The first indication that something is amiss becomes apparent when my mom keeps asking me all sorts of detailed questions about Ishigaki – how many hours will it take for me to get there from Tokyo? Are there even hotels in the island? Is it safe? Fortunately, my mom tends to take a very relaxed approach to my habit of travelling to very remote locations, often alone, so I am surprised by the barrage of questions. Especially given I am going to a country as safe as Japan.
‘Have you even looked at Ishigaki in a map?’
‘Yes’ I lie.
I bought the flights on a whim, while boarding a plane to Singapore (where I was living at the time) after a very fun, but exhausting, weekend in Hong Kong with my friend Kanira. I haven’t really spent too much time researching the location. I had just googled ‘best places to dive in Japan’ and Ishigaki came up because of its healthy population of giant mantas. All I know is that it is in Okinawa, so I am assuming it will be just at the very south of the main island (which also shows that I wasn’t even clear of where Okinawa was).
So it comes as a bit of a surprise when I search for Ishigaki on google maps and turns out to be relatively close to Taiwan. Dios mío (Spanish for ‘Oh my god’). This island is very far away from mainland Japan. Very far away from everything. Suddenly it makes sense why it takes more than 3 hours to get there from Tokyo. I decide to take it on my stride and pretend I knew this all along.
I arrive to Ishigaki after flying from Singapore to Tokyo and then taking a domestic flight. Everything goes smoothly, but it takes me a while to process where I am. An island in the middle of the East China Sea. It’s warm, and tropical, yet everything is still quintessentially Japanese. Thanks to South East Asia’s amazing roaming arrangements, I can quickly call my mom. ‘How is it?’ ‘Strange. Very beautiful. But strange’.
The main issue in Ishigaki turns to be that there are barely any foreign tourists, and no one seems to really speak English. I manage to find a taxi driver, to whom I show the address of my ryokan in Japanese spelling, and we quickly get going. The island of Ishigaki is one of the prettiest places I have ever been to. It’s beautiful in a very placid way, something you cannot normally say about the places I choose to go. Everything is very green, very pretty, very clean. The beaches are lovely, the sea is light blue and dark blue and emerald. There are rolling hills covered by luscious vegetation, combining both palm trees and other species from less tropical environments.
I will be staying for the whole of my stay at Joya, a traditional ryokan in the north of the island. The room is not very big, as it tends to be the case in Japan, but it’s clean and functional and good enough for one person. There is a charming, traditional seafood restaurant in front of the hotel, and after leaving my bags in the room I head there for dinner. I am soon joined by a Spanish couple who is in Japan on honeymoon and also ended up in Ishigaki by chance. When they find out I don’t have a car, they offer to give me a ride the following morning to Yonehara beach, where I will be spending the day.
Yonehara beach is, like the rest of Ishigaki, very pretty. It doesn’t have the wilderness or dramatism of some of the beaches in South East Asia, but it’s lovely. You can admire the volcanic hills while lounging on the sand, the water is very clean and no one tries to sell you anything, no one bothers you. It’s not even too hot. It’s just nice and peaceful. I am only joined by couples taking pictures for their wedding or honeymoon album.
After a great day of reading (so great I start panicking I didn’t bring enough books, a regular fear of mine, especially given I refuse to go anywhere near a kindle), I walk back to the hotel. It takes me around two hours, but I also stop in arts and crafts shops by the road. I buy a ring at the shop of a local artisan who moved here from Tokyo, tired of the busy life in the city. He makes beautiful silver jewellery that has an imperfect look to it, a bit like the Japanese notion of ‘wabi sabi’, that appreciates imperfect and simple beauty.
I also stop at a very fun shop selling traditional Ishigaki monsters/ guardian gargoyles. They are called ‘Shinsa’, look a bit like a cross between a lion and a dog, and guard people and homes of evil, similar to the Chinese guardian lions. This shop has decided to go for a playful look, and their Shinsa are cute and friendly and available in a wide range of lively colours. They all seem to come in pairs, the female with her mouth open to share the good, and the male with the mouth closed to keep out the bad.
For dinner I have a delicious okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza), in the street of the hotel. I have to add that Japanese people seem used to women travelling alone, and it’s one of the few places in the world where no one bothers me or tries to talk to me while I am having dinner all by myself with a book. I really appreciate it.
The next morning I get picked up by the diving school I will be diving with for the next couple days, Umicoza. They are very professional and well organised but no one speaks much English, so it’s lucky I am not a novice diver. The first day we don’t get to see any mantas, and visibility is not fantastic, which tends to be the case when you are aiming for manta season, given that what attracts the mantas is the food in the water and that makes visibility worse. We explore a few underwater caves, which is something I hadn’t done before, and I really enjoy having a different diving experience than what I tend to get in South East Asia.
In the afternoon I wander around Kabira, where my hotel is. Yet more placid beaches, emerald waters and only a few tourists. I buy an ice cream and sit down to read at the beach. By now it has become obvious that my worst nightmares are coming true and I am running out of books. I find some terrible American gossip magazines at the hotel and read that in the evenings. I will have to ration my reading until I get to Tokyo, where I am meeting my friends.
The following day we get lucky and a giant manta appears after a few minutes under water. Unfortunately visibility is not so great, but it’s so huge that I am just amazed by its size. I gather than it must be 6-7 metres in width. It’s the biggest manta I have ever seen. It’s majestic, beautiful, and very elegant. We just stare at her for a while until she decides to leave, and devote the rest of our dive to continue looking for mantas. We find a few others but not as big. The dive master says that they have seen even bigger mantas than the first one we saw. He also tells me about Yonaguni, a nearby island, famous for its schools of hammerhead sharks. Getting there seems a bit more complicated (either a ferry or a flight from Ishigaki) but I make a mental note to go there whenever I have the chance.
After the dive, a friendly dive master from the dive centre drops me at Sukuji beach, yet another sweet beach that has the advantage of having a direct bus back to my hotel. Again, I have the beach for myself, and I enjoy the solitude, while I read my book as slowly as it’s humanly possible. That night I have another amazing dinner, wagyu beef cooked in front of me. I enjoy it so much, especially after all the calories burnt during the dive, that I get 3 servings, one after the other.
When I land in Tokyo the next day, I am in shock. Everyone is so rushed around me. I miss the quietness of Ishigaki, but soon I am drawn into a weekend of non-stop eating, karaokes and clubbing, and the tropical island seems very very far away.
Arranging the trip:
- Hotel: I booked it through Booking.com
- Getting around: I arranged taxis at the airport on arrival and through my hotel
- Diving: I booked it in advance with Umicoza Diving School through their website https://umicoza.com/en/
- Books to read (not particularly related to Ishigaki, but my favourite Japanese books)
- The bells of old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese time, Anna Sherman
- After dark, Haruki Murakami
- Blind willow, sleeping woman, Haruki Murakami
- Films to watch (not particularly related to Ishigaki, but my favourite Japanese films)
- Departures, Yôjirô Takita
- Shoplifters, Hirokazu Koreeda
- Tokyo family, Yôji Yamada
- Every day a good day, Tatsushi Omori
- A long goodbye, Ryota Nakano
- Sweet bean, Naomi Kawase
- Spirited away, Hayao Miyazaki
- Women travellers
- Despite the remoteness of Ishigaki, I felt incredibly safe and comfortable at all times, like everywhere in Japan
- Japanese people are used to seeing women travelling alone, and everyone respects your space
- May to November see the warmest weather and it is also the best time to dive with mantas