For those that have never been to Japan, initial thoughts of Japan usually evoke images of beautiful medieval castles in Kyoto, the endless lights and sounds of Tokyo, hyper efficient speedy mass transportation, and enormous crowds of people at all corners. What gets forgotten in the fray is the other side of Japan. I’m talking about the numerous archipelagos that make up the province of Okinawa in the south. A place where the crowds fizzle away, the lights turn dark, and the effects of futuristic technology have seemingly been ignored.
Seems impossible to find such a place in a country the size of Germany with 130 million people but I spent a week in such a place. Ishigaki was the last stop of my Japan trip and there couldn’t be a more polar opposite juxtaposition to where I had been the weeks before.
This was part of a two week trip I took to Japan. Read about my perfect two week itinerary for Japan including Okinawa
Okinawa is the southernmost province of Japan. It’s actually a large collection of islands that extends from the southern tip of Japan’s mainland, all the way to Taiwan. The main island, Okinawa, and its capital of Nara is the most well known destination for tourists, and for Americans as there are numerous military outposts here. I was looking for where the best diving was, and Google gave me Ishigaki (thank you Google).
Ishigaki is special
Ishigaki is the main island in the Yaeyama islands, the southern most islands of Japan that are far closer to Taiwan than the Japanese mainland. It’s somewhat of a dream destination for even the Japanese. While on the mainland, I would be talking to locals about my plans in the country and as soon as I mentioned I’d be visiting Ishigaki, everyone would give me wide eyed stares of disbelief, surprise, envy?, and everything else. I suppose it’s perhaps they’re used to hearing “Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka” so much. Most mainlanders have never visited Ishigaki before and I was an instant celebrity as soon as I mentioned my intentions to visit!
Ishigaki is home to incredible natural beauty. The locals here run on a different schedule than their mainland peers; Island time as they like to call it. In fact, the people on Ishigaki were so different to their mainland peers, I thought I may have been in a different country. Even the local accent from what I was told, is difficult to understand for a mainlander. It’s also home to amazing beaches, and most surprisingly, home to some of the best and cheapest kobe-quality wagyu beef!
Getting to Ishigaki
To be honest, I didn’t know a thing about the Okinawa province except that it was in the Pacific so it probably had some diving, and maybe some nice beaches? Nevertheless, after some short research, and the realization that flights to this island were incredibly cheap, we were booked!
Flying to Ishigaki
The only way to get to Ishigaki is by airplane. As different as Ishigaki might be, it is still part of a Japan that prides itself on transportation so there are direct flights (multiple times a day) from Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Nara (capital of Okinawa), Taiwan etc. Flights were surprisingly cheap as I paid about $90 one way on ANA from Osaka to Ishigaki, and $90 from Ishigaki to Tokyo. There are numerous discount airlines like Jetstar and Peach Aviation that also fly with similarly priced fares. Flight times are about 3 hours from the mainland.
Getting around Ishigaki
As you exit the airport, instead of being met with endless signs for mass transportation, palm trees, open road, and one bus are the options. Aside from a taxi to the main town on the island, the buses are the only form of public transportation on the island. There are NO trains here.
The island is large and short of renting a car (which it turns out you cannot do unless you have a Japanese ID), the bus/taxi is the only option to get around. The buses run on island time here and the schedule is infrequent. There’s really just two main buses on Ishigaki, one that goes around the island to the main beaches and sights, and another that goes from the town to the airport. Luckily, the airport shuttle comes frequently.
The fares are 700 yen one way to the city or 2000 yen week long unlimited ride pass. The latter is good to use on the airport bus and the main bus around the island. If you plan on taking the bus at all around the island, then the unlimited ride pass is by far the best option. The bus ride from the airpot is about 20-30 minutes, making multiple stops but for the average tourist, you’ll get off at the main stop downtown next to the ferry terminal.
Japan is not a country known for its good English speaking. In fact, of all the developed nations I’ve been to, it’s easily one of the worst countries in terms of speaking English. Even in the big cities where you’d expect the younger generation to have a basic understanding, you’d be wrong. Ishigaki is not a place that caters to the English speaking. I’d say 95% of the tourists that come here are from the Japanese mainland or China, so the two main languages here are Japanese and Chinese. Nevertheless, people on the islands are incredibly friendly and as little English as they speak, they were extra keen on communicating with me via sign language and Google Translate. End of the day, most menus have pictures so a simple point and nod is all you need.
Luckily, we met a guy at our guesthouse that happened to be Japanese-American, and went to the same University as us! What are the odds? We ended up hanging out most of the time and he ended up helping us get around most of the time.
