Ishigaki Island Guide - 10 Must-See Things To Do In Ishigaki Japan
Welcome, welcome! You’ve come a long way. If you’re after a decent Ishigaki island guide, you can finally get some rest; you deserve it after finding me here. Remember to take your shoes off, it’s an Asian household! You’re going to learn a thing or two about some of the unusual things to on Ishigaki island, in the archipelago of islands south of Okinawa, also known as Yaeyama islands or Ryukyu islands.
Whether inspired to visit Ishigaki island by the Trip Advisor’s article on Top Trending Destinations for 2018, Independent, Guardian or other fairly reputable online source, you can rest assured that you won’t be leaving empty-handed as I’m thrilled to share with you our story and experiences.
In fact, Ishigaki is so low down that it’s closer to get there from Taiwan. I can gladly tell you that not many people who go to Japan choose a remote location of Ishigaki island, which, no matter how paradisiacal, it’s located in the middle of nowhere of Japan and therefore Asia.
Since you’ve already made the first step and chose to do some research on Ishigaki island, you’re already half way through so here’s my part. Pick a cosy location and grab a drink, I’m about unveil our memories from Ishigaki island, a Japanese tropical island that is home to many noteworthy locations, culture, Japanese cuisine with admixture of surrounding China and Taiwan.
These secluded spots are not mentioned in most travel guides. I picked up the pieces before going out there and thought of covering it all in a single detailed online guide. After all, despite being communicative in Japanese I still struggled a bit!
Planning your trip to Ishigaki island and things to do in Ishigaki, Japan
Out of our 3-month stay in Japan, Ishigaki has made it to one of my favourite destinations. I won’t lie to you, the limited information online, difficult to find guides on things to do in Ishigaki, Japan and hours spent on researching Japanese websites and was frustrating at times but don’t get discouraged easily, there’s a reason why this place is so unique and totally off the beaten path, unlike Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto.
We were still In London when I started researching about things to do in Ishigaki, Japan but the information was pretty limited. I also tried researching in Japanese and the outcome was a bit better, however, it wasn’t until we got to Tokyo when I started discovering more and more interesting sites.
We had enough time to look into Ishigaki island before we headed in that direction. I’m sure that if you’re passionate about Japan, you’ll be doing your search from back home to make the most of your stay, including isolated locations. Remember, don’t let the language barrier affect your choice on where to go in Japan. People here are friendly and you can always use apps to help you translate things into your native language. Ah, did I mention that Ryukyu islands have their own language? It’s called Yaeyaman language although Japanese is the official language.
After seeing places like Bali and Gili islands in Indonesia or Krabi and Ko Chang in Thailand it was inevitable to be jetting off to such a remote location which proved to be nothing less but truly extraordinary. After we returned form Japan, I realised that online newspapers couldn’t stop talking about this place. Here’s why!
How to Get to Ishigaki island Japan
We were still in our corporate jobs when we booked our flights to Japan, in total 3 months. Since it was a long holiday, we decided that quitting our jobs was the only reasonable alternative to make sure we see what we wanted to see. If you’re planning a trip to Ishigaki island and combine it with your holiday in Japan, there are several options for you.
We’ve gone through a list of all possible options that would allow us to see Okinawa island, Miyajima island and Ishigaki island in this very order. And although Miyakojima island isn’t exactly far from Ishigaki, the flights between these destinations can be a bit pricy.
Here’s how to get to Yaeyama islands. Your options are:
- Fly from Tokyo directly to Ishigaki
- Fly from Osaka directly to Ishigaki
- Fly from Okinawa directly to Ishigaki
There are a few more direct flights. Maybe even including flying from Taiwan or Hong Kong if you prefer.
This is what we did. We flew from Tokyo to Okinawa and spent a few days moving around Okinawa island, then took a flight to Miyakojima and then flew straight to Ishigaki. Although flights from Miyakojima aren’t the cheapest, they are still better than flying back to Tokyo or other larger city in Japan and if you are on a time constraint and are travelling with a suitcase, by far the most convenient out of all options.
