When I posted “Ishigaki!” as a subject on Facebook, people were puzzled. The thought I was counting something, sneezed, and my brother went as far as to say it was the sound his cat made when trying to expel a furball. Thanks for the comments everyone. No, Ishigaki is an island in the Ryukyus (琉球), better known as Okinawa.
When most people think of Okinawa these days, they think of the controversy over the US bases on the main island of Okinawa. However, there are many islands that are part of the island chain. I wanted to go where there weren’t so many Americans to minimize the potential for hostility. We decided on the ANA Intercontinental in Ishigaki and a day trip to Iriomote. Ishigaki and Iriomote are part of the Yaeyama group of islands within Okinawa.
Unfortunately, the dates we chose were right in the middle of rainy season, or tsuyu (梅雨, つゆ), and the weather did not let us down. Somewhat surprisingly, it didn’t really impact our plans at all. It rained every day we were there, but the heaviest rain was conveniently timed when we were moving from one location to another, or in some sort of protected situation. Even when we were stuck in the rain, it wasn’t bad since the air temperature ranged from 24 degC to 29 degC the whole time (77 degF to 84 degF).
Tomo flew in from Tokyo, and I flew in from Nagoya and we met in Naha before continuing to Ishigaki. What amazed me is that I flew a 777 from Nagoya and Tomo flew a 747. His was cool too. I’ve never flown such a big airplane for a domestic flight, and for such a short flight. Well, a few times I’ve taken a 747 from Singapore to Jakarta, but I was amazed that there was such a demand that a jumbo jet is standard.
As I learned in Kyoto, it is school trip season and the airport in Naha was filled with packs of junior high school kids.
We got to Ishigaki fairly late on a Friday, but early enough that we could find a place for dinner. Tomo had a few ideas from a book, but the taxi driver made our final decision for us. The restaurant was fantastic, clearly a local place, and appeared to have a mix of locals and visitors.
We had decided to go to Iriomote for a day trip and actually booked a tour. I’m not a big fan of tours, but they can be convenient. By booking the tour, we didn’t have to worry about renting a car, or being tired as we drove from location to location, and we can get a little bit of local description. Of course, like any tour, each place we went conveniently had some shop associated with it where we could buy souvenirs, ice cream, etc. One our itinerary was a boat ride along a river and through a mangrove, a 2 hour hike to a from a waterfall, lunch, a visit to a beach where the sand is shaped like a star, and then a water-buffalo cart ride to another island.
To get from Ishigaki to Iriomote required a ride in a ferry. The only time I rode a ferry consistently was in Sydney, often taking the ferry between Manly Beach and Sydney Harbor. When I was there, you could choose between a big boat or, for a premium, the hydrofoil. So when I saw our “ferry” I thought, “Uh oh.” I’m not a great sailor and I worried about the 35 minute ride. The boat seemed so small and so claustrophobic. I was expecting to hang out on the deck, letting the fresh wind buffet me as we meandered to the next location. Instead, I walked down a few steps into a single aisle, 3 x 3 seat configuration with a ceiling lower than a 737. I was afraid this was going to be bad. Once we started though, I realized why we weren’t on deck – this boat was a speedboat! We were sitting right at water level, and the boat was flying across the sea. There was no rocking of the boat – any waves we encountered were either destroyed by us or pounded us in a slightly different direction. In true Japanese and transportation form, most everyone slept.
Inside the boat
Once we arrived, we found our tour bus, and had a total of 5 people in a full size tour bus. I was thinking perhaps we picked a lame tour, but I realized that there just weren’t that many people visiting. Cool. Iriomote has two stoplights on the entire island, and we encountered one of them.
Iriomote has two main rivers sending water from the mountains to the sea, and we took a boat ride through a mangrove. Pretty scenery, that’s about all to say about that. We were dropped off upstream, where we started a hike to an upstream waterfall. The hike took us through a rainforest, and the path was a mixed of pavers, prepared stairs, and roots. We were both wearing sandals and realized afterwards that we were really sore from trying to maintain balance. Since we had no ankle support our legs were doing a lot of work. We saw many interesting things along the way, including multiple spider webs with a mean looking master. The waterfall was nice although I guess I was expecting a 200 foot tumbling spectacular instead of a stretch of rough water.
The boat dock
Tomo, looking 1960s Italian in his Ben Sherman shades
In the rain forest
Waterfalls along the river
Lunch was provided at a nearby resort. It was a set course, and very good. It was very colorful as well.
Next up was the hoshinosuna (星の砂, ほしのすな) beach. Basically, the sand contains many star shaped “grains” which are actually shells. It is interesting though to run your hand through the sand to find the star shaped grains. Both Tomo and I found a grain immediately, so we spent the rest of the time enjoying the scenery and checking out the tidal pools.
Trapped in a tide pool
After that, it was around the island to a place where you can ride a cart drawn by a water buffalo to another island (Yubu Island). I was not really keen on this part of the tour, but apparently it was made famous by a commercial in Japan, and also by a television show. So it has become a part of the Iriomote circuit. My thoughts didn’t really change when we reached the location and the wind was whipping and the tide was low. But we rode the buffalo to the island. It turns out the island used to have residents but during one particularly strong typhoon they left the island and decided (or most likely it was decided for them) that they would not return. There are still a few buildings left over from that time, including a school. It was very LOSTesque and I was afraid Ben or the Smoke Monster might show up. Instead, it seems an eccentric couple turned it in to a kind of horticulture park.
Water buffalo and riding over on the cart
The scary things on the island including a falling-down school, some strange fish thingys, and Doraemon
Some of the interesting flora on the island
Iriomote is also famous for the Iriomote Mountain Cat, a nocturnal cat that no one ever sees. I didn’t see it either, but found a few signs that made me think I didn’t want to encounter it!
We then zoomed back to Ishigaki, got cleaned up, and went to a yakiniku (焼き肉, やきにく) restaurant for some famous Ishigaki beef. Our reservation was for 7:30 pm and we were warned that they may be sold out of some items by then. Island life is early! And so ended our first full day in Okinawa.
The next day, the weather wasn’t very promising, so we decided to do an Ishigaki tour. This time we had a full sized tour bus for just the two of us. Yikes! I wish we had a minivan. The tour started off rather ominously, visiting a memorial to Chinese that were killed by the British and Americans after their ship wrecked on the island. Hmmmm. But then we headed to Kabira Beach. Our guide offered us a glass bottom boat ride for a little extra money. Since we didn’t have anything else going on, we decided, why not? I’m glad we did. We visited the beach and were told that it was one of the top view points in Japan. And it was indeed. It is beautiful in bad weather and I can’t imagine what it would be in bright sunny skies.
The scenes around Kabira Beach
Interesting things on shore
Low tide around Kabira Beach
The glass bottom boat, after an initial tangle with other anchors, was pretty amazing. The water is so alive so close to the shore. Most islands in Okinawa are surrounded by reefs, so there is lots to see. Certainly Kabira Beach was the highlight of the Ishigaki tour.
On the way back to Nagoya and Tokyo, we had a long layover in Naha and spent some time on Kokusai Street. It was raining a ton and chocked full of junior high school kids. We had some good タコス, or tacos. We wandered through the shopping area and then headed back to the airport.
The shopping area at Kokusai Street
It was a great time, even if it was just for a long weekend. I wonder what it looks like when the weather is nice?