Ishigaki’s South Coast: Snorkelling, Stargazing and Stalactite Caves
An island so jam-packed with sights and experiences that you can’t manage all in one day, the south coast is a great place to start. Combining the busy town of Ishigaki with the perfect diving spots and a whole host of traditional crafts, it’s enough to keep you busy for a couple of days at least. From the stars to the sea, you can discover the beauty of Ishigaki and learn about their unique heritage along the way.
Stunning Stalactite Caves
Intricately carved over centuries by both surface and underground waters, the Ishigaki Stalac-tite Cave is a hauntingly beautiful sight.
Once a simple limestone hollow, the distinctive shapes were formed over the course of 200,000 years as water containing caustic lime dripped through the ceiling. Slowly developing into icicle-shaped stalactites at one end and stalagmites at the other, the two eventually join to form pillars. Still growing at a rate of 1mm every three years, the caves are an ever-changing landscape designed entirely by nature.
While the cave is around 3.2km long, only 660m is open to the public. It takes around half-an-hour to traverse with plenty of interesting formations along the way. The crystal blue water of the Lake of Longevity is a particularly moving highlight, the waters contrasting with the white ricks and echoing the water drops as they fall to the ground. The Totoro stalactite, the Forest of the Sculptures of the Gods and the Water Harp all provide fascinating insights into the for-mation of the cave and the creations of nature. Thanks to a series of fossils found in the crooks and crevices, it has been confirmed that the cave was once part of the seafloor, with many still visible in the walls and formations.
Perfect for a rainy day or when the summer heat gets a little too much, the cave has an aver-age temperature of 23 degrees, with high humidity. With Yaeyama horseshoe bats on the ceil-ing and bottles of local Awamori maturing in the cave corners, it’s a fascinating space to ex-plore, deeply interwoven in the history of the island.
Address: 1666 Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture 907-0023
Access: A 10-minute drive from the Ishigaki Ferry Terminal and a 20-minute drive from the airport.
Hours: 9 am - 6.30 pm, last entry at 6 pm.
Entry: Adults: 1,100 yen, children: 550 yen, discounts available for groups of 15+
Booking: Not required
Study the Islands from Banna Park‘s Observation Decks
Known as much for its slides as it is the incredible island views its observatories offer, Banna Park is a tranquil forest perfect to escape to. When Ishigaki’s famous spots get a little too crowded, the lush forests of Banna park can offer respite and plenty of space for families to play.
There are three observation points, with the Emerald Sea Point being one of the best for views of the neighboring islands. The egg-shaped migratory bird observatory is perfect for those with a love for animals while the forests themselves are filled with examples of the island’s unique inhabitants. These creatures come with risks, however, as local snakes can pose a danger - so be sure to watch out on quieter paths. Birdwatchers can also visit a dedicated hideout to see rare species at the waterfowl observation point or head straight to the unusually designed Crested Eagle Look-out.
The natural botanical garden showcases a variety of different flora while the tropical flowers are a highlight for kids and adults alike. In the park’s Athletic children’s square, kids can create adventures and ride on the locally-famous long slides. Whether you have little ones needing to let off steam or want to explore some shady forest trails as a break from the beaches, Banna Park is the highlight you didn’t know you needed.
Address: 961-15, Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture 907-0023
Access: Banna Park is approximately 30-minutes from Ishigaki Airport by car and a 15-minute drive from Ishigaki port, depending on your preferred entry gate.
Hours: 9 am - 9 pm
Booking: Not required
Website: http://banna7.com/ (Japanese only)
Explore the Seas on a Snorkeling Tour
For those who want to do more than simply admire the ocean from a sandy beach, Ishigaki has some of Japan’s best snorkeling locations. Offering the chance to explore the turquoise waters yourself, Tom Sawyer Dive Shop has half-day trips to see the best spots the island has to offer.
From clownfish to turtles, the guides know all the best spots and will lead swimmers to the hidden corals abundant with bright fish and extraordinary sea life. With small boats and a ded-icated guide or two in the water and on board at all times, it’s also a reassuring experience for those not too confident in the water. Using floating rings and life jackets, those new to snorkel-ing or not confident with swimming can enjoy the experience and still see plenty of great spots.
