Ishigaki Island – The Chinese heritage in Japan’s tropical South

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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 the visitors. 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.

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 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 and also traded with countries such as Vietnam and Thailand.

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, 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 is also a perfect cultivation area for pearls, including 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!

Why visit Ishigaki island?

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It’s the hub of the Yaeyama Islands, and 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 planned for 2017.

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