At 1,956 km from Tokyo, Ishigaki is closer to Taiwan than to its own country’s mainland. The “stone wall island” is the gateway to the archipelago it forms with the islands of Iriomote, Taketomi, Hateruma, Kuroshima and Yonaguni. Ishigaki and the Yaeyama Islands are part of the Okinawa Prefecture, but the vibe here differs. It would be understandable to explore Okinawa Honto (the main island of Okinawa) first if you fancy to scuba dive in Okinawa like I did last year in June. From mid-February to mid-March, I came back to Okinawa and went diving in Ishigaki. Thanks to the fantastic choice of dive sites accessible to all levels of divers, I realised Ishigaki got to be the #1 scuba diving destination in Japan and here are the 10 reasons why.
1 – The Yaeyama Islands: a vast playground for scuba divers
The diving style in Ishigaki was utterly different from Okinawa Honto. In Ishigaki, you board your dive boat for the day for a relaxing 3-tank dive cruise among the many reefs of the Yaeyama Islands. Usually, in the winter, dive centres go south, mainly around Taketomi-jima and Kuroshima, because the winds blow from the north, and in the summer, they mostly go north to Kabira Bay and Kohama-jima when the winds blow the other way round. But any day during the year, winds can change, and as a result, in only 3 days of diving, you can have access to all the dive sites from Kabira Bay to Kuroshima.
2 – Diving with manta rays all year long
While other destinations in the world, especially Indonesia, are more famous for manta ray encounters, Ishigaki should also be on the list of the best spots on Earth with one of the highest encounter rates. Without a doubt Ishigaki is one of the best scuba diving destinations in Asia. Manta rays swim in Ishigaki waters all year-long:
- From December to April: the manta dive sites are in the south, near Kuroshima, Panari-jima and Kanakawa Bay in the south of Iriomote-jima.
- From May to November: the hotspot is the famous Kabira Bay, in the north side of Ishigaki, but also Yonara Channel between Iriomote-jima and Kohama-jima.
If you never met manta rays before and this is something dear to your heart, prefer summer season to winter season when you will have even more chances. In my case, we had to go to the south of Iriomote Island, which is more than an hour of boat from Ishigaki, as we couldn’t see them in Kuroshima. On a day when the winds were favourable to reach Kabira Bay, we didn’t see any manta ray either.
3 – Turtles on every dive in Kuroshima
I went diving 3 times near Kuroshima (which means black island in Japanese but has the shape of a heart view from the sky). It takes about 30 minutes to approach Kuroshima from Ishigaki port by boat. Every time, in a matter of minutes, one or two green turtles came to say hi!
Beyond these friendly encounters, Kuroshima was also where I went for one of my favourite dives around Ishigaki: Nakamoto Cave. It was mainly due to its resident baby shark which isn’t too shy. Besides the beautiful blue light coming from the entrance of this medium size sea cave, you will also find soldierfish, lobsters and cave goby which swims upside down!
4 – Macro photography heaven in Taketomi-jima
Taketomi Island, only 15 minutes away by boat from Ishigaki Harbour, is heaven for macro underwater photographers. While there is not much coral to look at, the sandy bottom near the east shore of Taketomi-jima is the home of a great diversity of macro critters. I was happy to count on the eagle eyes of my dive guide Sachi of Prime Scuba who loves macro critters as much as I do. She showed me a ribbon eel, a tiny coral crab, a coral hawkfish, a school of glassfish, bright pink anthias, a juvenile parrotfish, and many colourful blennies.
If you love nudibranchs, make sure to have Taketomi included in your scuba diving schedule. The dive site called “Potato Reef” was a nudibranch paradise. I found a Chromodoris Magnifica which looks like an underwater zebra, a Glossodoris Cruenta with its yellow dress with red dots, and a Chromodoris Willani that I decided to nickname the Blue Galaxy nudibranch. In Japanese, “umi ushi” (ウミウシ) means sea cow and is the word for sea slugs. I think I’ve never seen divers so passionate about them than in Japan.
5 – Diving in Ishigaki with giant cuttlefish during their spawning season
I had no idea about it before going to Ishigaki. Every year, at the beginning of March, you can observe the giant cuttlefish mating season in Osezaki Bay on the west coast of Ishigaki Island. It was mesmerising and nothing like I’ve seen before. If you stay still and breathe peacefully, they may approach you out of sheer curiosity. On the video below, you can see the male cuttlefish with stripes on their back and the female cuttlefish with dots on their backs. Female are carefully laying their eggs in the coral under the careful protection of their mate.
After diving in Osezaki Bay, I had the opportunity to scuba dive in Sakieba Bay, still on the west coast of Ishigaki. While most of the coral reefs I had seen on previous dives had unfortunately much suffered, there, corals were colourful and thriving. If you are interested in coral conservation, the WWF coral village in Shiraho Village, on Ishigaki Island, was a comprehensive visit to understand how WWF Japan and local farmers are trying to tackle the problem of chemical run-offs that can damage coral reefs. According to the WWF website, a massive invasion of crown-of-thorns starfish has also massively impacted the reefs around Ishigaki.
