Crystal-clear waters teeming with large marine animals, idyllic beaches, friendly local folk, a unique culture—and peace and quiet. This is the island of Ishigaki. While most visitors to Okinawa stay cooped up on Naha and the beaches of the main island, there is so much more to experience in the area. Of all the beautiful spots further afield, Ishigaki is the easiest to get to, and the hardest to leave.
Located 400km west of Okinawa proper in the Yaeyama island chain, Ishigaki is halfway between Taiwan and Naha. The region has a culture that is not quite Japanese, not quite Taiwanese and even slightly different from that of the main island of Okinawa. The buildings and temples have a slightly subdued Chinese influence, witnessed particularly in the style of roofing, which is often red with a shisa lion for protection.
We stayed in the village of Kabira which, even during the crowded summer months, manages to avoid the crush of tourism. Strolling around Kabira Bay, with its vase-shaped islets and emerald blue waters, is a treat. One of the best beaches (anywhere) is on the west end of the island at Sukuji, boasting sublime with virgin white sand. It’s also user-friendly, with free changing rooms, toilets and showers. The Yonehara is also worth a look (literally); its pristine reefs are perfect for exploring with a snorkel.
I headed to Ishigaki specifically for the marine life, and my high expectations were exceeded. The island enjoys relatively calm seas, clear visibility and warm temperatures year-round. But what really makes it a diver’s paradise are the abnormally large manta rays—large, as in the size of small private planes.
Ishigaki’s underwater coast beckons the harmless giants into relatively shallow water so they can take advantage of the“cleaning station.” This phenomenon occurs in areas where small fish will swim in and around the host animal, cleaning and eating parasites. Sort of like Mother Nature’s barber shop.
This is all fascinating to watch, and all the more so when the customer enjoying the primping is the size of your apartment—and is quietly drifting over your head. In mating season, the males attempt jumbo-sized acrobatics in their effort to attract a mate.
If the giant manta rays are not your cup of saltwater, the pristine coral reefs may very well be, and only a snorkel is needed. If you use dive gear, attractions include clown fish, lion fish, garden eels—and even sea snakes—backlit by calm, white-sand bottoms. The diving is easy, perfect for the beginner, and it’s a great place to get licensed.
Up on land, the people of Ishigaki enjoy life in the slow lane. Outside the city, a handful of minshuku inns and dive shops are run by cheerful locals who clearly enjoy being there and interacting with visitors. Time and time again we were privy to impromptu parties.
Interestingly, the inns and shops were not money-making deals like those found in other “resort” areas—just an excuse, really, to kick back, drink the local awamori firewater or Ishigakijima Beer, and relax.
There are plenty of places to eat around Ishigaki, and finding a meal for over ¥1,000 can be a challenge. Of course, much of the cuisine is heavy on amazing fresh seafood. Just wander around where the fishing boats come in for a chance to score treats like lobster for a few hundred yen.
Another tasty treat to be enjoyed several times a year are the festivals. On Ishigaki the locals take their celebrations seriously, as the color and pageantry of reds and oranges are contrasted by the verdant vegetation and the clear blue sky. There are pageants, knife dances and reenactments of events in local folklore—such as a battle of good and evil, with an overweight devil being trounced by the young, strapping youths of the village. One can feel the importance of these traditions in the minute details of the handmade costumes.
Ishigaki is like going to a foreign country, but easier. You can takkyubin your heavy bags home and relax on a late Sunday flight, easily arriving back in time for work on Monday.
Ishigaki Airport (ISG) has several daily flights and carriers connecting it with Okinawa and Tokyo (Haneda). Some direct flights are available as well, also to other regional islands. Ferry services run to nearby islands. Major operators include Hirata Group, Anei Kanko and the Yaeyama Kanko Ferry. Limited boat service is also available to Naha, Osaka and Taiwan. Buses run regularly, and fares start at ¥200 (or buy a five-day pass for ¥1,000). The Tourism Division and International Section of Ishigaki City Hall offer information in English and can help with room reservations. Lodging comes in all shapes and sizes, ranging from dorms (¥1,000) on up to Club Med (one of two in Japan) ranging well past ¥40,000. Dive shops abound: check out Umicoza (www.umicoza.com/english) and Grand Blue (www.grandblue.pos.to).