My Tropical Paradise - Ishigaki Island
Japan is not exactly known for being tropical, however its Southern-most island Okinawa is a far cry from the rest of the country. This is where Japanese people go to swim, surf and scuba-dive. Ishigaki is even further South than Taipei and is one of my favourite islands of the chain of islands that make up Okinawa. I've been there several times and it never gets old. I've even been twice to their hospital when hand-foot-and-mouth hit the family - it's a surprisingly new and nice facility! Ishigaki is a diverse island offering not only world-class beaches and coral reefs but also jungles and mangrove-filled rivers. Here are my favourite spots and things to do when going to Ishigaki.
Visit other islands
Ishigaki is part of the "Yaeyama Islands". From the port of Ishigaki City you can take ferries to reach the smaller islands.
Iriomote Island is Okinawa's second largest island, however it is almost entirely wild, with thick jungle and mangroves covering 90% of its land. I went there just for a day trip but many people stay longer. The jungle here is so dense that much of the trekking is for serious hikers, it is said to be quite dangerous to undergo many of the routes if you don't know what you're doing. Although it sounds wonderful to me, my husband does not like hiking so we simply did a short walk and a boat ride through the mangroves. As an adventure lover I'd like to come here again to try some of the kayak, SUP and waterfall hiking tours.
On Taketomi you can ride in a cart pulled by a water buffalo. The buffalo will slowly take you on a meander around the island, allowing you to peacefully gaze at the wonderful preserved Ryukyu village. You can also rent bicycles and cycle around yourself. Believe me, this is a must do, it's unbelievably quaint and lovely. The houses are all traditional style, one story dwellings with red stone roofs and surrounded by stone walls. If you get hot, just cycle to a beach for a dip.
I took a day trip to this island, just 30 minutes by ferry from Ishigaki. It was a small rural feeling island with a surprisingly large amount of young families. It was mostly farms and sugarcane, though luxurious resorts seemed to dominate the coastline. We did manage to find one unmarked beach with pristine water, completely calm and silent, by driving down a dirt track to the side of a hotel. It's good to go for a swim after climbing Mount Ufudaki and enjoying the views, because you will get sweaty!
The best beaches
Beaches are the highlight when visiting Okinawa, so of course they deserve a section of their own.
This beach is netted so you don't need to worry about dangerous marine life. The sand isn't the best as it has some shells/coral but it isn't too bad. There is a lot of shade from the trees right next to the sand which was great for someone who burns easily like me.
A rather quiet beach where you may even be able to have it to yourself. It has very nice coral fairly close to the shore so is a good place for families to do some easy snorkelling. No life guards so of course be careful.
This is a more heavily visited beach, but very suitable for families as it has (paid) showers, toilets, changing rooms and shops. There are lifeguards on duty. You can rent a parasol, chair or snorkeling equipment. You can even do stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) here! There is some coral that can be seen close to shore although not the most spectacular. The sand quality is pretty good, soft and white, though with some shells/coral.
Fusaki Beach is accessible via the Fusaki Resort Village, so it's quite a commercial beach. The thing I liked is that they have safety nets in place so I didn't need to panic about deadly jellyfish. You can do various water activities here like kayaking or jet skiing. They also have shower facilities and rental gear.
Yonehara has nice white sand with greenery behind it. It's a great place for snorkeling, we saw many tropical fish here. Make sure to check the tides in advance because you can only swim here at high tide. There is a camp ground in the trees behind it, which we used to shelter in during a sudden downpour. This beach wasn't my favourite because the sand wasn't so soft - I prefer clear water and soft sand, but for snorkeling I recommend it.
Kabira Tabaga Beach
Kabira Tabaga Beach is a fairly local and peaceful beach that I highly recommend. Head towards Club Med (Kabira Bay to the back) then turn right onto a small road. The beach is down that small unmarked road. It's very picturesque with clear water and white sand. There were no facilities here.
Other sightseeing spots
Kayaking on the Fukido River
Located in North East Ishigaki, the Fukido River runs through a mangrove-filled forest before emptying into a crescent shaped beach. This is a wild, mountainous part of Ishigaki with a completely different feeling than the tropical beaches. Many companies offer a river kayak tour here where they will take you kayaking past the mangroves to a waterfall which you can swim in. Contact us if you wish to arrange a tour.
This is one of the most touristic spots on Ishigaki, mostly due to its very picturesque scenery. You can't actually swim there so I prefer other beaches myself, but the glass-bottomed boat tour offered there was a good chance to see some corals and fish from above. You can also do SUP and kayaking tours there.
Ishigaki Yaima Village
Ishigaki Yaima Village is a small village made up of century-old houses which have been reconstructed in this location. You can see how people used to live on Ishigaki back then and listen to a musical shamisen performance. The highlight for our toddler was their squirrel monkey park where you can walk through the jungle filled with monkeys, allowing you to see them in their natural habitat.
There is a good view of the island from here, plus several walking trails, however we actually just came for the kid's playground so our daughter could have some time to run around. If you have kids I highly recommend the playground, it's huge.
Ibaruma Sabichi Limestone Cave
This was a little expensive but worth it. You walk through a cave and emerge on the other side of the cliffs. There the path splits into two, both to different hidden beaches. For us, when we entered the cave it was sunny then when we reached the end it was POURING with rain. Torrential downpour, not like the mild rain Tokyo gets. It was very exciting, but luckily didn't last long so we could still check out the beaches. Well, then the rain came back and we got soaked!
We ran out of time to go here but I've heard it's a good place to visit. You can hike through the rainforest to get there then swim in the waterfall and even try a rope swing. I really want to visit here next time!
Cape Hirakubozaki Lighthouse
Situated on the Northernmost point of Ishigaki, Cape Hirakubozaki Lighthouse offers stunning views of the coastline. The colours will make you want to live there. Luckily for me my daughter fell asleep here so I could enjoy the scenery peacefully (that doesn't happen often - usually I'm too busy trying to stop her stumbling off the cliff or something!).
Yaeyama Palm Tree Grove
We didn't spend too long here but it was nice to get a "holiday" feel from all the tropical palms, and the 100% sugar cane juice was amazing! We bought some sea salt which they were making on-site, you should definitely get some too because they don't sell it elsewhere and it was excellent. This was another place where it was raining heavily when we went, but the canopy in the trees was so thick that it didn't really dissuade us.
How to get around
If at all possible - RENT A CAR. You can just do so much more with a car. The first time I went we used only local buses though, so it is possible without a car.