If you haven’t heard of Ishigaki before, neither had we – until the day we impulsively bought tickets to that southernmost of Japanese islands. Typing ‘Everywhere’ on Skyscanner had yielded direct flights from Hong Kong to an unknown Japanese-sounding destination: Ishigaki.
“Japan is always a good idea,” we thought, and hit ‘PAY’.
These situations can either go horribly wrong or unbelievably well. Thankfully, in this case it was the latter. A friend living in Tokyo seethed with envy when we told her of our upcoming trip. “I will live vicariously through you,” she said. Even among Japanese, the mythical Ryukyu Islands in western Okinawa are largely undiscovered, the stuff of dreams.
When considering tropical vacations, Japan is hardly the first country that comes to mind. Hence the Ishigaki experience being unlike any other: think surf breaks, dense jungles and swampy mangroves with all the trappings of Japanese society. It’s captivatingly wild, and yet organized to a T. You may even feel as if you were on an islet somewhere in Southeast Asia, sans the chaos. Everything works: your plane won’t be delayed; your boat won’t sink. The water is potable. Quality across the board is fantastic (but you’re paying for it, too!).
Taketomi Island was our main destination, a 10-minute ferry ride from the transport hub of Ishigaki. Known as ‘Taketomijima’ by the locals, the tiny island holds a population of less than 300 people. It’s famous for its carefully preserved Ryukyu village – remnants of that independent, maritime-trading kingdom that ruled the region from the 15th to 19th century.
We checked into Hoshinoya Taketomi, a village resort of white sand paths and coral stone walls. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the place. Here you will catch yourself taking joy in the simplest and smallest of things: the sound of a shamisen being played by a local musician; the flight of a black crow, fellow island inhabitants; or stars blinking at you from the clearest of night skies.
In the place of villas, each guest is checked into a pavilion – only 48 in total – constructed in the style of the island’s traditional housing, preserved since ancient times. Under the red-tiled roofs with shisa lion figurines, modern amenities comply with the elegant Japanese ryokan aesthetic: wood panelled flooring, sliding doors, a meditative lounge area and a centrepiece bathtub where you can soak at leisure.
Floor-to-ceiling glass walls open up to a pebbled zen garden up front, where we decided to barbecue on our first night. The staff brought over the day’s fresh catch (lobster being the most delicious of them all) plus the spectacularly marbled ‘Ishigaki beef.’ Left to our own devices, working our own grill and serving ourselves turned out to be an enjoyable and interactive experience, accompanied by the sound of crickets and rustling leaves as night fell.
The next morning saw an early sunrise greeted by birdsong. As one slept, the other followed the Hoshinoya map east to the stony Aiyaruhama Beach. It took a few attempts, circling around the village resort, but finally the path was found, hidden behind a hilltop lookout. It went through a sub-tropical forest and quickly yielded a beautiful sunrise view – none more piercingly exquisite as that in the land of the rising sun.
Fortunately, we were there just as the island was approaching its autumn solstice festivities, which meant a special farmer’s bento breakfast for resort guests. We donned our blue yukatas (lounge kimonos) and joined our ‘fellow villagers’ for the first meal of the day. The red box we had was a delightful grid of nine miniature dishes representing the common fare partaken by Taketomi’s inhabitants for generations. It may have been as simple as mashed taro and red bean or brown rice with fish and seaweed, but every bite was delicious, honest and soul-nourishing.
We decided to explore the island’s villages by bicycle next, donning our hats and sunglasses to shield ourselves from the brilliant morning rays. At the folk and craft museum, we tried our hand at weaving with an antique wooden loom. The ladies who were working on dying the cloth offered to give us a crash course on the gumbo mixed weave, and we were more than happy to sit down and have a go at it. In the end, we were quite proud of the colourful bashobanana-fibre mats we had created, and until now they grace our apartment, the proud work of our own hands.
Kondoi Beach was next on our agenda. The wide, shallow coast on the island’s west side is famous for sunsets over dazzling white sand and clear water. Kaiji Beach further south is a smaller and rockier site of “star sand”, locally said to bring good fortune.
After exploring the island’s village sights a bit more, we made for the West Pier to catch the sunset. On the way, we passed tourist-filled water-buffalo carts riding through the streets, another Taketomi attraction. We arrived just as Hoshinoya’s shuttle bus pulled in, with a handful of other guests also coming for the same purpose: to say goodbye to the fiery orange ball as it sank into a pool of blue.
In the midst of such bucolic life, one would hardly expect dinner to be a fancy affair, but Hoshinoya outdoes itself with Okinawan Nouvelle Cuisine for fans of fine dining. “ A total of eight courses for the special menu featured plates like Kuruma shrip and island carrot mousse. We also adored the foie gras and island banana roast; the Okinawa Akamachi poele fish with herbal fragrance; and the grilled wagyu rump steak with Makomo bamboo steeped in shikuwasa citrus diable sauce. If we could only give a standing ovation to the kitchen team here, we would. And yes, wine pairing is available.
The next day, we joined divers and snorkelers on a boat to discover the area’s marine life. Unfortunately, Ishigaki is no Maldives when it comes to snorkelling (see March 2018, Travel), but perhaps deeper sea divers would come back with a completely different report to ours. Nevertheless, being out at sea and swimming in aquamarine waters can’t be anything but a day well spent.
Back on Ishigaki main, glass-bottom boating at Kabira Bay is the star attraction. Thankfully, local operators make sure to keep tourism sustainable here; the water is so clear you can see perfectly through to the sea floor: tropical fish, neon corals, giant clams, sea snakes… later you can relax on the powder white beach and grab a bite at one of the excellent restaurants.
However, if you prefer to get up close and personal to the majestic creatures of the ocean, jump into the water to witness the celebrated Manta Scramble. Beneath the surface, huge manta rays gather between April and November, playfully dancing and delighting their audience as they cross and entwine with one another.
Finally, if you have time, more adventures await on remote Iriomote Island – 40 minutes away from Ishigaki by ferry – said to be one of the few remaining great wildernesses of Japan. The fabled landscape is comprised of giant mangrove trees, Okinawa’s longest river and cascading waterfalls. The Urauchi River can be traversed via an 8-kilometre cruise or via canoe/kayak. Trekking is also an option; a demanding 20-kilometre cross-island trail from Kanbirē Waterfalls takes you through the spectacular setting if you’re up for it.
When going off on a trip, the rule of thumb is usually to know what’s in store for you on the other end of that plane journey. However, there are few exceptions to that rule, and we proved it in Ishigaki. And that is: that Japan is most certainly always a good idea.
This is the original draft of an article published on Gafencu Magazine’s April 2018 issue.