Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ishigaki: Your Next Vacation Destination

Ok, been rather busy lately, as you may have noted by my absence from any and all things blog-related as of late. On the plus side, the less I'm writing here the more I'm finding new and interesting things to write about! So without any further ado, allow me to present the topic of this entry: a little island I recently had the pleasure of visiting called Ishigaki. If you live in Japan, I highly recommend that you make this your next vacation destination!!

For those of you not in the know, you are in for an absolute treat. Before I get into the nitty gritty, just take a look at the picture above - look at that water! You can see all the way to the bottom in what is some of the clearest water you will find anywhere on the planet. The color that is there is mostly a pale blue to green, colored largely in part by the copious amounts of corals that abound, sometimes mere inches from the surface. Seriously- this was the only place I've ever been where you could see tropical fish swimming around your feet by merely wading in a few meters from the beach! Tiny little bright blue fishies (and one big gray guy they kept nibbling at my back), one big jump from the shore on the northern beach of Ishigaki.

Ok, so now that I have your attention, a little background. Ishigaki is the highest populated island in the Yaeyama island chain, the most southern and western cluster of islands in Okinawa (and Japan, for that matter). Okinawa itself is closer geographically to Taiwan than it is to Tokyo, and Ishigaki is another hour's plane ride from the main island of Okinawa. Here's a nice little travel guide of the area I found.

So once you get down there, what is there to do you ask? Well besides the clear waters that are perfect for diving and full of all kinds of coral everywhere and manta rays if you go to the right part, there is a culture that is about as far removed psychologically from Tokyo as it is spatially. These guys are laid back, and they can cook to boot. Champuru is probably the most famous Okinawan cuisine, and it's great down here whether you go with the goya (see right) or tofu variety. To drink, you either have your choice of Orion beer or Awamori, Okinawa's version of Shochu. For those interested, I've looked up a rather decent tofu champuru recipe which I will more than willingly translate and share with anyone.

So that's all rather common knowledge for anyone who knows anything about Okinawa, but what isn't that common knowledge is that Ishigaki is also home to a huge number of Black Angus cattle and a great local beer, named rather simply but aptly Ishigaki Beer. Yes they take orders online, and I highly encourage you to flood their inbox with requests for their Weitzen, modeled proudly by yours truly on the left. I can think of no better way to try it out than to head out to a steak house in the sticks run by a farm and use it to wash down some succulent beefy bits of... beef. It's still what's for dinner. So now you have your choice between goya and steak, Orion and Weitzen, check.

What about the sights? Well personally I liked the caverns there, but more than that are the other islands that come with the package, some as close as a 10 minute ferry ride away. Yaeyama basically just means "8 islands", so take your pick and hop on the boat. I saw two others, Iriomote and Taketomi. For info on the other islands, check the guide referenced above.

First off for me was Iriomote, home to 75% of Japan's mangroves. This place is almost totally jungle and totally amazing, wildlife and everything. There are also some great waterfalls to go along with the crazy trees and vibrant wildlife - they are also known for their cats, the yamaneko, and have some great lizards and butterflies around. An all day jungle tour here with some optional diving is a great way to go. Here we also stopped off on Barras island, but really calling it an island is generous. It's basically a mound of coral that is barely visible at high tide, but at low tide juts out high enough for you to "land" there as a jumping point for diving or snorkeling.

Next on the agenda was Taketomi, the butterfly island. At only a 10 minute ride from Ishigaki port, you'd be stupid not to check this place out for at least an afternoon. If you rent a bike, you can make your way around the entire island in about 3 hours, which basically consists of a tiny village with a population of 350 residents or so, probably 50 times as many butterflies, and beaches. Some of the beaches have coral sand shaped like little stars, and the village itself has sweet architecture which is nothing like you'll see anywhere at least in mainland Japan. This is a great place to spend a totally relaxing afternoon on the beach and just zone out.

So plenty to see, and because Japan is goofy like that you can spend a week seeing all this for about the same price as you would pay to rent a car and drive from Tokyo to Hiroshima with a few stops along the way... I did the math. Next time you wonder why so many Japanese people travel more abroad then they do within their own borders, ponder on that one for a few.

Here are a few other choice photos I took in my travels, with the full album available on my flickr account.

View from Sunset Beach - NW part of Ishigaki

Shisa statue on Taketomi island

Taking a drink at Pinay Sara (sp?) falls, Iriomote island

A cow put to manual labor, pulling suigyuu duty. These are most famous off of Iriomote, but this picture was taken on Taketomi.

Another shisa, just because they're that cool.

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