Taking a bus to Kabira Bay
Exploring Ishigaki without a car is difficult as the buses don’t come frequently. There’s a bus that departs from central Ishigaki town and makes a few stops around the island. It only comes once every TWO hours! Not very Japanese like but I suppose the islands run on a different schedule than the mainland. We took a bus from the main part of town to Kabira Bay, one of the most popular spots on Ishigaki to enjoy the beach and soak in some nice views. We grabbed some sweat potato ice cream (delicious actually) from the food stands parched outside and just chilled out for a few hours.
Where we stayed in Ishigaki
There are numerous places to stay in Ishigaki. The main town, Ishigaki City is located at the southern tip and is the place to be if you’re looking to be close to restaurants, bars, shops, and people. However, it is in no way remotely close to the hectic lights and sounds of say a Tokyo or Osaka. I stayed at a little guesthouse called Hotel Olive right next to the ferry terminal which turned out to be a great stay. We elected to stay in a traditional style tatomi bedroom.
As it is the beach, tropical getaway for the Japanese, there are plenty of resorts to stay at outside of the main town. Kabira Bay in the northwest is a great area for these types of accommodations.
Food and Drinks in Ishigaki
Japan is known for its wide array of delicious and exotic foods. The Okinawa region is no different. I obviously didn’t get to experience everything but was able to eat enough where I need to go back ASAP. Most of Japan’s popular foods are readily available here but Ishigaki is different enough that there are numerous other types of food available given its proximity to the Chinese mainland.
Having just had Kobe beef in Kobe a few days before arriving in Ishigaki, I thought I had achieved the pinnacle of beef perfection. It was one of those once in a lifetime experiences that I knew wouldn’t come around again anytime soon.. Oh how wrong I was. It turns out, Ishigaki is famed all around Japan for its cows. In fact, most of its cows are raised on Ishigaki, and then get shipped out to become the more famed Kobe or Matsuzaka breeds. What does that all mean? There is an abundance of Kobe quality beef in Ishigaki and for a much cheaper price than its more name popular cousins on the mainland.
I was in heaven all over again. There are Yakiniku and Teppanyaki restaurants galore on Ishigaki serving its famous brand of beef. I had planned to eat more sushi as I figured being on the islands meant seafood straight from the source but I couldn’t pass this opportunity up to eat more high quality Wagyu. In fact, of the five dinners we had here, three of them were dedicated to Ishigaki Beef. For Yakiniku, the prices were reasonable at around 3500 (~$30 at the time) yen for a 100g-150g of high quality Ishigaki Beef.
Noodles are a way of life in Japan and each region specializes in something different. Okinawa is home to the Okinawan Soba, not to be confused with the regular soba in the mainland made from buckwheat flour. The Okinawan soba is made entirely from wheat, and resembles Udon more than ramen or Soba. Chewy and thick, Okinawa soba is usually accompanied with a pork-rich broth that many compare with tonkotsu broth (pork ramen broth), green onions, ginger, kamaboko (fish cake), and pork. Okinawan soba is served hot and hot chilies and spices are always available for those that need some heat (me). This is the quintessential Okinawa comfort food, to which I ate plenty of.
Awamori is the local drink of choice. It is the tropical cousin of Shochu, and is distilled entirely from rice, water, and yeast. It has a cult-like following among the locals and mass imbibing of this rice wine is probably a problem with the locals! Interestingly, Awamori is the oldest distilled liquor in Japan, older than Shochu or Sake. The method of distillation was brought to Japan by Chinese traders hundreds of years back. This drink is all over Ishigaki and is the cheapest thing you’ll find in all of Japan at 500 yen (~$4) per liter and 30-40% alcohol.
I had a funny conversation with a guy on my flight in from Osaka, aka he saw my blonde girlfriend and attempted to speak English to me, and by speaking English I mean speaking the 100 words he knew. Nevertheless, what I got out of that conversation was him saying, “Awamori is good, drink a lot of it while you’re here”. I proceeded to the liquor store to see what was available on my first night and it was here that I had an incredibly entertaining conversation with one of its employees. He didn’t speak a lick of English but was trying to help me pick out a good bottle of awamori. Eventually, after getting nowhere with our sign language conversation, I broke out the google translate and pointed at the bottle and said “Sugu ni yoemasu?” which means get drunk quickly? He burst out laughing and nodded in agreement. It was settled.
