako Group, are the places where you can find most of the rest of the beacons. These platforms were constructed from limestone and locally sourced rocks, and fire and smoke were used to send signals between various islands.
The best places to see the Sakishima Beacons are the islands of Ishigaki and Miyakojima, which have always been the main trade centers, as most of the ships coming from China or from mainland Japan used to stop there.
You can visit Cape Hirakubo or Hirakubosaki Toudai and Kabira Park to see the beacons on Ishigaki island. Whether you visit Ishigaki, Miyakojima, Yonaguni, Ikema, Tarama, Hatoma or Taketomi, you are guaranteed to see some of these beacons.
Taketomi town has some beacons such as Kusuku Mui and Puzumari, which you should not miss during your visit. Furthermore, if you are on the tiny, interesting island of Yonaguni to the far end, from where you can have a pretty good look at Taiwan on a clear sunny day, you can see many other rock structures belonging to ancient cultures predating medieval eras along with its famous beacon, namely Datiguchidi situated close to its very scenic Cape Agarizaki.
These beacons have been considered monuments of cultural heritage by the Japanese government since 2007 in order to protect them. These beacons were actually built on elevated regions of the islands such as hills or cliffs to have a better view of the naval fleets and to send messages promptly. However, there was no guarantee that these platforms were that effective as it could get difficult to observe signals on cloudy or stormy days. Some of these beacons, such as the one on Kurima Island had to get strengthened in order to put into use during the Second World War.
These beacons are definitely must-visit if you are in the Okinawa. Many ferries run from Naha to Ishigaki or Miyakojima from where you can hop onto various other islands where these beacons are located. How many beacons will you spot during your journey?