Closer to Taiwan than to Okinawa, Ishigaki-jima is the largest of the Yaeyama Islands group marking the southernmost limit of inhabited Japanese territory.
With its semi-tropical climate, warm surrounding ocean and extensive, rare and protected coral reefs, Ishigaki is probably the best location for snorkelling in the whole of Japan. Indeed, many would argue there is little else to do there, but the year-round warmth and relaxed pace the island offers makes it equally ideal for those simply seeking respite from the hubbub of city living.
Since Ishigaki’s new airport opened in 2013, the number and frequency of flights from Naha, Tokyo and other regional airports has increased. Flights are getting cheaper too, with LCCs Skymark and Peach now competing with JTA and ANA for customers.
There are no boat services to Ishigaki from Okinawa, but there are numerous ferry services between Ishigaki and other islands in the Yaeyamas.
Bus services on the island run to and from the bus terminal opposite the port in Ishigaki City, and this is the best connection for the airport. However, buses are not generally convenient for visiting other spots around the island due to their infrequency.
Hiring a car or scooter makes getting around and exploring the island so much easier, in fact you can drive around the entire coastline in a couple of hours. There are lots of places to hire vehicles around the island, and you may get a special deal for advance bookings or through your hotel.
Ishigaki’s beaches are among the best Japan has to offer, and you will find these primarily on the North-East corner of the island, dotted around the Sakieda Peninsula.
Kabira Bay is, without doubt, one of Ishigaki’s most picturesque locations, featuring pale golden sands, and craggy offshore islets set in the bluest of seas. Due to dangerous currents, no swimming is allowed, but there are regular glass-bottom boat tours of spectacular coral reefs departing directly from the beach. Kabira Park, on the hill overlooking the bay, offers a wonderful panoramic view.
Yonehara Beach, on the East side of Kabira Bay, is the best place for snorkelling. The reef, starting just a few metres from the sands, literally teems with tropical fish. There is a very laid back camp site directly behind the beach, as well as other accommodation options and snorkelling gear hire shops nearby. However, Yonehara is not a netted beach and the waters are subject to the same currents as Kabira Bay, so keep an eye out for venomous box jellyfish and regularly check your position. You should also research times of high tide.
Where to Cool Off
Just across the main coast road behind Yonehara, set in a hollow, you will find the small, fast-flowing Arakawa waterfall and rock pool. Completely shaded by the canopy of trees, this is a refreshing spot for cooling off after a morning spent at the beach. It even has a simple rope swing for the kids.
Ishigaki has two lighthouses. The one at Uganzaki (sometimes spelled 'Oganzaki') on the tip of the Sakieda peninsula is the closest to Ishigaki city, but harder to visit without a car because buses don’t stop there. However, the rugged scenery is apparently quite breathtaking.
We visited the Hirakubo lighthouse on the northernmost tip of Ishigaki by car, but buses from the city do stop there, if a tad infrequently. The view was beautiful, even on a rainy day. There is perhaps little else to see on the Hirakubo peninsula, other than enjoy the ride over the low, rolling grassy hills where Ishigaki’s famous beef cattle are pastured.
Lunch Amid the Seashells
There are lots of places around the island to stop for lunch, but if you make it as far as the the start of Hirakubo peninsula, look out for a roadside ramen restaurant called Ibaruma Sato no Eki. The exterior is very distinctive, but inside practically every surface is decorated with seashells, and strings of shells hang from the ceiling. It is owned by a really sweet old couple who, apart from running their business, rescue disoriented baby turtles from the nearby beach.
The night sky over Ishigaki is remarkably clear and free from light pollution, making it popular with astronomers and star-scape photographers. This is also one of the few locations in Japan from where the Southern Cross is visible.
Among the island’s attractions is the Ishigaki Astronomical Observatory, which hosts free evening tours and viewings by appointment on many nights of the week. These presentations are in Japanese only, but are so well-organised and explained, that everyone should be able to get something from their visit irrespective of language. It is a great night out and not to be missed.
Visits must be booked in advance by telephone, so it will be necessary to enlist a Japanese speaker to help you if you don’t speak the language yourself. Schedules and booking details are available at the Astronomical Association website (Japanese only).
Take a Trip to Taketomi
Ferries to the other Yaeyama group islands go from the port in Ishigaki city. The nearest of these, Taketomi island, is just a 10 minute boat ride away and offers an extensive golden-sand beach and sand bars, and crystal clear water for swimming and paddling. But I warn you, it is one of the hottest places I think I have ever visited, so go well sun-prepared.
The trip to and from the ferry jetty is by ox cart, but getting around the island is best undertaken by bicycle; you can hire these in the village. With its quaint mix of Okinawan and Taiwanese culture and architecture, as well as that wonderful beach, Taketomi offers a different dimension to your visit to beautiful Ishigaki.
A Final Thought
You might be forgiven for thinking I had spent some considerable time on Ishigaki, but in fact we were there just three days. Living and working in Tokyo often involves taking whistle-stop breaks that can be almost as stressful as workaday life, but on Ishigaki time seems to stand still, so those three days were among the most relaxing I can remember.