Things to do on Ishigaki island
1) Star Sand Beach (Star Island)
Starry beach, say no more. It’s an island where the sand looks like stars and isn’t exactly a Solar System away from Milky Way. Upon a closer examination, you will notice that the star shape sand may have little to do with actual sand! Take it or leave it but the local legend has it that the star-shaped sand is the offspring of the Southern Cross and North Star, born in the waters of Okinawa sea.
The story goes that a serpent devoured them all and left their skeletons on the shores of the island. Not entirely convinced by the local legend, I wanted to see the place with my own eyes. It’s beautiful around there and so serene you’ll hardly see anyone around except for the locals and a few early birds on a mission like yours – no wonder why, the transport is pretty limited to the Starry Island!
If you want to read more about how to get to the island, check out my article on Starry Island here.
2) Kabira Bay
The moment you think of Ishigaki, the image of Kabira Bay comes to your mind; emerald green and blue hues of the waters surrounding Ishigaki island and white sand beach. Here’s the catch. Although it’s considered one of the prettiest beaches, you can’t actually swim there due to the strong tides caused by winds and presence of jellyfish.
It seems like all Ishigaki guides mention is as one of the must-see things in Ishigaki and I agree, it’s a scenic place provided you visit it on a sunny, summer day and ideally see it from the top, this is when Kabira bay is at its best. Personally, it’s not my favourite spot as we visited it when the sky was overcast on that day and it only cleared up in the late afternoon so my advice is to take the weather forecast into account when planning a visit to Kabira Bay.
I was a little disappointed about the ban on swimming, snorkelling and diving but you can’t argue with it. Personally, I think there are nicer parts that on Ishigaki. The good thing is, you can get a glass-bottom boat admire the marine life as the guided boat tour passes by various spots between 9am – 5pm. After that, the beach is almost deserted, ideal for a chilled stroll along the beach.
And if you fancy views from the top and since you’re up north, you may as well go all the way up to the top of Ishigaki island to Hirakubo Lighthouse or Yarabudake viewpoint – it may do the trick and it totally makes sense.
3) Ishigaki Island Beaches
Assuming that you’re going to see Ishigaki island with the purpose of catching some tropical sun whilst still enjoying Japan, you’re likely to explore some of the finest beaches found on Ishigaki island. And… you are going to be spoilt for choice.
There are plenty of things to do in Ishigaki island but if you want to make the most of the subtropical sunshine, mild gusts of coastal wind and enjoy bathing in crystal clear waters that look straight from paradise, you’re going to love it here as the coastal line varies from beach to beach.
Some of the most visited beaches include:
- Kabira Bay
- Maezato Beach
- Yonehara Beach
- Sukuji Beach
- Fusaki Beach
There are also a few beaches where, after a playful, laid-back afternoon, you can give some rest to your sun-kissed summer bod and let your thoughts drift away whilst watching tremendously gorgeous sunsets.
The views are priceless and believe me, Japanese people and other East Asian visitors appreciate watching sun turning bright orange and slowly disappearing from your horizon. Perfect for the romantic moments by the beach!
If you want to know more about the best beaches on Ishigaki island, check out my article about the Ishigaki island beach guide here.
4) Ishigaki Island Food
Ishighaki food is fairly similar to Okinawan food but there are a few Ishigaki island specialties. I don’t think it’s necessary to mention that food is one of the most exciting things to do in Ishigaki, is it? In case you’re not familiar with the blue zone terminology, I strongly recommend you to look it up.
To summarise it, blue zone is an are where the average life expectancy is much greater than elsewhere. Its inhabitants live healthy lives well into their 80s and 90s and has quite a few centenarians.
One of them, in fact, is the area covering Okinawa and the islands off Okinawa. In case you want to do some further reading, here’s an interesting article by World Economic Forum.
Want to know what’s their secret? It’s their lifestyle, and of course, the food they eat! Their diet is rich in veggies, fruit and whole plants and there are a few other things that are unique to this region, like awamori, Ishigaki beef, Yaeyama soba and a whole range seafood you’ve never seen before.
