A tropical island idyll... in Japan
Think of Japan and teeming cities, exquisite Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, majestic Mount Fuji, bullet trains, cherry blossoms and kimonos may all come to mind. The island of Ishigaki, however, has none of these and, as a result, it makes a delightfully contrasting destination for anyone looking to unwind after a tour of the country’s better known sights.
On a map it doesn’t look like it’s part of Japan at all, a tiny speck just 185 miles to the east of Taiwan and a 2 ¾ hour flight from Tokyo. It is a long way in distance, and in spirit, from Honshu and Japan’s main islands. Administratively, it is the main island of the Yaeyama Islands group and part of the Okinawa prefecture. When it comes to ambience, however, it feels in climate and environment much more like arriving somewhere in the Caribbean. It’s a laid back island, fringed with coral reefs and sandy beaches, which basks in hot tropical weather year-round.
Although these ingredients would seem to make ideal conditions for a few days relaxing on the beach, in reality this is not a classic tropical island in that way and it is much more rewarding as a place for gentle exploration than it would be for pure sun-lounging. To make the most of it you really need wheels. We picked up a hire car at the airport and soon discovered that it is a fun and easy island to explore and a very easy place to navigate by car…. they drive on the left, the signs are all in English as well as Japanese, there aren’t all that many roads and, if you do lose your bearings, the cars come with sat nav.
Although the distances are not huge, driving is a leisurely pursuit on Ishigaki and a full lap of the island, including taking in the tip of the wild northern peninsula would take maybe three hours. There are a few ‘official’ beaches which tend to have essential tourist facilities, are safe from currents and are protected by nets to keep jellyfish out so you can swim and snorkel with reasonable peace of mind, but many of the other beaches are ‘unofficial’ and offer less carefree opportunities to head into the water.
Beach on Ishigaki
The main town, Ishigaki ‘City’ and most of the resort hotels are in the south of the island. The town is perfectly pleasant and has quite a range of both oriental and western places to eat, but it does not hold any great diversions for the visitor. The main attractions are found further north or on the neighbouring islands that can be reached by a short ferry ride from the main harbour.
We spent a very enjoyable half day exploring the nearest island, Taketomi. On arrival, you can hire bicycles (good idea), explore on foot, or even join an ox cart tour (very sluggish). At the heart of the island is a quaint and beautifully kept island village. This is typhoon territory (Jul – Oct), so the buildings are all stone bungalows, featuring very securely built pan-tiled roofs with upturned fringes, in the Japanese vernacular. The sandy streets are festooned with floral colours and are delightful to meander through. Around the fringes of the island are a few reef-protected beaches, better for paddling than full-on bathing.
Back on the main island, on the west side there is a pleasant little village with restaurants and shops called Kabira Bay, from where glass-bottomed boats take you over the coral reef, alive with tropical fish. For a more active view of the multi-coloured sea life here, local boats arrange safe snorkelling trips. You may even get a chance to swim with giant manta rays. At the top of Ishigaki is a long finger of land – the Hirakubo peninsula – which points rather accusingly in a north east direction towards the far distant main islands of Japan. It makes a very satisfying drive, as the road follows the west coast, so there are dramatic sea views to one side and lush, almost jungley vegetation on the other, where the adventurous travellers visiting in the summer months can seek out spectacular sagaribana flowers, which bloom at night in a burst of bright colours. At the northern tip, a lighthouse perched on the cliffs marks the end of the road. Nearby, we came across the Seven Colours restaurant, which served us a delicious lunch beside a golden beach – highly recommended.
Glass-bottomed boats, Kabira Bay
We stayed in the Ishigaki Resort Grandvrio Garden Resort in the island’s south west corner. The hotel has a three-storey block of comfortable spacious rooms, and then some garden villas, which would be ideal for families. The gardens themselves are a pleasant place to unwind, full of pools, both for decorative and swimming purposes. The neighbouring beach, however, is a fairly barren sliver of sand that does not offer much allure either for bathers for sun-bathers.
When it comes to food, the fact that the people of Ishigaki share a taste for spam with many other Pacific islands that fell under America military influence after WWII (pigs trotters are another local ‘delicacy’) does not bode all that well. And, while it would certainly be true to say that dining on Ishigaki does not hit the heights that it does in the main islands of Japan, the hotel’s restaurant serves very tasty buffet-style meals and there is always the option of strolling next door to its sister property for more choice.
Grandvrio Garden Resort
In many ways, it feels more like a Pacific island than a Japanese island, and this contrast with the rest of the country makes it an interesting, gentle, attractive and fun place to relax and explore.