6 – Kabira Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in Japan
It is the most visited site of Ishigaki for some good reasons: dozen of green islets surrounded by gorgeous shades of blue and turquoise. Be careful, swimming in Kabira Bay is not permitted due to the cultivation of black pearl in the bay. However, you can take a long walk following the beach and even dip your toes in the water. As a scuba diver, there is very little interest to board one of the glass bottom boat as the shallow part of the bay where they take their passengers doesn’t show a coral reef at its best shape. Before enjoying the view make sure to have a look at the Kannon Temple, built in the 17th century, it is small but elegantly surrounded by trees. After your visit, the restaurant Koenchaya serves traditional Okinawan dishes such as soba noodle soup or champuru vegetable stir-fry, and homemade ice-cream coming in many different flavours.
Kabira Bay being one of the most beautiful spots of the island is also the most touristic one. If you want it almost for yourself, visiting it during low season like me in March is your best bet. There is a small paid car park which I can imagine must fill up quickly in high-season. So an excellent way to go around is either to stay in Kabira a night or two (see my recommendation below) as hotels and guesthouses offer free parking or to come by bus from Ishigaki City.
7 – A foodie heaven in Ishigaki City
Considering the population of Ishigaki, only 50,000, which is to Japanese standards, low, the number of cafés and izakayas is just incredible. There is something for everyone and all budgets. Whether you are looking to slurp traditional Yaeyama soba noodles for as little as 700¥ or want to splurge on an Okinawan style brunch with an ocean view. While searching for the best places to eat in Ishigaki, I discovered something unexpected about Japan. Ishigaki is an escape for many Japanese people running away from a too stressful life in Tokyo or Osaka or the cold weather from Hokkaido. Hence, about half of the owners I talked to were coming from other prefectures of Japan. They told me their stories on how they came the first time to Ishigaki, fell in love with the island and decided to move as soon as they could open their own business. Note I was having these conversations in Japanese, so the izakayas of Ishigaki will always remain a special memory as the place where I could finally use my Japanese for the exact reason I am studying it.
Here is the list of my favourite addresses in Ishigaki:
- Painushima: This teishoku restaurant (set meal on a tray) offers cheap and delicious traditional Okinawan meals for lunch and dinner, with prices starting at 700 ¥ (about £5 / 5.50€).
- Ichigyoichie: There is a cover charge of 400 ¥, but their sashimi plate (1200 ¥, about £8 / 9.50€) with a serve of umi budo (sea grape, a delicious crispy seaweed nicknamed green caviar, 600 ¥) was fresh and delicious.
- Yaeyama Soba Yumenoya: This Okinawan Soba noodles restaurant located on the harbour of Ishigaki offers two delicious veggie options with fresh tofu or vegetables only from 700 ¥ (about £5 / 5.50€, note the light broth is not strictly vegetarian).
- Blue Café: In the same building as Blue Cabin where I stayed for a week, I enjoy working in this large stylish and cosy café on a rainy day with a warm cup of coffee and a slice of matcha cake. Cake set with drinks at 800 ¥ (about £5.50 / 6.50€).
- Waizu Café: Not easy to find at all; I almost entered a private home while looking for it! A former salaryman decided to retire in Ishigaki and share his love for single origin coffee in his cosy tatami lounge. The most relaxing experience I had in Ishigaki for 500 ¥ (about £3.50 / 4€). The host is an absolutely sweet-heart who speaks good English. Food options are limited to 2 choices of cake.
- Tofu Higa: In the middle of the cow fields on the outskirts of Ishigaki City, lies the best address for tofu lovers! To enjoy the delicious tofu breakfast at only 350 ¥ (about £2.50 / 3€), you will need to get up early because even if they are open until 3 pm, they usually run out of stock after 11 am. I walked about 20 minutes at 7.00 am one morning, but my bowl of warm fresh tofu, with a bowl of rice and a glass of fresh soy milk, was well worth it.
8 – Jungle immersion in Banna Park
During my mini road trip in the north of the island, I was quite disappointed by the Yonahara Palm Community as the trail is ridiculously short and takes less than 10 minutes to walk and back! I didn’t consider Banna Park until the end of my stay in Ishigaki. I thought it would just be a random city park. I was wrong. It’s a vast nature park where natural ecosystems of Ishigaki flourish. Ishigaki is home of thousands of butterfly so if you want to take a chance to take pictures of them Banna Park is the place to go. Entrance is free.
From the south observatory, reachable climbing 564 steps that seem endless if you park your car at the west car park like me or directly by car if you feel lazy. From there you can get a 360° view of Ishigaki Island, and on a clear day, you can see most of the Yaeyama Islands. I was too early in the season, but a few weeks later, from mid-March to May, 30 minutes after sunset, you can see fireflies in the D area of the park.