Including transport to the boat and gear rental, a half-day snorkeling tour costs 6,500 yen for adults and 6,000 yen for children.
Address: 2-41 Tonoshiro, Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture 907-0012
Access: The dive shop is a few minutes away from the Ishigaki Ferry Terminal.
Hours: 8 am - 6 pm
Booking: Reservations are required in advance and can be made over the phone: 0980-83-4677 and on the website: http://www.ishigaki-tomsawyer.jp/ (Japa-nese only)
Travel Back in Time at Yaima Village
Gathering reconstructed houses and from the surrounding land, the Yaima village is a dedi-cated hub of cultural heritage. Surrounded by lush green gardens and original red-stone walls, the homes have been carefully dismantled and rebuilt from their original locations. All are reg-istered as National Tangible Cultural Properties and the six carefully chosen buildings offer an insight into island life of times gone by.
Aiming to bring island history to life, the open-air architectural village is staffed with passionate locals who play traditional musical instruments, perform ancient dances and have a wealth of skills and stories to share. Our guide, Hiroko Tafuku, was sprightly despite a double-knee re-placement and performed impressive balancing acts before teaching us to play castanet-like shells, performing with partner and ex-marathon running Ueno-san. Never phased and always enthusiastic, the friendly and staff are keen to share their history, not letting shy guests avoid a space in the dance circle at any cost.
While the homes are those of fishermen and farmers as well as well-to-do townspeople, to-gether they create a relaxing townscape to stroll through. Each offering an insight into a differ-ent life led in the times of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the houses have tools, and decorative items on display to tell their stories. Alongside the homes are an observatory and a small monkey park where curious creatures will climb all over the visitors, seeking out snacks and stealing away your leaflets and tickets.
Educational without being overwhelming, the Yaima village is fun for families but great for adults too. The in-house restaurant serves local dishes with seasonal snacks available in the grounds as well.
Address: 967-1, Nagura, Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture 907-0021
Access: A 20-minute drive from both the Ishigaki Ferry terminal and Ishigaki Airport.
Hours: 9 am - 5.30 pm
Entry: Adults: 1,000 yen. Children: 500 yen, discounts available for groups of 15+
Booking: Not required
Website: https://www.yaimamura.com/ (Japanese only)
Take in the Textile History of Minsah Kogei Kan
One of the island’s traditional crafts, Yaeyama Minsah textiles are an intricate example of weaving with a moving history behind them. Completed entirely by hand and requiring over thirty unique steps, the weaved items all bear the distinct alternating symbols of five and four rectangles. Woven together and symbolizing eternal love, these designs adorned obi belts presented to men as engagement gifts from the women hoping to marry them.
Continuing the traditional design and techniques, Minsah was followed by the Ituyo brand which was founded in 2006 and focused on high-end materials and contemporary designs. Continuing together, the two brands are a reflection of the long-lasting quality of Minsah tradi-tions as well as the versatility of the designs.
Outside, the drying fabrics display the natural colorings used and if you visit on certain days, the staff will be weaving in full view of visitors. There is a small museum upstairs showcasing the modern creations as well as the history of the designs along with a shop on the ground floor.
There are four different hand-weaving workshops available and you can take your finished piece home on the day. The shorter courses offer a coaster or table center for 30-minutes and 1,500 yen or 50 minutes and 2,500 yen respectively. If you have a little longer, you could try a 90-minute class to make a large table center (3,500 yen) or a 4-hour class to make a tapestry piece (8,500 yen). Reservations are required and can be made over the phone between 9 am - 5 pm.
Address: 909 Tonoshiro, Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture 907-0004
Access: The shop is a 5-minute drive from the Ishigaki Ferry Terminal (or a 15-minute walk) and a 20-minute drive from the airport.
Hours: 9 am - 6 pm
Entry: Free for the museum and gallery, workshops range from 1,500 to 8,500 yen.
Booking: Required for workshops but not visits - can be made on 0980-82-3473 between 9 am - 5 pm.
Relax Over Dinner at Satsuki Izakaya
For a taste of local life, a cold beer and some of the best sashimi in town, Satsuki is the place to go. An izakaya with all the trimmings, Satsuki is in the heart of Ishigaki city, a few minutes walk from the ferry terminal. A cross between a bar and a restaurant, a Japanese izakaya is a relaxed and informal place perfect for groups. Surrounded by locals relaxing after a long day of work and visitors sampling the seafood, you can settle in for a night of good food and friend-ly neighbors.
