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The unforgettable island paradise of Ishigaki-jima

The Japanese island's lush greenery and eclectic cultural heritage make for a compelling visit

Ishigaki Island is the main island of the Yaeyama Islands group.

Far from the unrelenting hustle and noise of Tokyo, in the far south of Japan's Okinawa island group, lies the largely undiscovered tropical paradise of Ishigaki-jima. Home to 50,000 people and forming the anchor of the Yaeyama archipelago some 500 kilometres south of Naha, Ishigaki distinguishes itself as the laid-back, sun-kissed antithesis to the perpetually overworked metropolises of mainland Japan. Blessed in equal measures with scenic white-sand beaches and rugged island greenery, Ishigaki is a unique addition to any Japan or East Asia travel itinerary.Stepping off the plane at New Ishigaki Airport, one is quickly struck by both the drenching tropical humidity, and the eclectic cultural heritage of the island. Ishigaki, as with the rest of Okinawa, was part of the former Ryukyu Kingdom until incorporation into the Japanese empire in 1879. The result is a unique cultural blend drawing from China, nearby Taiwan and mainland Japan, as well as touches of postwar American influence – most notably in an abiding love of A&W restaurants.

This diverse cultural heritage remains evident today: impeccable Japanese politeness mixed with a relaxed island sensibility – indeed, the kariyushi, the island's equivalent of the aloha shirt, is commonly known as "Ishigaki formal wear." Added to this is an Eastern spiritual heritage evidenced by the island's unofficial mascot, the shisa; the ubiquitous lion-dog sculptures found across Ishigaki that originally derive from Chinese mythology.

Against this cultural backdrop is a scenic island beauty not normally associated with Japan.

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Water buffalo carts between the Japanese tropical islands Iriomote and Yubu.

Lush greenery, dominated by fields of pineapple and sugarcane, blanket much of the island. Along the west coast, placid, impeccably turquoise waters abound; the protected Fusaki Beach in particular makes for a perfect day of reef snorkelling or a family day out. The northeast coast provides a windswept surfer's paradise, while in the island's interior, Mounts Nosoko and Omoto dominate, providing a modest hike featuring sweeping views of the island and sea. Wherever one goes, it is hard not to find scenic areas fondly referred to by locals as their spiritual "power spots."

The picturesque Kabira Bay serves as Ishigaki's standout beach. Providing white sands and clear waters rivalling that of the Caribbean, Kabira Bay is truly exemplary of Ishigaki's island beauty. Whether lounging on the beach or taking a tour on the bay's many glass-bottomed boats, and easily accessible from the city centre via an all-day shuttle, Kabira Bay is an essential stop for any Ishigaki itinerary.

With its comparatively small size, clocking in at a compact 230 square kilometres, and immaculately maintained main road – complete with English signage – ringing the coast, Ishigaki is eminently driveable. A complete circuit of the island by car, even with generous pit stops to sample some freshly pressed, ice-cold sugarcane juice from roadside vendors, can be completed in a leisurely four to five hours and is the very definition of a "scenic route."

All told, Ishigaki has quietly built a reputation in Japan as a must-see vacation destination. Perfect for a weekend stop as part of a longer itinerary, or as a proper standalone vacation, Ishigaki provides an unforgettable island experience.

Taketomi Island is part of the Yaeyama Islands group in Okinawa, Japan and is only a short ferry ride away from Ishigaki’s city centre.

The Yaeyama archipelago

A treat of any visit to Ishigaki is the chance to explore the nearby islands that form the remainder of the Yaeyama archipelago. Accessible via the conveniently located ferry terminal in the city centre, these islands provide excellent day trips for both relaxation and adventure.

Taketomi-jima

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A breezy 10-minute ferry ride away from Ishigaki's city centre, Taketomi is the essence of island tranquillity. Best explored on foot or rented bicycle, the postage-stamp-sized island is visually stunning: Walls of multicoloured hibiscus stretch out along white-sand roads, all against a backdrop of the island's traditional red-clay-roofed homes and hand-packed stone walls from which Ishigaki derives its name.

Passing through fields of sugarcane, one can relax at the expansive Kondoi Beach while enjoying the island's signature mango shaved ice. The neighbouring Kaiji Beach is also home to a rare natural phenomenon: tiny star-shaped deep-sea fossils known as star sand. For those with little ones in tow, the laborious search for star sand is an excellent way to keep children occupied (and is also readily available for purchase from beach-side vendors).

Iriomote-jima

For the more adventurous traveller, the rugged Iriomote Island awaits, approximately 40 minutes by boat from Ishigaki's city centre. Sparsely populated, Iriomote is a naturalist's dream – bounded by dense mangroves and home to a number of rare animal species, including the critically endangered Iriomote cat. One can also catch a glimpse of the venomous pit viper known as the habu, found only in the Yaeyama Islands – though for obvious reasons, it is best to observe from a distance.

