On April 2, we flew from Hong Kong to the tiny island of Ishigaki, part of the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa prefecture, Japan. We hadn’t realised that the southernmost Japanese islands were so close to China, and our flight there took less than 2 hours. Spending time in the tropical islands of Okinawa prefecture turned out to be an enjoyable, slow-paced way to be introduced to Japanese culture. (We knew Tokyo would be full on!)
Interestingly, the Okinawan islands weren’t always Japanese. From the 15th until the 19th century, the chain of islands stretching south of Kyushu to Taiwan was united under the Ryuku Kingdom. The population spoke the Ryukun local language and also classical Chinese, as there was much trade between the kingdom and China. You can see evidence of China’s influence in the architecture of older buildings.
We stayed on Ishigaki island for four nights and five days at this cute cottage about 10 min from the airport. We used the public bus to get to and from the town centre. Ishigaki is virtually surrounded by coral reefs and has plenty of great snorkelling spots but it wasn’t beach weather at all while we were there. It actually started to clear only on the final afternoon – the best weather we had during our visit there.
Our lovely hostess met us at the cottage then offered to drive us into town to an ATM, to eat and to get some provisions. She couldn’t speak English very well and we weren’t fluent in Japanese, so she used Google translator, which I later downloaded as it proved to be an essential tool in making our Japan experience enjoyable.
Yaeyama soba is a popular dish in the Yaeyama islands and we tried it at a small stall in Euglena Mall. It’s made from wheat instead of buckwheat and the texture is more of a ramen than a soba. It has a clear broth made of tuna, pork bone and seaweed, and traditionally topped with pork strips, green onions, and fish cake. Elina’s version (below) includes a half boiled egg.
I ordered the citrus version, which was topped with tofu, egg and vegetables including the infamous bitter melon – a popular gourd in the region. I’ve tasted bitter melon when I was a child and still don’t like it. Unlike other parts of Japan, you’re supposed to add condiments to your soup, such as the local awamori chilli, sesame oil, pepper, etc, to suit your taste.
We also had a fantastic meal at Paikaji. Paul found it when he was wandering around town and made a reservation for us the next night. It served the regional specialty of squid ink fried rice (ika-sumi chahan), which was very tasty but turned our tongues black. It was also our first time in an izakaya – which is a kind of informal Japanese pub that serves food. Unfortunately, this means smoking is allowed, even when children are present.
Euglena Mall arcade
Euglena Mall’s arcade would turn out to be the beginning of many arcades we’d walk through. These covered shopping streets are everywhere in Japan.
Our fist temple visit in Japan was the Torinji Temple built in 1611. A pair of fearsome guardians appear at the first gate of every Buddhist temple in Japan. The Torinji Temple guardians (below) were made in 1737.
Omikuji are the folded pieces of white paper you see tied to lengths of string at Japanese temples. Ema are the wooden votive tablets with illustrations on one side and writing on the other. What’s written on these votives are prayers for a specific wish, such as passing an exam or good health, or as we read on one votive (it was in English): “I want a dog.” A votive prayer usually costs several hundred yen.
The Omikuji are fortunes. Bad fortunes are tied on the string. Good fortunes are kept. How do you get a good or bad fortune? There is usually a container of numbered sticks at the temple. You shake it until one stick falls out of the hole at the top. You then match the number on the stick that fell out with drawers or shelves of paper with the corresponding number, on which is printed your good or bad fortune. Fortunes cost about 100-200 yen.
Next door to Torinji Temple is the Gongendo Shrine. The information sign on site says: “The Gongendo Shrine was built in 1611 but was washed away by the massive Meiwa tsunami in 1771. It was reconstructed in 1786 and since then has been restored several times. The shrine is important cultural building and of the only early modern temple constructions in the prefecture.”
Road trip around Ishigaki Island
One rainy morning, we rented a car and set out to drive around the island. From Ishigaki City, we headed west then north towards Kabira Bay.
Kabira Bay’s turquoise waters are stunning – even though it was drizzling with rain. It would be a great place to swim except you’re not allowed to because they cultivate black pearls in these waters. You are, though, allowed to dip your toes in the water and walk around barefoot near the beach.
A beach of dead coral and shells
Along our circuitous route round the island, we spotted some crazy colours on this property and decided to have a closer look. It turned out to be some kind of big park, probably someone’s property, full of very big, imaginative and original sculptures.
Horses of Yaeyama
We were lucky enough to encounter these endangered Yanaguni horses, a breed of small horses native to a Yanaguni Island in the Yaeyamas. And just our luck, one of them had just had a foal. The woman we spoke to in the green jacket is from Tokyo but moved here so she could help take care of these horses. During the summer, they give rides along the beach to tourists.
A sandy beach
The Great Yaeyama Tsunami (aka the Great Tsunami of Weima) of 1771 killed 8,439 people on Ishigaki Island. The tsunami left this huge rock behind. Although it now has plants and trees growing out of it, if you take a closer look at the rock, you’ll be able to see fossilised sea life. There are also lots of large rocks in the lagoons around Ishigaki, between the land and the outer reefs, that have been brought in by big seas.
Hermit crab beach
I’m not actually sure what this beach is called, but I dubbed it hermit crab beach because there were so many teeny tiny hermit crabs scurrying around on the beach. Watch the video below to see what I mean.
We took a day trip from Ishigaki to Taketomi Island – a 10-minute ferry ride away. It’s a tiny 5.42 square kilometres in total area and at its widest, 2.7km. It’s a glimpse at older, rural Okinawa and it’s beautiful and serene. I fell totally in love with it.
Kaiji Beach, where you can find Okinawa’s famous star-shaped sand. Look real close and you’ll be able to see it.
So far, we loved Japan. Or at least tropical Japan! We didn’t know what to expect for our next destination of Okinawa Island, but assumed it would be more of the same: friendly locals, tropical environment and the bluest of blue waters.