A slow dive into Ishigakijima


You quit the airport and drive along roads flanked with palm trees, past fields of tall sugar cane and stone-walled gardens bristling with red hibiscus flowers, and it’s clear that you’ve arrived in a very different part of Japan.

Ishigakijima Island might be the main transport nexus for the Yaeyama Islands, situated at the southwestern end of the Okinawan archipelago in Okinawa Prefecture, but the airport itself is a pint-sized affair, sleepy like the rest of this island. Ishigakijima is keen to proclaim the fact that its main city, also called Ishigaki, is Japan’s southernmost city, but it’s one where the main road is completely deserted on a Saturday afternoon, its shops devoid of customers.

Though Ishigaki is for the most part about as quiet a city as you are likely to find, one hive of constant activity is its harbor. From here, boats large and small depart for the more famed other islands of the Yaeyamas — Taketomijima with its delightful streets of coral sand; Iriomotejima with its primeval jungles; and Yonagunijima, home to mysterious underwater structures some believe were the handiwork of an ancient civilization.

Boats also figure as one of the best-known tourist attractions on Ishigakijima. Kabira Bay has a picture-postcard beauty that guarantees its use in most publicity materials promoting the Yaeyamas. Swimming may be forbidden, but with its gleaming white sands, dense green vegetation on small offshore islands and waters varying in color between turquoise and cobalt blue, it is indeed the most picturesque spot on the island. The prettiness of the place ensures its popularity, and a gentle resortlike atmosphere hangs over Kabira, where village shops sell the black pearls that are cultured here.

Kabira Bay’s appeal is not limited to what is visible on the surface. The subtropical Yaeyamas offer some of the best diving in Asia, as the surrounding waters boast 260 coral species, the highest number found in coastal waters in the world. The reefs surround Ishigaki, and some of the island’s top diving spots are clustered around Kabira.

Glass-bottomed boats depart from the beach, taking visitors on trips across the bay while showing them the great diversity of underwater life. They catch a glimpse of brightly colored fish darting over the reef, variegated corals in fantastic forms and the recumbent shapes of starfish. At the most popular point, the boat stops and all mobile phones poise over the rectangular trough of the glass to take photos of the orange-and-white clownfish, familiar from Disney’s “Finding Nemo.” Before boarding, the man touting the tour assured passengers that the half-hour trip was good value for 1,000 yen. He wasn’t wrong.

Going back to Ishigaki City, located on the other side of the island from Kabira Bay, the bus drives past pineapple and sugar cane fields that have long been a mainstay of the local economy. Along parts of the coast, especially in river estuaries, can be seen the mangrove forests, another distinctive feature of the island. Although not as extensive as the mangroves on nearby Iriomotejima Island, Ishigaki’s have been officially designated as natural monuments.

Ishigakijima is the most built-up of the Yaeyamas Islands, with 80 percent of the Yaeyamas’ population living there. Largely for that reason, it is the part of the islands that most lacks a distinctive regional identity. It still bears something of a distinct traditional stamp, however. Interspersed among the modern buildings are the typical old one-story dwellings of Okinawa, with their square plans and orange-tiled, hipped roofs. A fierce-looking lion-like figure known as shisa, is visible on the roofs of both traditional houses and many modern dwellings, there to ward off evil spirits. Such strong affection do the locals have for these creatures that one convenience store even calls itself Shisa Konbini.

A common sound in this town, one heard coming out of many a private home, is the plink-plonk tone of the sanshin, the stringed instrument with the snakeskin body similar in sound to the shamisen.

Within the town, the most prominent historical sight is the residence that goes by the name of Miyara Donchi. The house was built in 1819 by the Matsuhige family, which then controlled more than a third of the island. Miyara Donchi was modeled on the dwellings of nobles in Shuri on the main island of Okinawa, and today this Important Cultural Property is the only remaining residence of a high-ranking samurai in all Okinawa.

The samurai may have been local bigwigs, but Miyara Donchi is of rather humble dimensions compared with samurai residences on the mainland. As handsome a structure as it is, with its somewhat run-down character it could use a little restoration.

Not far from Miyara Donchi are the two best-known religious structures on the island, the Torin-ji Buddhist temple and Gongen-do shrine, both of which date back to 1614.

Reflecting the geographical position of the Yaeyamas — much closer to Taiwan than the main island of Okinawa — Gongen-do is like no shrine in mainland Japan, with its walls of coral, its orange tiled roof and exotic embellishments of elephants and dragons.

Exotica are also clearly evident in the markets of Ishigakijima, where the produce and atmosphere are reminiscent of southeast Asia. The brightly colored reef fish that flit around Kabira Bay are on sale, as are the fruits of the region — dragon, star, and passion fruit as well as bananas the size of a finger.

Also sold are the odd menacing-looking crustaceans known as coconut crabs, which can grow to the size of a cat and are so adapted to terrestrial life they drown if submerged long in water.

For the tourist with little time, Ishigakijima sometimes gets overlooked for the other islands in the Yaeyamas. It would indeed be an unusual visitor who came all this way without seeing lovely Taketomijima nearby, whose sense of otherness from mainland Japan is more pronounced. But there’s more than enough to make Ishigakijima Island not just a transit point, but a destination in itself.