Ecotourism is particularly popular on the island, and packages usually consist of a combination of canoeing, hiking and coral reef snorkelling as part of a day-long excursion, and include return-fare to Ishigaki's port.

Ishigaki has quietly built a reputation in Japan as a must-see vacation destination.

Experiencing the Okinawan Diet

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Okinawans are among the longest-lived people in the world, and those living on Ishigaki are no exception. The Okinawan diet, featuring tropical fruits and vegetables, is key to this longevity, and provides tourists with an ultrahealthy, and flavourful, culinary experience. Among the highlights:

Kokuto

Enjoyed as a standalone snack or flavourful addition to ice cream, kokuto – also known as Okinawan black sugar – is as delicious as it is simple, an Ishigaki staple standing in stark contrast to highly processed white sugar. Freshly chopped sugarcane is pressed to extract the juice, which is then simmered for up to eight hours until the final product emerges: a dark, crunchy sugar with surprising health properties. While sugar is not normally associated with healthy eating, studies have repeatedly shown Ishigaki's kokuto to have cytoprotective and immunological benefits.

Goya

Bumpy and dark green, Okinawan goya is an intensely bitter vegetable found in many local dishes. Perhaps most popular is goya chanpuru; a stir-fry mixture of thinly sliced pork, egg, rice, island tofu and goya. Certainly an acquired taste, goya nonetheless is said to be beneficial in warding off diabetes and is a favourite among island residents.

Shiquasa

Also known as the flat lemon, the shiquasa is a pleasantly sour, almost sugarless, citrus fruit resembling a lemon-lime hybrid. Whether consumed whole, as a juice or garnish, shiquasa's eye-opening taste and anti-oxidant properties make it a popular addition to Okinawan meals.

Ishigaki beef

Overshadowed in the West by the better-known cousin, Ishigaki beef nevertheless proves a worthy rival to the famed Kobe beef. Hormone-free and grass fed in the relaxing shade of the island's native Yaeyama palm trees, Ishigaki beef provides a tender, evenly marbled steak that is a mainstay across the island's restaurants.

If you go

With the opening in 2013 of the New Ishigaki Airport, multiple daily direct flights are available from Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.

For flights to the island booked by non-Japanese passport holders, both of Japan's major domestic carriers, ANA and JAL, offer steeply discounted round-trip flight passes for the 1,930-kilometre flight for approximately $245, (tax included).

When to go

Ishigaki is best enjoyed outside of the crowded Golden Week and Obon periods of late April and early August, respectively. A visit between February and early April ensures balmy island weather and warm waters, while also avoiding the crowds that descend on the island for the late April holiday period. Summertime brings a particularly stifling humidity to the island, but also a number of music festivals, boat races and other cultural attractions, making June and July a popular, if sweltering, time to visit.

Where to stay

Pension Yaima Biyori, 10-7 Misakicho, Ishigaki

Family-run and richly decorated with dark driftwood, Yaima Biyori features 12 guestrooms, both traditional Japanese and Western style. Some rooms have their own private bathroom, while others share two spacious and spotless group washrooms. Laundry and bicycle rentals are available free of charge. Located in the city centre, one minute from the central bus terminal. $16-30 a person daily.

Hotel Olive, Misaki-cho, 1-5, Ishigaki

A quaint nine-room hotel featuring comfortable, modern guestrooms overlooking Ishigaki's port; located directly opposite the town's airport bus terminal. The $1-breakfasts are the essence of island simplicity: toast, local tropical fruits, juice and coffee. Friendly, English-speaking staff. Guestroom prices range from $45-80 daily a room.

Toyoko Inn Ishigaki, 3-2-12 Hamasaki-cho

The Toyoko Inn chain – Japan's equivalent of a Holiday Inn - provides modern rooms for single and family travellers alike. Located 10 minutes from the city centre, the Toyoko Inn features large guestrooms, free WiFi and bicycle rentals. Prices range from $30 for a single to $120 daily a room for a deluxe family suite, and includes a free "viking" (buffet) breakfast. Discounts are available for advance online reservations.

ANA Intercontinental-Ishigaki Resort, 354-1 Maesato

The luxury oceanfront ANA Intercontinental boasts a golf course and its own protected beach (also open to non-guests). Accessible directly via airport bus, the ANA InterContinental's guestrooms start at a spacious 540 square feet and offer sweeping ocean views. Rates start from $300 a night, including breakfast.

What to do

Ishigaki is not just a one-hit fun-in-the-sun wonder. The island boasts a vibrant and thriving local music scene rivalling that found anywhere else in Japan.

Music permeates daily life in Ishigaki, all part of the laid-back island culture. The island's native folk songs range from gentle, wistful tunes invoking the area's history and scenery to raucous drinking songs done in the traditional Okinawan dialect and punctuated with sharp blasts of yubibue, or Okinawan finger-whistling.

From intimate café raibu (coffee-house concerts) shows to multiday festivals featuring big name and local acts alike, the island is a treat for music lovers. Even if one misses one of the frequent, and well-advertised, shows, impromptu performances are common.

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