Apparently water is a good mixer so we decided to drink some of it on the street and my god this stuff was nasty. It tasted like vodka and sake mixed together and the water certainly did not help as a mixer. I suppose for 500 yen, you can’t have too high of expectations but nonetheless, it was not good. Nevertheless, when in Rome, drink as the locals do only next time, I will start with the 1500 yen bottle and see where that takes me.
One thing I certainly did not eat enough of in Japan was sushi. There is just so much other amazing foods to be had that sushi just sort of fell by the wayside. Being on an island, you’d expect Ishigaki to have some amazing fresh from the source fish served and you’re probably right. We had our first dinner at Hitoshi, one of Ishigaki’s best and most popular sushi restaurants. This place was packed when we went so a reservation is certainly recommended. We came early (before 6pm) so we were able to find some seats upstairs. We proceeded to order as much fresh tuna and unagi as possible and my goodness was it delicious. Some of the freshest, most melt in your mouth sashimi I’ve ever had. Best of all, this place is a bargain compared to the higher end sushi restaurants in Japan!
The Japanese love their charred pork belly (chashu pork), especially in Ramen and I love them for that. Okinawa has their own version of it and is cooked in black sugar and awamori. It’s super tender, flavorful, and savory. Served either grilled, in soup, or with sauce. Always delicious.
Diving in Ishigaki
What initially drew me to Ishigaki was the diving. I knew nothing about the place except when I googled diving in Japan, this little island came up and next thing you know, we are booked. As Ishigaki is so far south, it enjoys the warm, tropical waters of the south Pacific. It also just happens to be a hotspot for Manta migrations in the summer time. Having never seen a Manta before, I knew that this was where I needed to go (I visited in September).
After sending a bunch of emails to numerous dive shops on the island, really only one company responded to me (perhaps the others just didn’t speak good enough English? I’m not sure). Prime Scuba Ishigaki was the shop I ended up diving with. They had a great boat, with a solid staff that made the diving enjoyable. It was always 3 dives a day, and lunch (Okinawa Soba of course) was served on the boat. Perhaps it was their ability to speak English but the only other non-Asian tourists I saw while in Ishigaki were while we were diving.
Diving is expensive in Japan. In fact, it’s probably one of the most expensive diving I’ve done in my life. A two tank dive with all gear included was around 14000 yen (~$120 with the exchange rate at that time).
Osaki Hanagoi Reef – named after the hanagoi, or anthias fish, this site takes you to about 20m. You then spend time slowly ascending while exploring the many rocks, walls and other formations along the way. It’s easily accessible from the mainland, about 5-10mins by boat, and is a good site for finding tiny forms of macrolife such as nudibranchs, small crabs and shellfish. It’s also teeming with blennies, pipefish and gobies that come together to form clouds of colour. I also saw some cuttlefish during the ascent for this dive as well (NEVER gets old seeing them).
It turns out Japan has some great diving. There are dive spots to be had all over Okinawa and Ishigaki is just the best place to see mantas. Our main dive site, Manta Scramble is the point where the mantas congregate, or rather scramble, to be cleaned and to feed off the blooming plankton. Out of three days, we were only able to come here once as the winds made it difficult to get to. The dive itself was an easy dive, heading down to a max of 20m and looking for mantas. Once we found a manta or two (or three), we grabbed on to the rocks and stopped to watch the mantas do their thing. Pretty awesome experience without a doubt.
All in all, the diving on Ishigaki was a great first place to see manta rays. It was a good precursor to the thousands of manta rays I’d see in Komodo, Indonesia. I would, however, like to come back in the winter time to see the hammerhead migrations in Yonaguni, Japan’s most western island next door to Taiwan. The staff at Prime Scuba were telling me about their experiences at Yonaguni and couldn’t stop raving about it.
The most western island of the Yaeyama archipelago is Iriomote. It’s roughly the same size as Ishigaki but is its rustic, undeveloped, nature heavy cousin. In fact, there are only about 2000 full time residents on Iriomote as opposed to Ishigaki’s 50,000. There’s really only one road on the entire island, no hospital, high school, and not even a bank. Its mountainous interior is covered with dense primeval forests sliced through with rivers and cascading waterfalls. With a subtropical climate, it boasts the largest mangrove forest in Japan. Most of the island is protected as state land and in the confines of the Iriomote National Park. Its most famous inhabitant is the Iriomote Wildcat, a small nocturnal animal found nowhere else in the world but only rarely seen. Nope, I did not see this animal while I was here.
