Island Hopping by Water Buffalo, Yaeyama Islands Japan Travel in Japan's Okinawa Islands

By Abi King | Asia

Jan 07

water buffalo in Yaeyama Islands Okinawa Japan

Island Transport in Okinawa

Yaeyama Islands Japan

When the US occupied the Okinawa islands in southwest Japan, they switched the rules of the road to make everyone drive on the right. When they withdrew, the local people switched them right back. The chaos that resulted from these frequent changes never filtered through to the transport link between Yubu & Iriomote. These remote Yaeyama islanders did what they had always done*: they let the water buffalo choose the route.

Water buffalo rush hour in Yaeyama Islands Yubu & Iriomote, Okinawa, Japan

Rush Hour at the Water Buffalo Crossing

These water buffaloes start their training at the age of two and it’s a process that takes a full year. They then plod across the paradise shores at their own pace until easing into part-time work prior to retirement.

Man playing the sanshin guitar, part of Ryukyu culture in Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa

Sanshin Guitar – Okinawa Culture

The simple twang of the Ryukyu sanshin guitar keeps them entertained, as you can hear on the video below.

What did I make of this unusual journey? Well, when we arrived the water was glistening, the beach deserted and the buffalo carts looked like a mirage from another time and place. *As it turns out, that other time was the early 20th century and the other place was Taiwan.

Baby water buffalo soft toys in Yaeyama islands, Okinawa, Japan

Too Young to Start Training

Never mind. It’s still an iconic image in my mind  – and one I’ll always associate with the islands of Okinawa.

Silhouette view of a buffalo cart crossing the sea between Yubu and Iriomote in the Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa, Japan

My memories of Okinawa


You can arrange a water buffalo trip in the Yaeyama Islands yourself through my host Hirata Tourism Inc.

Water Buffalo Family Tree, Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa, Japan

Buffalo Tracing…


About the Author

Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on

wandering educators January 8, 2011

i love these photos – what an incredible trip! great idea – i’ll file it away for future reference!

jason January 11, 2011

Nice video and interesting Okinawan tradition. What is buffalo tracing? Some kind of family tree for herbivores?

Abi King January 14, 2011

No idea – but Japan does seem keen on small, anthropomorphic representations of animals!

    Mariko August 7, 2012

    I’m half-Okinawan, lived on the mainland as a kid but never visited the other island so I’m not sure about the whole buffalo tracing pic but it seems to be the names of the buffalo and their dates of birth. H being short for Heisei, the current imperial age, the alternate way of counting years in Japan. Sorry it’s not a greater insight.

      Abi King October 13, 2012

      Sorry for my slow reply. That’s actually a great insight about the H for Heisei as a way of measuring age. How many ways are there of counting years in Japan? Thanks, Abi

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