Travel

Enjoy Ishigaki's island life without sea, sun or sand

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

Even before we alight the plane at Ishigaki Airport, passengers have started to comment on the heat. It’s around 9 a.m., already topping 34 degrees Celsius and so humid I confess to a twinge of uneasiness.

As a weak swimmer who not only feels uncomfortably restless on a beach but suffers heat exhaustion after mere minutes of sunbathing, for me the Okinawan islands — despite their stunning turquoise waters, white sand and clear blue skies — had never really been top of the to-do list. But when a friend challenged me to try Ishigaki “for just one night” claiming she’d find plenty to do without sun-worshipping or diving, I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

Just three hours from Haneda, a 6 a.m. flight gets us to Ishigaki in time for a full day of exploring. Many hotels offer shuttle buses, but we opt for a taxi, hoping the driver will offer a wealth of local information.

During the 35-minute ride to our hotel, we’re not disappointed. Our very jovial driver takes us through farmland, pointing out young sugarcane fields, leafy pineapple plants, cacti-like dragon-fruit trees and the last of Okinawa’s famous crimson hibiscus blooms. He even briefly slows to show us a tiny roadside shack that he says serves sweet juice drawn from crushed sugarcane stems. Now, though, is the best season for fruit, including guava, mango, dragonfruit and “peach pineapples” that, he enthuses, “are extra juicy and sweet, and smell like peaches.”

Okinawan class: The recently renovated lobby of the Fusaki Beach Resort Hotel. | COURTESY OF FUSAKI BEACH RESORT HOTEL & VILLAS
Okinawan class: The recently renovated lobby of the Fusaki Beach Resort Hotel. | COURTESY OF FUSAKI BEACH RESORT HOTEL & VILLAS

The Fusaki Beach Resort Hotel & Villas is close to a complete renovation, with its new clean-lined minimalist vibe including touches of traditional Okinawan style, such as akagawara red roof tiles, welcoming terra cotta shisa (lion-dog statues), contemporary furniture trimmed in Okinawan textiles and a few strategically placed conceptual works by local artists. It’s classy, yet also child-friendly, with a large, brightly colored splash park (featuring water slides and fountains), special toddler-friendly family rooms and an array of children’s activities — all of which add to the lodgings’ lively atmosphere.

We are lucky enough to get rooms in the North Wing, which has its own central garden, complete with a lush lawn lined with palm trees. Our rooms, on the second floor of its west side, also offer terrace views of the beach and ocean beyond a line of verdant treetops.

It’s tempting to stay a while just to enjoy the air conditioning and view, but during a wander before heading to our rooms, we spotted a small wooded park nearby and a peaceful beach worth exploring. The park’s trees, we learn later, are screw palms, common in Okinawa and locally known as adan, with striking aerial brace roots that make them effective beach protection during the typhoon season. After admiring the adans’ bright orange pineapple-like fruit, we follow a path to the beach and toward Angel Pier, where we view Taketomi Island in the distance and watch silvery fish enjoying the warm waters below, before heading back to the hotel for lunch.

The resort’s Ishigaki Bold Kitchen buffet turns out to be a great opportunity to try the island’s abundance of seafood and locally grown vegetables and fruit. Chefs man various stations, offering a wide selection of freshly made dishes, including island staples such as umi budō (sea grapes), gōya champurū stir-fry, thick Okinawan wheat soba, aromatic pineapple and dragonfruit. But it’s some of the more unusual items that impress the most. A dark and leafy “Okinawan spinach” adds an earthy herbal-like accent to salads, while the Yaeyama pink sweet potato and green chomeiso herb noodles offer a delicate alternative to heavier dishes.

Jam and juice: At Miyara Farm you can buy freshly squeezed fruit juices as well as a variety of conserves. | MIO YAMADA
Jam and juice: At Miyara Farm you can buy freshly squeezed fruit juices as well as a variety of conserves. | MIO YAMADA

For a little exercise, despite the heat, we take a 30-minute walk to Miyara Farm, a fresh juice and kakigōri (shaved ice) bar. Though there’s not much to see on the way, breaks in roadside tropical plant life offer majestic views of the ocean and we are rewarded with a cliffside area of greenery with canopy-covered chairs and tables, and a single hammock.

