Looking around the departures hall at Osaka airport, I noticed something. The 8AM flight to Tokyo was packed with salarymen, all in their black uniforms, ready for work. And my plane to Ishigaki? Filled with young couples and families, dressed in Hawaiian shirts, ready for their holidays. This was the only time I’d seen Japanese people looking even remotely casual, and I sensed Ishigaki would be my sort of place. I might have been the only white person on the plane, but I like it that way.
Ishigaki was another one of those places I’d decided to come to based on a Google search. I like looking at maps, and when I discovered this subtropical Japanese archipelago just a few hundred miles off the Taiwanese coast, I had a closer look. Not only does Ishigaki have the most beautiful beaches in Japan, it’s also got some gorgeous wildlife, and a completely different vibe to the rest of the country. I can see why Tripadvisor voted it the #1 “Destination on the Rise” in 2018. Plus, it looks like a real-life version of Moana’s Polynesian paradise at Moto Nui, so what’s not to like?
The downside of tropical climes, however, is the high risk of rain. Upon landing at beautiful Ishigaki, a tropical storm immediately started battering the island. I made my way to the main town using the bus – the number 4 and the number 10 will get you there in just half an hour. I couldn’t check into my hostel until the afternoon, and the weather (plus my streaming cold) put a dampener on my plans to go for a jungle hike on neighbouring Iriomote island.
This is Ishigaki port, where you can catch ferries to Iriomote, Taketomi, and more paradisical islands within day-trip range.
What else does one do on a tropical island in the rain? I wandered about Ishigaki town in the rain, getting my bearings, looking for a supermarket, and generally getting a feel for the place.
And also papping some really cute cats.
There’s not an awful lot of touristy things to do in Ishigaki town, save for the duty free shops and the market, which wasn’t particularly bustling at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon. So, I went back to my hostel and checked in, savouring the opportunity to finally sit down after a long day’s travelling.
I was staying in a guesthouse-cum-hostel called Hive, which is just 3 minutes’ walk from the port and bus terminal. As I was completely solo by this point, I picked it based on the fact the staff spoke English well, and its Instagram feed had made it seem like a sociable place. Turns out, I made the right choice. I was checked in by a friendly Japanese girl from Hokkaido, Amii, and she showed me around. We got chatting in the pleasantly lit kitchen, and as we got on so well, we agreed to hang out the next day at the famous Kabira Bay – my number one priority on Ishigaki island.
By this point in the day, though, I was flagging. My cold made me look like an extra from Pride & Prejudice and Zombies, so Amii gave me a big pile of blankets, and sent me to bed. Luckily for me, my 8-bed dorm was totally unoccupied, so I had an extremely quiet sleep on a comfortable mattress. At long last. I ended up sleeping for 12 hours, because I was A) tired and B) dying from flu. But my extreme napping had done me some good, so come the next morning, I was raring to explore Ishigaki.
Now, Ishigaki is a fairly big place – much too big to walk or cycle around. You’ll need some transport. My original plan was to hire an electric scooter and pootle around that way, so I got myself an International Driving Permit from the Post Office before I came out. There’s just one problem: I’ve never driven a scooter before, even though my licence technically allows me to. Plus, I’ve had so many friends injure themselves during moped holiday gallivanting, and Amii told me another horror story that morning, so I changed my mind. I opted to hire a car.
Yet another roadblock quickly became apparent. Many places on Ishigaki don’t deal with foreigners, because the paperwork is a tad complicated, and the staff may not be confident in their English. The hostel had some leaflets I looked at, and after browsing Google, I found a place that spoke English. It’s called Kumanomi, and I’d 100% recommend them, because they were really efficient and helpful. I called, arranged the rental, and they picked me up in a black car 15 minutes later. As I had all my paperwork with me, the process was super simple, and only cost me about 4000 yen (£30) for just over 6 hours. The staff took me out to my wheels for the day.
Everyone, meet Nia. Like Lia, my Suzuki Liana at home, but even more Japanese.
She’s an automatic, so the nice man also had to teach me how to drive one of those in 0.5 seconds flat. Nervous, I put the car in drive (still weird saying that), and tentatively hit the road. As I got used to the controls, I meandered my way through Ishigaki town, on my way to the island’s coastal road. There’s basically one road that goes round the island, so it’s very hard to get lost.
