Ishigaki Island in Okinawa prefecture, the southernmost part of Japan, has long been a beach holiday favouritewith Japanese tourists, and the rest of the world is slowly catching on. Dorothy Veitch reports.
1 Beach culture
TripAdvisor’s number one travel destination for 2018, Ishigaki’s white sand beaches and rich mangrove forests give Hawaii a run for its money. Yonehara Beach is the most popular, but I’d recommend you base yourself in nearby Kabira Bay, which is famed for its beautiful blue water, white boats and small islands near the shore. You can’t swim in the bay but you can head out in a dive boat, or hire a glass-bottomed boat and witness the underwater world below.
2 Sunflower fields
The best way to get around Ishigaki is to rent a car (the speed limit is 40 kilometres) and if you’re based in Kabira Bay in the northeast, you’re a short drive from most of the island’s main sights. Drive a kilometre or so from the coast and you’ll be surprised to find yourself surrounded by fields of sunflowers. Ishigaki Town, where you’ll find the port, and larger shops and restaurants, is just 40 minutes’ drive south from Kabira Bay.
3 Rainforest adventure
Be sure to find time to visit Maetake, a rainforest hideout located right on the island’s north-western shore. Well-maintained walking trails line the mountain face, so you don’t have to be an experienced hiker to explore the waterfall-draped jungle. To round off your day trip, head to Cape Hirakubozaki on the island’s northernmost tip. Beautiful at sunset, there’s a charming little lighthouse overlooking a stunning vista of endless blue ocean.
4 Island hopping
Ishigaki is the gateway to the Yaeyama Islands archipelago, the remotest part of Japan, covering 590 square kilometres. While Ishigaki is a known quantity (at least with Japanese tourists) and even boasts a Club Med, the other islands are genuinely off the beaten track. Nearby Taketomi Island is inhabited and is worth a visit, particularly if you’re a keen diver. Just be prepared to rough it a bit if you decide to stay the night.
5 Wild food
Ishigaki serves up some of the most unique dishes in all of Japan. Flour-based Yaeyama soba is the area’s signature dish. Very different from classic buckwheat soba, it tastes more like ramen. The broth is made from skipjack tuna, porkbone broth and seaweed, and it’s traditionally served with strips of pork, green onion and fishcake. Umi budo (a type of seaweed) is another must try – connoisseurs call it green caviar for a reason.
6 Palm groves
After a day’s sun-worshipping at beautiful Yonehara Beach, stop off at Yaeyama-yashi Palm Colony. It’s easy to find as it’s opposite the beach at the end of a deadend road. A stroll through the rainforest setting to admire a grove of famously tall palm trees is a great way to cool off. There’s free parking out front and a little shop next to the car park where you can buy freshly squeezed juice.
7 Shisa statues
Yoneko-yaki Craft Center, also near Yonehara Beach, is worth a look if you’re interested in shisas, Okinawa’s lion-like deities that are believed to protect homes. Shisa statues line the road outside the store and, in the garden out back, you’ll find many more, dotted around a pretty carp-filled pond.
8 Caves and falls
Ibaruma Sabichi Cave and Arakawa Falls are two must-visits, both a short drive from Kabira Bay. Ibaruma is a limestone cave, dripping with stalactites, that leads onto a beautiful, often completely deserted beach. Arakawa Falls feels remote but it’s just off the main road; to reach it, you take a short walk through yet more dazzling rainforest.