Miyara Farm’s frothy juices are freshly squeezed in the kitchen of its small open cabin, the counter of which also showcases jars of homemade conserves. Most of the fruits used — guava, passion fruit, papaya and island banana — are sourced from a modest farm behind the establishment, all co-owned by the Miyara siblings — Yuna and Dan — who not only serve customers and farm the land but, as graduates of Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts, are also established ceramists.

We take our fresh juices to a second cabin at Miyara Farm, the siblings’ ceramics store, to look for original souvenirs. Yuna creates small vessels, animal figurines and accessories in earthy tones and a vibrant emerald blue, inspired by the Ishigaki waters. Dan specializes in crisp white porcelain patterned in an unusual translucent turquoise. The iridescent blue is achieved, Yuna explains, by using a special mixture of ground local shells and porcelain clay, a technique that Dan developed and is unique to Miyara Farm.

In the blood: The Miyara siblings sit in their pottery studio at Miyara Farm where they create ceramics and serve fresh fruit juice. | COURTESY OF MIYARA FARM
In the blood: The Miyara siblings sit in their pottery studio at Miyara Farm where they create ceramics and serve fresh fruit juice. | COURTESY OF MIYARA FARM

A short taxi ride back to the hotel leaves enough time to lounge a little at the Aqua Garden of cerulean-blue terraced pools and, yes, take a quick dip in the warm sea, before revisiting Ishigaki Bold Kitchen to try out an array of different buffet dishes served for dinner.

Ishigaki, together with other islands in the Yaeyama archipelago, was designated a Dark Sky Park in 2018 by the International Dark-Sky Association, making it a popular destination for stargazing.

Our guide, a Mr. Kakibuchi of the Yaeyama Hoshi no Kai star association, picks us up in a minivan and drives us through Arakawa’s winding forested roads with only the headlamps lighting the way. A chatty, entertaining fellow, he makes a joke about leaving us stranded in the complete darkness, before actually stopping the vehicle and shuffling us out into the pitch black to view fireflies — an unexpected but apt side attraction to the tour. When we reach Maesedake Tenbodai, a viewing area near Ishigakijima Astronomical Observatory, he hands us binoculars and teaches us how to use them by focusing on a building in the distance.

Eighty-four of the 88 named constellations can be viewed from Ishigaki and Kakibuchi uses an impressively strong laser pointer to guide us to The Big Dipper, Sagittarius, the North Star and other sights. Once we become accustomed to scanning the skies through binoculars, he drives us to a beach viewing platform, where we lie back and attempt to spy shooting stars. It’s the perfect end to the day.

My stalagmite Totoro: Inside the Ishigaki Stalactite Cave is a stalagmite resembling the Studio Ghibli character Totoro, complete with ears and a tail. | MIO YAMADA
My stalagmite Totoro: Inside the Ishigaki Stalactite Cave is a stalagmite resembling the Studio Ghibli character Totoro, complete with ears and a tail. | MIO YAMADA

The Ishigaki Stalactite Cave, just a 10-minute drive away from Fusaki Beach Resort, is a nearby and our slightly unusual choice of attraction to start day. The 3.2 kilometer network of limestone caves was rescued from being trapped under building construction in the 1990s by Soken Oshiro of the tourism company Nanto, who had 660 meters of its pathways certified safe for public viewing.

Once part of the sea floor, the caves developed over more than 200,000 years, leaving visible fossilized coral and seashells trapped within the various formations. With a humidity level of 80 to 90 percent, there’s the constant dripping of water incrementally creating new formations. It’s a fantastical sight of fairy tale and alien-like landscapes, with stalactites and stalagmites featuring as absurd creatures and mysterious figures. Some formations are even whimsically named after their shapes, such as a stalagmite resembling Totoro, a rotund mound with ears, a nose and a tail.

