Visit Ishigaki Island – Japan’s tropical South

The tomb for the Chinese sailors on Ishigaki

The slender dragons on the roof coil their tails, while long-bearded Chinese sages look down on us when we visit Ishigaki Island. The colourful cluttered structure in the South-west of Ishigaki Island is the Tôjinbaka: a tomb for Chinese sailors stranded on Ishigaki in the 19th century. A shop nearby sells the fake paper-money used in Chinese funerary rites. But there are more Chinese influences. Although Ishigaki and the surrounding Yaeyama Islands belong to Japan today, for most of their history they have had more Chinese influences.

Where in Japan is Ishigaki Island?

Ishigaki island is the main island of the Yaeyama Island group. The Yaeyama islands are located around 410 km southwest of Okinawa Honto (Okinawa Mainland), the southernmost province of Japan. On the other hand it is only 260 km from Ishgigaki Island to Taiwan. From the port in Ishigaki there are ferry connections to the other Yaeyama islands, but not to Okinawa Mainland or to Japan.

Micronesian influences

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The culture of the first inhabitants (at least around 4000 years ago) was similar to that of Micronesia, Indonesia or Taiwan. By the middle ages – the time of the Kingdom of Ryûkyû and the gusuku castles on Mainland Okinawa – the Yaeyama islands had a strong connection to the Ryûkyû kingdom. The capital Naha was about 500 km away over the sea. But still, the Ryûkyûan kings did send governors to the Yaeyama Islands. The King of Ryûkyû, in turn, sent tribute and trade missions to the Chinese Emperor. In addition, the Ryûkyû Islands also traded with countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. From there, they learned the secret of alcohol destillation and started making Awamori. And furthermore, they had occasionally contact with more far-flung countries such as Germany, not least because it often happened that foreign sailors shipwrecked on the Ryukyuan coasts.

Today Ishigaki, one of the largest of about a dozen islands in the Yaeyama archipelago, houses the main administration. With its international airport it is the hub for foreign and Japanese visitors – but also a great destination on its own.

Blue Kabira bay

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An intense light blue is the trademark of Kabira Wan. Kabira Wan is the most famous bay at the Northern coast of Ishigaki that is on every tourist’s itinerary. Even on a rainy winter day, the water with the white sand and the coral reefs somehow looks calm and blue. But never mind the rain – what you do here is board a glass boat and watch the tropical fish from above. Snorkeling is forbidden at Kabira Bay. Because of its absolutely clear water and just the right shifts in water temperature, this is also a perfect cultivation area for pearls. Most famous among them: the rare black pearls.

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Further to the North, a long peninsula stretches out like a finger pointing into the sea. At the final cape, Hirakubosaki, ruins of old watchtowers and fire signal facilities were discovered. When the Chinese Qing dynasty and Japan’s Shogunate started to compete for dominance over the Yaeyama Islands in the 17th century, guards had to stand on the lookout here. Whenever a ship neared from the North, they sent fire signals and mounted messengers to the govenor.

Tasty Ishigaki soba noodles

Akaishi Shokudô is a small local restaurant on that far-off peninsula, but it is well-known for its tasty noodles. Ishigaki Soba are firm wheat noodles, similar but different from other Japanese noodle varieties such as soba and udon. In fact, practically each of the Okinawan Islands has its own soba variety. We never got to the bottom of their respective differences. Although islanders here claim that the Ishigaki Soba are much tastier than the Iriomote or the Miyako Soba and that their taste is quite different …

Everything tofu

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Presumably, the local tofu varieties also have their own unique characteristics. They are all just called shima dôfu – island tofu – and they are all extremely fresh and tasty. One morning in Ishigaki, we walked to a tofu factory out in the fields nearby and had an all-white tofu meal in their cafeteria: delicious!

And rejoice: All this is also extremely healthy! People on Okinawa are among the longest-living in the world!

Why visit Ishigaki island?

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It’s the hub of the Yaeyama Islands. For instance, you need to go via Ishigaki in order to visit Iriomote, Taketomi, Hateruma and other islands. Ishigaki has a subtropical, relaxed feeling, a great culture mix, and good food. Do go!

How to get to Ishigaki island

Currently the only access is by airplane, but a ferry connection to Taiwan is being (eternally) planned.

We have visited Ishigaki island numerous times as part of our research for the Japan guidebook published by the German publisher Stefan Loose.

NB: We had no sponsoring for this blog post about Ishigaki. But we may earn a commission for qualified sales of books we link to (at no extra cost to you).

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  1. Visiting Ishigaki Island seems to be an exotic adventure, with amazing views, culture, and food. Blue Kabira bay is perfect for chilling with its turquoise waters. I love the idea of taking a glass boat and watching the tropical fish from above.

  2. Japan’s Ishigaki island looks quite intriguing place to visit. And it’s interesting how the island has strong Chinese influences from the past evident from the colorful architecture in the spot. These islands are great trading centres with routes to different countries. The Kabira Bay is stunning with its white sandy beach and turquoise water. And great to know it’s a hub for black pearl cultivation. Nice to know there is a wide variety of Ishigusoba noodles and Tofu available.

  3. Wow! This place is beautiful. Happy to know that there is an international airport to cater to foreign visitors.

    Would love to try the Ishigaki soba noodles too! Thank you for sharing this. Hope that the ferry connection to Taiwan will materialize soon.

  4. We did a tour in Japan and visited a lot of great places. But your Japan posts are showing me there are a lot of gems to discover if we re-visit and explore on our own. I am sure it was interesting to see the Chinese and Indonesian influences on Ishigaki Island. We would surely want to visit and explore those beaches and the blue waters. Although I was a bit sad to hear there is no snorkelling allowed. But I might have to find a black pearl souvenir!

  5. Ooh! The ruins at Hirakubosaki sound so interesting! Honestly, I’ve never thought about Japan having a more tropical region. I’d love to visit there someday — I haven’t even been to Japan except for a layover (which doesn’t count!).

  6. Just looking at the photos, I would have never guess that this was an island in Japan. It looks so different than the rest of the country. I would love to know more about the fresh tofu of the area, and how they are preparing it. Also, it’s so interesting to know that the people in Ishigaki live longer than anyone else in the world. I would love to discover more of the Chinese heritage of the island, it’s always so curious how different cultures came together because of things that happened during history.

  7. I’m from Indonesia, so it’s interesting to see what part of Indonesia that had similarities with Ishigaki cultures. I maybe heard about this area when flying with JAL. The beach is really beautiful and I think it will be fascinating to see the pearls there.

    1. Dear Umiko, you cannot really see the pearls at the beach. But of course there are a lot of shops, where you can buy them. And it is also possible to to a tour at the pearl farm.

  8. I have read something about the Blue zone diet where people located in certain parts of the world live the longest. And yes, Japan, specifically Okinawa is one of the locations. Thanks for featuring what they eat, which includes Tofu. Hopefully I get to visit this place someday, not just because of the cultural sights but more of observe the way of life.

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