If you’d like to know what food to try in Ishigaki island, I’ve written a detailed article about best food in Ishigaki here.
5) Ishigaki Public Market and Shopping street
No trip to an island is complete without trying a few local delicacies and perhaps local souvenirs. I guess you’ll agree with me on that, especially if you’ve come from somewhere far, like Europe and want to try as many local specialties as possible. And the choice is vast, as Ishigaki is influenced by the Japanese, Chinese and South East Asian cultures. That means unique fusion of flavour and other goods.
With that in mind, Ishigaki Public Market and Euglena Mall are the best for it. Our accommodation was literally on that street so we got to venture into a few shops and got a few snacks from there. If you’ve heard of or been to Heiwa Dori (Peace Street) and Makishi Market in Okinawa, it’s a bit like similar to it. Wander around the parallel alleys to find the gems of Ishigaki island.
6) Get Cultural With Ryukyu Heritage Site and Squirrel Monkeys
Recommended by our lovely English-speaking host, I could easily say it was one of the highlights of our stay in Ishigaki. If you’re interested in cultural activities, I consider it one of the best things to do in Ishigaki island. Ryukyu islands formerly were an independent kingdom called Ryukyu Kingdom before they became part of Japan in 1879.
Yaeyama islands are fascinating in terms of their geography, flora, fauna and cultural heritage which is still present on the islands. Located on the west side of Ishigaki island, Yaima village is a bus ride from Ishigaki bus station.
You will be welcomed by two big Shisa outside the entrance, the symbol of the Ryukyu culture. Inside, you’ll see the traditional architecture of Ryukyu houses with red tiles that have been relocated from other parts of the island to recreate the historical village look, going back as far as 100 year ago. Now, you will only be able to see them mainly on Taketomi island.
You can also try on traditional Ryusou fashion called Bingata, a bright red-dress worn by the Ryukyuan dancers during important events which we got to see in Okinawa. Other attractions include traditional performances, old-architectural platform with a view on Kabira bay, mangrove forest, buffalo ponds and our absolute favourite, feeding Squirrel monkeys.
They were so cute that neither us nor anyone who came around the same time as us left within less than an hour. Honestly, add it to your list of things to do in Ishigaki right now!
For more information, click here to read the full article about how to get our trip to Yaima Mura and our experience from there.
7) Misakicho Ishigaki Nightlife
Hurray! Finally, someone is talking about Ishigaki nightlife scene, right? I struggled to dig out any information on that and I’m sure you’ve struggled too. Although the nightlife in Ishigaki is considerably quieter than on Ko Pha Ngan or Bali, it’s still pretty busy, especially between the Sanbashi street, Ishigaki Public Market and Ishigaki port.
Simply look for Misakicho and you’ll quickly find yourself in the heart of Ishigaki nightlife. Most of venues around Misakicho are izakaya-style bars playing loud, usually Western-style chart music. You’ll also find a few pretty good restaurants serving a combination of fresh seafood, sashimi and some mainland Japanese dishes. Go with my advice and try Ishigaki beef, it’s the most tender beef you’ll ever try.
Although it’s probably wise to say, some places offer menu only in Japanese so speaking at least basic phrases will certainly help if you’re planning to stroll in to any random place. If you’d rather choose a place with English menu, try more touristy and recommended places, like Hitoshi Ishiganto, an izakaya-style restaurant but remember to book in advance.
Look for the bars and izakaya with live music, some performances involve the traditional Okinawan string instrument called sanshin – a bit like the Western banjo we used to have at home. Giving it a go was one of the best experiences on Yaeyama islands!
And if you didn’t book yourself for any water activities in the morning and feeling the tropical, reggae-inspired Ishigaki vibe, dance your night away at the nearby DJ‘s Bar Grand Slam club.
I’ve written an article on food to try and where to eat in Ishigaki like a local here, check it out if you’d rather go for something visited by the locals of Ishigaki.
8) Toujin Baka Tomb
Another to add to the list of things to do in Ishigaki for culture and history lovers. Toujin Baka tomb is a Chinese-style monument that was erected in the memory of 300 Chinese laborers who lost their lives due to the American and British trade interests who were meant to work in American mines.