Other attractions include a pathway of coral fragments that squeak as you tread over them — a recreation of an old local tradition aimed to alert homeowners to guests or intruders — and an entire section colorfully lit up like an underground Christmas scene.

As we leave, we learn the caves have a constant temperature of around 23 degrees, so sections of the network are also reserved as cellar space for locally made awamori liquor. Visitors who plan to return, we are told, can buy a bottle to mature in the caves for three to 10 years.

These oysters aren't for eating: Near the popular Ishigaki tourist site of Kabira Bay, Ryukyu Pearl cultivates black pearls used to fashion jewelry. | COURTESY OF RYUKYU PEARL
These oysters aren’t for eating: Near the popular Ishigaki tourist site of Kabira Bay, Ryukyu Pearl cultivates black pearls used to fashion jewelry. | COURTESY OF RYUKYU PEARL

Sticky from the humidity of the underground adventure, we decide to freshen up back at the hotel. For lunch, we try the Ishigaki kuroge wagyu beef burgers from the resort’s poolside Kachibai restaurant, while we wait for another taxi to take us to Kabira Bay to visit the Ryukyu Pearl store and its pearl cultivation museum.

The Ryukyu Pearl store’s museum is a humble set up of pearl exhibits charting the farming of pearls. As we look over the displays, Hidenori Nakano, the senior managing director of Ryukyu Pearl, explains that Ishigaki is in fact the birthplace of the cultivated black pearl. His father, Genichi, he says, was one of the original founders of the company, working with Susumu Tokashiki, a man who was so obsessed with perfecting the notoriously difficult cultivation process that he spent 18 years from 1950 just “chasing the dream.”

Though Tokashiki became the first person in the world to cultivate a black pearl in 1953, it wasn’t until 1968 that he achieved a sellable-shaped one, and not until 1980 that he finally succeeded in seeding the black-lipped oyster for effective pearl farming. Nakano tells a fascinating story of an almost irrationally determined Tokashiki, beset even further during the ’60s by typhoon-induced water pollution annihilating his farm.

Now, Ryukyu Pearl cultivates black pearls in an array of iridescent colored sheens, each taking five to six years to produce — hence their high price of more than ¥50,000 for a pair of earrings.

An unobstructed view of the blue-green waters of Kabira Bay from the Ryukyu Pearl cafe entices us to wander to the shore. Though one of the most stunning sights of Ishigaki, strong currents prevent public swimming, though it is a popular spot for divers hoping to see manta rays. For me, paddling among tiny friendly fish is a refreshing enough way to cool down in the late afternoon.

The Fusaki Beach Resort Shop & Market is the most stylishly curated souvenir store of the trip. It offers a range of beautifully packaged local cookies, black sugar, shell ginger tea, yuzu (citrus) cosmetics and more, not to mention local designer goods including indigo dyed scarves, hand-crafted jewelry, bags and ceramics. For those on a lower budget, a whole section is dedicated to unusual Okinawa-inspired convenience store-style goods.

We discover that we still have a couple of hours before our evening flight back to Tokyo, so we take a long route back to the airport via Ishigaki Port to quickly peruse Euglena Mall’s market goods. The cheapest place to buy fresh fruit and vegetables on the island, it makes a great last stop to load hand luggage with pineapples and mangoes before heading to the airport to jump on the plane.

As we board the flight back to Tokyo, I realize that we packed in a lot of activities in just two days. Ishigaki is perfect for a beach or resort vacation, but it also has much to offer in terms of culture and history and I leave feeling like there’s a lot of the island still to explore. So much so, that I begin wishing we had booked an extra night.

The author received assistance from Fusaki Beach Resort Hotel & Villas while researching this article. Ishigaki is a 3- to 4-hour one-way flight from Haneda or Narita airports to New Ishigaki Airport. Connecting flights also run via Naha Airport.

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