TOKYO — Japan probably isn’t the first spot that comes to mind when people think of beachy destinations in Asia.
But Ishigaki, one of the islands comprising the Okinawan archipelago, offers visitors a combination of lush tropical landscapes and incomparable Japanese hospitality. There are few direct flights to Ishigaki from Tokyo, so more likely than not, visitors will need to book a connecting flight through Naha, the region’s hub on the main island of Okinawa.
Overcoming that logistical hurdle is well worth it and helps Ishigaki retain much of its unspoiled charm. Although it’s popular with Japanese tourists, Ishigaki is off the international tourist map save for the occasional military family — Okinawa’s main island is home to several military bases.
Ishigakai is surrounded by coral reefs, making it a prime destination for snorkeling and scuba diving. There’s even a spot where visitors can swim with manta rays. But the island’s waters are so translucent that it’s not necessary to wear a mask or flippers to observe aquatic life. Strolling among the reefs at low tide is like wading into an aquarium populated with sea cucumbers, anemones and striking electric blue fish.
The waters are home to other treasures, as well. Kabira Bay, a gorgeous cove with turquoise waters, is a prime space for cultivating black pearls.
“The coral is as beautiful as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia,” says Motoyasu Nishime, who works in the Ishigaki City Hall’s Tourism Division.
Ishigaki, which is geographically closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan, has a unique culture with a Chinese influence. Almost every tile-roofed dwelling or building has a pair of shisa, a lion-dog hybrid gargoyle that’s considered a descendant from China’s own guard lions.
Ishigaki’s 48,000 inhabitants are friendly and ready to share their traditions. It’s not uncommon for a tour guide or a waiter to whip out a three-stringed sanshin and break into a folk ditty.
The food is another highlight. Despite the island’s surroundings, meat is the star. The island’s own breed of cattle are the source of tasty slabs of gourmet beef for the grill or shabu shabu (hot pot). Pork is another staple. While pigs’ ears aren’t for everyone, the stewed pork belly melts in the mouth. Stir-fried dishes, or champuru, shouldn’t be missed either, especially those featuring the bitter melon, or goya.
Logistics: Renting a car is the best way to get around the island, but visitors without international driver’s licenses can make do with taxis. The best times to visit Ishigaki are in spring and fall. Rainy season typically lasts for a couple weeks in March and typhoons can hit between July and October, so the weather is a bit of a gamble.
Sights: Fusaki Beach and Maezato Beach are the best for swimming. Snorkeling and scuba diving can be done virtually anywhere on the island, but Yonehara Beach is considered a prime spot. Visitors should also consider making a day trip to one of Ishigaki’s neighboring islands.
Wooden houses with tiled roofs dot Taketomi, the smaller and closer of the two islands. Visitors can tour the area via water buffalo-drawn carts. Lovers of outdoor activities like canoeing should head to Iriomote, a jungle paradise known for its indigenous species of wildcat.
Cuisine: Ishigaki beef is a must and almost every hotel has its own yakiniku restaurant where customers grill their own slices of meat and vegetables over charcoal at the table. Grand Vrio’s Grilled Beef Ryuka is a perfect example with a dining room overlooking the water. Route-inn.co.jp/gv/ishigaki/restaurant/index.html
A charming spot for either lunch or dinner is Funakura no Sato, a cluster of traditional wooden Okinawan buildings that have been converted into a restaurant, cafe and gift shop. The restaurant features tatami mat flooring and serves dishes such as fried local fish, fresh tofu and Ishigaki beef served sashimi style with browned edges. The cafe offers barbecued eel, tempura and hearty noodle soup. funakuranosato.com
Accommodations: There are several hotels along the coast, including Club Med. Those eschewing the all-inclusive formula should check out the Auberge Kabira or Grand Vrio. Though it’s a tad retro and removed from the major sites, the ANA InterContinental is also worth considering. Some hotel Web sites are only in Japanese and take international reservations through japan.com.
Club Med: clubmed.us/cm/resort-kabira-japan_p-115-l-US-v-KABC-ac-vh.html
Auberge Kabira: nikikabira.com
Grand Vrio: route-inn.co.jp/gv/ishigaki/index.html
ANA InterContinental: intercontinental.com/intercontinental/en/gb/locations/overview/anaintercontinentalishigaki