They didn’t reach America because the ship ran onto the coral reef off Ishigaki island where the survivals were offered refuge. Toujin Baka grave is a beautifully constructed monument in 1971 which carries the dark side of British and American trade history that intertwined with the history of Ishigaki. It’s one of the prettiest sights on Ishigaki island, worth visiting even if you’re not into history.
And you have no excuse not to see it if you happen to be near Fusaki beach and Kannozaki Ligthouse which are particularly picturesque during sunset!
9) Ishigaki Island Hopping
It’s a must if you’re staying in Ishigaki. Let me tell you that Ishigaki island is the most populated out of all Yaeyama islands with about 50,000 inhabitants and 222.5 km2. I’d like to say the largest too but Iriomote island is in fact larger, covering 289.3 km2.
Some of these islands are known mainly to the locals and some avid Japan visitors. The water there is pristine and abundant in marine wildlife which you may not see elsewhere in the world. Not to mention the mangrove forests and star sand island! In a nutshell, Yaeyama islands or the archipelago of islands south of Okinawa are home to the following islands:
- Ishigaki island
- Kuroshima island
- Taketomi island
- Kohama island
- Hatoma island
- Aragusuku island
- Hateruma island
- Yonaguni island
When considering which island would be best to stay at, we also took into account transport means. No matter how pretty are the other islands, I strongly suggest you choose Ishigaki island as your base. First, Ishigaki is the nightlife hub and has most restaurants, shops, bars and clubs and it’s the main port for the entire archipelago to catch a ferry and do island hopping off Ishigaki island.
Depending on the distance from Ishigaki island, some ferries are more frequent than others which you should take into account when booking your accommodation in Ishigaki.
If you want to read more about the Yaeyama islands, check out my guide to Ishigaki island hopping to Yaeyama islands here.
Below is a video of us going to a very remote and totally isolated Aragusuku island, also known as Panari island. Inhabited by only 10 people, it’s probably the most remote place in Japan. There are no public ferries and boats running to this island unless you go with a private tour.
10) Ishigaki Island Ghibli Murals
It may not be your thing but if you’re familiar with Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, you’d appreciate murals I’ve stumbled upon on my way back from a nearby supermarket during our stay on Ishigaki island. I couldn’t help but to stop and admire the artist’s work with replicas of Catbus, Totoro and a few more. In case you didn’t get to go inside Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo, that should cheer you up!
For those that aren’t familiar with Hayao Miyazaki, he’s a big fish in Japan, and undoubtedly one of the greatest anime filmmakers where his achievements are recognised globally. Simply look up ‘Princess Mononoke’, ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ or ‘Spirited Away’.
Getting around Ishigaki Island
There are plenty of beautiful beaches around Ishigaki island. Since the island is quite compact, you can take a bus that will take you to the beach of your choice. Or you could rent out a car although let me remind you that you will need an international driving permit (IDP) for Japan which you’ll need to get back in your home country. At least that’s the case for the UK. I’m covering the transport in more detail in the article here.
Alternatively, rent out a bike to go around the island. We brought our kick scooters and they were invaluable!
Best time to visit Ishigaki Island
If you want to combine your trip to the tropics of Japan with somewhere on the mainland Japan like Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, it’s probably best if you have a look at my article on the climate in Japan. Just in case you’d rather miss out on a rather gloomy sky during rainy season or monsoons!
Ready for Ishigaki Island? Final thoughts on Things to do in Ishigaki Japan
I think you’re a little bit more convinced why this island is an absolute treasure. There are tons of things to do in Ishigaki if you allocate enough time. Don’t rush, take things easy. This place embraces slow pace of life and people value spending quality time.
Many Ishigaki visitors will be leaving early to get public transport and see nearby places but in the early evening bars are getting busier and noisier. After all, that’s what the islander’s life all about – enjoying their lives, well into their 90s!
Remember to bookmark this page and check my other articles on Yaeyama islands and food to try in Ishigaki, they will come in handy once you get there!
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