Specializing in local Okinawa cuisine, the small plates and large sushi platters are perfect for sharing, with a host of seasonal options to try. Some must-try local dishes include goya (a bit-ter melon) ideally mixed into the local stir fry called chanpuru. There’s deep-fried and crunchy tofu, squid-ink rice and, of course, incredible sushi and sashimi, presented so beautifully you might struggle to dig in.
Address: 7-16 Misakicho, Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture 907-0012
Access: Satsuki is a 5-minute walk from the Ishigaki Ferry terminal.
Hours: Lunch: 11.30 am - 2 pm, Dinner: 5 pm - 11 pm.
Booking: Not required but advised, especially for groups or on Fridays or Saturdays. Reser-vations can be made over the phone: 0980-83-0980
Website: n/a (tabelog: https://tabelog.com/en/okinawa/A4705/A470501/47002283/)
Try Stargazing In Japan’s First Dark Sky Park
Hosted on the roof of the impressive Beach Hotel Sunshine, stargazing classes will teach you what to look for in the clear night skies. Acknowledged as Japan’s first ‘Dark Sky Park’, the Yaeyama Islands have incredible views of the milky way, constellations and planets above us. An international organization which protects the night skies of the world, the International Dark Sky Association recognized the rare quality of the island’s low-energy efforts and the clarity of the night views.
Using orange lights on the terraces so as not to distract young turtles, and using cleverly-angled lights to protect the skies, the hotel is keen to prevent light pollution on the islands. Their stargazing classes will not only help you spot world-recognized constellations but will teach you their names in Yaeyama dialect and the traditional stories behind them. With a tele-scope, you can spot the highlights of the evening sky as well as learning about the seasonal changes in the sky’s layout. If you’re lucky, shooting stars will cross your path and leave you with a wish for your trip.
Address: 2484 Arakawa, Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture 907-0024
Access: A 25-minute drive from the airport or a 10-minute drive from the Ishigaki Ferry Termi-nal.
Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 8.30 pm~ (April 1st ~ September 30th), 8 pm~ (October 1st ~ March 31st)
Entry: Adults: 2,500 yen (2,300 yen), Children: 2,000 yen (1,800 yen), Kids 5 or under: free *price shown are for those staying at Beach Hotel Sunshine
Booking: At reception by 5 pm on the day of the tour
Website: https://www.ishigakijima-sunshine.net/startour.html (Jap-anese only)
Transport on Ishigaki
The easiest way to explore Ishigaki is by rental car, but there are also bus services running relatively regularly. There are a wide selection of car rental agencies close to the airport in-cluding Nippon Rent-a-Car and Budget Car Rental .
If you plan on taking the bus, you can purchase a ‘Free Pass’ for one day (1000 yen) or five days (2000 yen), for unlimited use on all buses except the special sightseeing buses. Both versions of the pass are available to buy onboard using cash. The bus schedule is available online here but there are clearer English timetables available at the tourist information office.
It is also possible to explore some areas by bike, with rentals available from hotels and small shops dotted around the main town. If you are keen to cycle, nearby Taketomi is a very bike-friendly island to explore with few hills and plenty of beaches and sightseeing spots to visit.
Access to Ishigaki
There are no longer any ferry services connecting Japan or Okinawa with Ishigaki, although there are cruise ships from Taiwan. The only way to reach Ishigaki is by plane, using their re-cently renovated Painushima Ishigaki Airport. There are flights to and from Tokyo, Osaka, Chubu, Fukuoka, Okinawa, Hong Kong and Taiwan Airports, as well as the smaller islands of Miyako and Yonaguni island airports. The airport is located on the East side of Ishigaki’s main island and is accessible by bus with an airport shuttle service also available.
Ishigaki Ferry Terminal is a half-hour drive from the airport and there is a connecting bus ser-vice running every 15 minutes 7 am to 9 pm.
There are direct flights available from both Haneda and Narita Airport from airlines including Peach, ANA and JAL. The flight takes three and a half hours from Haneda and four hours from Narita.
Osaka has multiple daily direct flights from Peach, ANA and JAL which take just under three hours.