When we were planning our trip to Japan, we knew that it would be impossible to see it all in five weeks. Japan is big, and each region has something unique to offer. We agreed on what we thought were the must-see destinations in central Japan – Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Naoshima, Mount Fuji and the Japanese Alps – and we were left with an important choice: should we explore the north or the south?
As we were planning, it was mid-January. It was -25C outside and we were already fed up with winter. We thought about it for about 15 seconds and made our decision: we would go south!
We set out to find the best places to visit in the Okinawa Prefecture, the perfect destination to get way from the cold. Situated at Japan’s southern extremity, Okinawa is made up of a multitude of tiny subtropical islands, each more charming than the next.
Ishigaki, one of the southernmost islands in the group, seemed to offer everything we were looking for: it was a bit wild, and it offered plenty of activities for us to get a feel for the Okinawa culture without being totally cut off from civilization.
Renting a car
Our plan was to rent a car for a week and drive around the island. Since it takes less than an hour to go from one end to the other, this would be the perfect place to learn to drive on the left side of the road. I’m generally a rather distracted co-pilot, but I was on alert here and had to yell out “LEFT, LEFT” several times!
Hunting for the most beautiful beach
When we arrived, we already had a list of the most beautiful beaches on Ishigaki. However, we quickly changed our outlook when our host told us “the most beautiful beach on the island will be the one you discover on your own.” When we insisted that he give us more details, he offered us this advice: “Follow the road that goes to the end of the western peninsula. When you reach the dead end, there’s a secret trail, almost invisible, that leads to an incredible beach.”
So we tried our luck. We parked the car at a dead end on the western peninsula and followed a long trail overgrown with tropical plants. At the end, we discovered this surreal deserted beach on an intimate bay lined with imposing cliffs, just in time for a postcard-perfect sunset. Jackpot! Our host was right: this beach is the prettiest one we visited during our entire trip, and we still dream about it.
Food and culture
Immersing ourselves among the locals for a little taste of their lifestyle was a beautiful part of our Ishigaki experience. We must have tried every dish on the menu of the only little restaurant in our neighbourhood. By the end of our stay, we were treated like regulars. The neighbours said “hello” to us when we entered the place, and two cold beers appeared on our table without us having to order them. These are the moments that we will remember for a long time, and that make us love travel.
Ishigaki residents have a reputation for living to a ripe old age; they have even set records. You might think that this is due to island life in an earthly paradise, but if you ask the residents, they will give you a totally different reason: goya champuru.
This vegetable, known as “bitter melon,” is one of the prides of the Okinawa Prefecture. But you will need a strong palate and an iron will to enjoy it, because (to be completely honest) it tastes like earwax!
While in some tropical destinations, the beach is the main attraction, Ishigaki Island has a lot to offer. On cooler days, we recommend climbing Mount Omoto, about a four-hour trek. This hike is a must if you wish to explore the Japanese jungle and it offers the highest viewpoint on Ishigaki Island. If you are lucky enough to hike up Mount Omoto on a clear day, you will not be disappointed.
Filled with hidden gems and local secrets, Ishigaki is a special place to discover. From trekking up Mount Omoto to exploring secret heavenly beaches, Ishigaki offers a treasure trove of activities and breathtaking panoramas. And more than all that, it’s the home of a unique people, proud of their identity and their distinctive island that feels so far away from the rest of Japan.
4 essentials for your trip to Ishigaki
A vacuum bottle: It can get very hot on Ishigaki and there’s nothing more satisfying than drinking ice-cold water under a hot sun.
The MEC Travel Light Tote: This was our favourite little tote! Very compact and practical, this bag is versatile and can be used as a shoulder bag or carried as a backpack.
A microfibre travel towel: On Ishigaki, the next beautiful beach is always just around the corner, so it’s smart to always carry a super-compact towel in your backpack.
The MEC Mica pants: Whether you’re climbing Mount Omoto on trails through tall grass, or you want to protect yourself from the mosquitoes at night, these pants are excellent travel companions.