Stolen from interwebs (see watermark).
Japanese drivers, by and large, are excellent – they’re extremely considerate, law abiding, and very chilled. No tooting horns or road ragers here. This was my first time driving abroad, and I’d picked the best place in the world to do it. The speed limits are also very low, which at first was a relief, but quickly became irritating when I wanted to go faster than 40 km/h on a deserted coastal road. But, I shouldn’t complain, for it gave me more time to admire the incredible view from my window. I’d rolled it down and rested my arm on it, like a lorry driver.
I felt free. Here I was, driving a car in Japan, at a tropical island paradise more or less untouched by Western tourists. I’d made a few really cool friends on my travels, and I’d had a fantastic time travelling the country. At the start of the year, if you’d told me this is what I’d be doing (and, more importantly, that this was how I’d feel), I’d have scoffed at you. No way could I be that bold or outgoing. But, I was wrong.
After driving for about an hour, I decided to pull over at Tamatorizaki viewpoint, after looking at the distractingly beautiful pictures on the sign. I parked Nia and raced up the path, lined with pink and red hibiscus flowers. They grow in abundance here.
The viewpoint is a covered pavilion at the top of a steep hill by the coast. Though I was only here for a few minutes, I’m really happy I stopped. You get views you just don’t get from the road – views that showcase this wonderful island in its full glory.
See what I mean about the hibiscus?
“Moana! Do not go beyond the reef!” Though if I lived here, I wouldn’t want to.
Like the Japanese tourists trying to get a perfect Instagram shot, I could have stayed here longer, just breathing in the air and feeling grateful to experience it. But alas, I was on a tight schedule, if I was going to meet my new friend Amii by 2pm at Kabira Bay. I hopped back into Nia and continued on to the peninsula in the distance, hoping to reach Sunset Beach within the next half an hour. Some speeding *might* have been involved.
As its name suggests, Sunset Beach is great the evenings, because it faces west. But don’t let that put you off going in the day – the waters are crystal clear, and if you walk along a bit, there are some really pretty rockpools you can see sea life flourishing in. If you’re a tightwad like me, be prepared to change on the beach, or come wearing your swimsuit – it costs 500 yen (£3.75, on top of the 500 yen car park charge) to use the facilities.
Swimming costume on and stuff hidden behind a rock, I did what I do best, which is run into the sea like a madwoman. Save for a handful of Japanese families, the place really was empty. It was like being on my very own desert island, and I was the luckiest shipwreck survivor alive. I swam about for an hour, revelling in the quietude, sunshine, and smugness of discovering this place ‘before it was cool’.
There’s a couple of dudes there who seem to operate a watersports business, but they won’t bother you. They’ll just stare a little if you’re a foreigner, like me.
The golden sand was so soft, save for the occasional rock, which felt warm and porous to touch. Plus, the rocks made for nifty hiding places.
Dare I say this place is even on a par with Greece? It’s pushing the boat out, but I’ll go there. Yes, it is.
Sadly, my phone reminded me I had to go to Kabira Bay, which was an hour’s drive away (thanks to the ridiculously low speed limits). Nia and I meandered our way back down Ishigaki’s west coast, reaching Kabira village just before 2pm. I was due to meet Amii in a jewellery shop she was doing some freelance video work for, but for the life of me, I could not find it. I’d marked it on not one, but two maps, and still no joy. Defeated and late, I pulled over and asked some Japanese old blokes to direct me.
They didn’t speak much English, but they pointed and gestured as much as they could. They assumed I wanted to go for a swim, and gestured over the hill. I continued to point at the jewellery shop. When the miscommunication had been cleared up, they pointed in the opposite direction. There it was, just across the road from where I’d pulled over. How had I missed that? Duh. I thanked the friendly fellas for their help and moved Nia over.
Amii wanted to show me around Kabira Bay, her favourite place on the island. She’s fantastic company, so I was only too happy to accompany her on a trip to Ishigaki’s top tourist destination. We moved through the throngs of Taiwanese and Chinese tourists, and made our way to the very beach that had drawn me to Ishigaki in the first place.