Ishigaki might be the perfect place to “get away from it all” and Iriomote is the perfect place to “get away from Ishigaki”. Personally, I didn’t feel like Ishigaki was in the slightest over touristy nor did I feel like I needed to get away from it all. Nevertheless, we decided to skip our last day of diving to make a visit to this less than traveled island.
There are no airports serving this island and the only way to get here is by a 45 minute ferry ride from Ishigaki to the Uehara port in Iriomote. From Ishigaki, there are numerous day trips available to visit Iriomote, which is what most people appeared to be doing as they were swept away by tour guides as they disembarked from the ferry. The tours were pricey in my opinion and anything involving sitting on a wagon pulled by a water buffalo (set up purely for tourists) or a motor boat ride through the mangroves (I’ve hiked through mangroves a plenty in my time). The only tour that seemed enticing was a hike and kayak through the mangroves to the Sangora waterfalls which seemed interesting.
We never ended up booking any tours which in hindsight would have probably been a bad idea if it were not for the friend we made in Ishigaki. Once we arrived, most of the visitors were quickly swept away in tour vehicles and we ended up being the only people left at the port. None of us did much research and there’s only one bus that serves the island and it comes around as frequently as Hailey’s Comet does.
Without booking a tour or renting a car, the only feasible thing to do in a day is to take the bus to the mangrove forest, hike, and come back. Renting a car in Japan is not easy. By not easy, I mean it’s impossible. Only Japanese drivers licenses are accepted. Our friend lived in Japan for a few years and still had an active drivers license which really saved us. Without this, we would have been out of luck.
With our rental car, we set out to explore Iriomote. Our only directions from the rental agency was to “follow the road”. We did just that, stopping at various beaches and viewpoints. We never ended up hiking the mangroves but from talking to other tourists, it seemed like it was an incredible experience. Instead, we decided to visit its beaches that were beautiful and completely deserted. We also managed to head inland and hike do a short hike through the jungle. There were loads of interesting plant life, as well as an abundance of huge insects for the insect lovers. This whole island was just nothing of what I expected to see while in Japan.
Taketomi is a small island to the southwest of Ishigaki with the most stunning beaches in all of Japan. It’s a quick 15 minute ferry ride making this place the perfect day trip from Ishigaki. Taketomi is completely different than Ishigaki. It’s a place where the locals have largely kept their old ways of life. It is home to an old school Ryukyu village where the streets are narrow, houses are still built in traditional Okinawan style, cars are almost non-existent, and the pace of life slows to a halt. Only 300 people call Taketomi home and the population doubles during the day from all the tourists.
From the ferry terminal, it was a 10 minute walk into town where we rented bicycles for the day. Bikes are all that’s needed to see the entire island. As we had a flight to catch from Ishigaki later that day, we elected for the earliest ferry (7am) which turned out to be a GREAT decision and I highly recommend it to get a head start on the crowds. We biked around the town but nothing was open yet (Japanese are not morning people) so we headed to the beach.
Our first stop was the Starsand beach famous for its star shaped sand, which are actually just fossils. There was no one here when we arrived but the beach itself was nothing impressive, and overly rocky for my liking. After a few minutes here we ventured to Kondoi Beach.
Wow. This is easily the best beach I had seen in a week of otherwise pretty awesome beaches. Kondoi beach is really just a huge sandbar that stretches a good mile out into the ocean and the water is shallow throughout. The beach itself is not that impressive but it’s the sandbar that really shines through. We swam out 500m or so to get to an area on the sandbar that was super shallow. The water was warm, crystal clear, and a perfect turquoise blue. I was in complete awe at what I was seeing around me. Who knew Japan had such nice beaches? This one had to have been one of the more beautiful beaches I’ve seen in the world.
The best part? There was no one here, at least when we first arrived. People slowly trickled in as the morning progressed and by the time we left at 11am, the tour buses were in full swing. Most people elected to stay on the beach instead of walk a half km into the water where we were. The Japanese take sun-aversion to the next level. I shit you not, but girls were wearing full length tights and a long sleeve shirt INTO the water. I even saw a little baby with track pants and a zip up hoodie being led into the water. I couldn’t help myself but chuckle a bit. I know being tanned is an undesirable trait in many Asian cultures as it represents lower class and manual labor but dressing a baby like he’s about to go skiing when it’s 40 degrees outside should be child abuse?!
After too short of a stay on Kondoi beach, we biked back to town to drop off our bikes before taking the ferry back to Ishigaki. All in all, Okinawa is such a different place compared to the rest of Japan but amazing in all ways. I’m glad to have seen both sides of the country and highly recommend anyone to tack on a visit to the islands on their trip through Japan!
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