White sand, turquoise waters, and green palm trees. Picture perfect or what?
You can’t swim at Kabira Bay, because they cultivate a very rare species of black pearl there. You can, however, paddle about in the shallows. If you want to get an experience similar to snorkelling, you can take a glass bottom boat tour from one of the many boat guys on the beach. It’s about £7.50 for a ride, which isn’t too bad. Sadly, Amii and me had other plans, so I didn’t have the time. When I come back (and I will come back) I’ll be sure to do one then.
Me and my girl hanging out in the water. It’s so nice I’d be tempted to swim illegally, but I know they’d kick my ass for that here.
Much sunburn, very white. Wow. When I returned, Anaab had endless fun examining it.
They say only mad dogs and Englishmen (people) go out in the midday sun, and keen to not live up to this stereotype, we headed inside to get some ice cream. Intrigued by the local flavours on offer from Blue Seal – a company that originally made ice cream for World War Two’s American soldiers based in Okinawa – I went for ‘Blue Wave’ and ‘Okinawa Cheesecake’. Guess which is which.
‘Blue Wave’ genuinely looks like the colour of the water here. It also tasted a bit like dolly mixture, which was a nice bonus.
As Amii and I sat and talked about life, the universe and everything, a camera crew descended on the ice cream parlour. An energetic young TV presenter bounded up to the friendly ladies working there, and enthused about the ice cream. Truth be told, I had no idea what was going on, but I was enjoying the spectacle. Meanwhile, the ever-curious Amii decided to ask what was happening. She reported that it was a Taiwanese TV show, promoting Ishigaki as a hot destination for its viewers. After all, the island is only a 45 minute flight from Taipei. Why wouldn’t you want to come here?
Hint: look for the booby mermaid statue if you want free parking.
Like me, Amii is a keen snorkeller, so we got back into the car and drove a little further down to Yonehara beach. It’s much rockier than the other beaches on the island, which means you’ll find all manner of fish, corals and sea life there. Just hopefully not crabs, because they’re terrifying.
I couldn’t really get a good picture of it, but I’m hoping that all the people paddling about conveys that there are interesting things to see there.
Donning the mask, Amii snorkelled around, finding the best spots to see beautiful fish. And also looking out for crabs, because they’re my second biggest fear. Barefoot and unafraid of shady sea creatures, Amii focused on a large, slightly isolated rock, and swam around it. I tentatively followed, being sure not to tread on anything that looked vaguely dodgy. For someone who loves snorkelling, I really don’t like the things I might stumble across while doing it.
She surfaced a few minutes later. “Come and look at this! There are so many fish!” she called over. She was right – grey fish swam about underneath me, and a big, black fish lurked suspiciously in a nook. Yellow fish swam far too close to my hands for comfort (theirs more than mine). But the real stars of the show were these miniscule electric blue fish, whose peacock hues I fell in love with. Blue, like the colour of the sky here as it meets the sea. Can’t I take them home with me?
No. Goldfish barely survive the drive home from the pet shop, let alone a 12 hour flight from Japan.
After some time admiring these gorgeous little fish, I got out of the water and checked the time. Bother – it was coming up to 5pm already, and I’d have to return the rental car soon. Not wanting to leave, Amii opted to stay at the beach a little longer, but we arranged to go for dinner. “Do you like Indian food?” my good-hearted new friend asked me. Of course I do, I’m British, and an honorary “Reverse Coconut”.
But first – I had some shopping to do. I’d delayed all my souvenir shopping until this point, because I wasn’t sure how much money I’d have left. Plus, I thought Ishigaki would be a unique place to buy tourist tat from. I headed for the Ishigaki public market with some cash to splash.
Whenever I went to buy something, the people at the tills noticed my bright red arms and legs, badly burned by the tropical sun. Their pitying eyes looked at me in a way that broke my heart, but I told them not to worry – this happens to pasty folk like me all the time. Their concern was adorable, though. People on Ishigaki are so, so friendly.
From the market and its kindly vendors, I purchased a ton of hibiscus hair clips, some special Okinawa edition Hello Kitty Merch, and a few Ishigaki fridge magnets to take home. But my proudest purchase of all was a rare flavour of KitKat – purple sweet potato. Sounds weird, but hear me out.
You can only get these KitKats in the Okinawa region, because purple yams are a specialty to this part of the Pacific. Purple yams are also massive in Taiwan, which makes sense because it’s so close to Ishigaki. But the KitKats don’t taste like potato at all, they just have a mild sweetness about them. Plus, they turn the bars my favourite colour – a gentle purple. We’ve eaten all of ours now, but by god I wish I’d bought a truckload home.
Food on the brain, Amii and I headed out to the Indian restaurant, Kerala Kitchen. Turned out, Amii was doing some video work here, too. The guy who runs the place is called David, and you guessed it – he’s from Kerala in South India. His restaurant is a must-visit for any fellow vegetarians/vegans visiting Ishigaki – it’s one of the only places on the island you’ll even find vegetarian food.
Better still, it has the quirkiest setup. Amii and I took a seat on the tatami mats while she waited for David to ready himself. I heard some of my favourite Bollywood songs emanating from the speakers behind me, and while I was elated to hear such familiar and joyful songs again, my brain couldn’t quite process where I actually was. Japan? India? Southall?
Masala chai, tatami mats, and Atif Aslam. This was going to be a great evening.
Amii left me to happily dance along to the music while she did her work. She was making a promo video for the restaurant, so David was putting on his finest cookery show, flambé-ing food and deep-frying puri like there was no tomorrow.
After a few takes of him hard at work in the kitchen, David made us a thali each.
Double portion of naan and curry. Hell yeah. Even the sunburn can’t be hotter than this.
It had been so long since I’d had a fluffy naan and flavoursome curry to go with it, and man, had I missed it. I greedily scooped up the daal and the vegetable curry with generous pieces of naan, and relished every bite. I love Coco Curry, but even the most delicious katsu cannot beat the simplest chole or paneer. Sorry Japan.
When his other customers had cleared out, David came to chat with us. He’s a fascinating fellow – he speaks at least seven languages, including Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil, English, and now Japanese. His experiences as the only Indian on Ishigaki were also riveting to hear – initially, it sounds like the locals weren’t quite sure how to react to him, but he’s so likeable he’d soon made himself a part of the local community.
I could have sat chatting with the three of them all night, but sadly, both Amii and I had to adjourn. I was going back to Tokyo, and then onto home, the next day. Amii was also due to leave Ishigaki in a couple of days, and return to her northern home on Hokkaido. We said a melancholy goodbye to David, and walked into the night. With a belly full of food and a body tired from exploring (and sun exposure), I fell asleep, on my last big night in Japan.
Just 12 hours later, it was another sad farewell to my wonderful host Amii, as she checked me out of the hostel. But I’m hoping we’ll meet again when she comes to London (one day). I don’t like to lose touch with people, and I certainly don’t want to lose touch with a great girl like Amii.
Departing Ishigaki airport was a wistful, yet bizarre, experience. You know that gloomy feeling you get as you’re about to end your holiday? I’d come down with that, which contrasted with the overall jovial mood of the airport. Then, I saw our plane. They’d sent a massive 787 Dreamliner, to pick up about 100 passengers, for a 2.5 hour flight back to Tokyo. For context, the thing can seat about 300 people, and fly more than 8,500 miles nonstop.
This is about as busy as it got.
Weird. And a massive waste of energy.
We took off, and as the plane banked, the passengers were treated to a spectacular bird’s eye view of Ishigaki’s reef. Oh, how I wish I could have stayed longer. This was the first time in my life I’ve ever even seen a reef, and there’s still so much more to see there. Despite only being there for 48 hours, Ishigaki was by far my favourite place in Japan, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.
As I began my journey home, I reflected on my fortnight. I’d booked this trip solely because the flights were cheap, but it had turned into a life-changing experience. I’d seen so many things I never thought I’d see, experienced the outrageous, fierce uniqueness of Japanese culture, and met some truly lovely people. Now I know that I can do a trip like this by myself, it’s transformed me into a more confident, more outgoing, more interesting person.
Oh, and it’s fed my travel addiction. Which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on how much you like this blog.