9 – Taketomi Island, the most charming island in Okinawa
Taketomi Island is so close to Ishigaki Harbour, only 15 minutes with the ferry, that it is way easier to reach that some sites in the north of the island. But Taketomi is more than your regular day trip. Taketomi-jima is the most charming island I visited in the prefecture of Okinawa. In the centre, the village preserved their traditional Okinawan houses, with their red tiles, shisa lion on the roof and bougainvillaea and hibiscus flowers decorating the stone wall surrounding each property. The best way to explore this island is by foot or bicycle. The island is small so 24 hours is enough to explore it all.
The local community of the island, made everything they could to protect their culture. You won’t find any supermarket or convenience store on the island; they are forbidden. The beautiful information centre near the ferry terminal is the best way to learn about their history and traditions; English translations are available.
Taketomi-jima is also the home of one of the most beautiful beaches in Okinawa and Japan, Kondoi Beach, on its west shore. I recommend staying overnight to enjoy a stunning sunset, stargazing in total darkness and quiet morning in the streets of the village before the first ferry with groups arrives.
I stayed at Taketojima Guesthouse in a private twin room. It was tiny, comfort and intimacy were limited considering the price; I was glad I paid the small price difference with the dorm. However, the atmosphere between guests and the manager was excellent. Every day he would drive us to Kondoi Beach to watch the sunset and walk with us to see the stars if the weather allowed after offering drinks and snack to everyone. There are more comfortable options on the island, but they are way more expensive too.
10 – Sunset above Iriomote Island
It was only on the last day of my one month stay in the Yaeyama Islands that the weather conditions were finally perfect for enjoying a magnificent sunset on Kondoi Beach. The beach is easily accessible by bicycle once you are on the Taketomi Island.
At the westernmost tip of Ishigaki Island, Oganzaki Cape is majestic with its rocks falling into the sea and a view of Sukuji Beach behind. It was my favourite spot on Ishigaki Island for sunset, even if the day I went, the sunset was only partial and the winds strong.
In both cases, the sun is setting above Iriomote Island, the second biggest island in the Okinawa Prefecture after Okinawa Honto, which explains why you can see it from both sites.
Who to dive with in Ishigaki?
I had the opportunity to dive with two dive centres during my one-month stay in Ishigaki, Pushynushima and Prime Scuba. I appreciated Pushynushima central location on Ishigaki Harbour and their large scuba diving boat allowing them to go further like the south shore of Iriomote (this is thanks to them I could dive with manta rays), but if you don’t speak a bit of Japanese, communication can be complicated. So I prefer to recommend you to book with Prime Scuba. Their fun and professional international team speak perfect English. Their boat, the Blue Swan, is perfectly organised with all their rental gear on board, a changing area, fresh towels, and every day at noon they set up the kitchen to prepare lunch for their guests (and this way avoid plastic bento box). Their dive centre is near Maesato Beach, but they come to pick you up in the morning at your hotel and drive you directly to the harbour.
345-9 Maezato, Ishigaki 907-0002, Okinawa
Phone: +81 980 87 5980
When to go to Ishigaki?
- Winter season (December-April): While the air temperature was a pleasant 23/25°C and the water temperature around 24°C, to get sunshine on this pictures, I have to admit I worked my photo shooting schedule closely with my weather forecast app. I don’t regret coming that early in the season as I wanted to combine Ishigaki with the hammerhead sharks migration in Yonaguni which only happens at the beginning of the year from mid-January to mid-March. Something else to take into account, beaches are closed during the winter season.
- Summer Season (May-September): the hottest, most crowded, most expensive and high typhoon risk reason (especially June and September). If you want to save money and avoid the typhoons, better to avoid. Air temperature is between 27 and 34°C, and the water temperature between 26 and 30°C. Think also to check the exact dates of Golden Week (end of April, beginning ofMay) and Obon (beginning of August), when almost all Japanese people are on holiday for a week, and avoid it.
- Autumn (October- November): Everyone I met living on Ishigaki tends to agree, Fall is the best season from every point of view and especially October. Air temperature is between 26 and 28°C, and the water temperature between 26 and 28°C.
How to go to and from Ishigaki?
Ishigaki is easily accessible with direct flights from Tokyo (3 hours), Osaka, Taipei or Hong-Kong thanks to Painushima International Airport. Foreign visitors on a tourist visa who have an international return flight ticket to Japan can get special fares on domestic flights in Japan with the ANA Experience fare or the JAL Explorer Pass. This way, you can easily visit the islands of Okinawa as part of a two-week holiday in Japan as you can come from Tokyo and go back to Osaka which is near Kyoto for example.
Once in Ishigaki, you can explore all of the Yaeyama Islands by taking ferries for 10 minutes to 4 hours. This is what I did to explore the islands of Yonaguni and Taketomi. Here are below the travelling times and fares at the time of my visit. For Taketomi and Yonaguni there is no need to book in advance, but for the other islands, it is recommended to at least book the day before:
- Taketomi: 15 minutes, 1330 ¥ return trip (about £9 / 10.50€)
- Iriomote: 40 minutes, 3,440 ¥ return trip (about £24 / 27€)
- Hateruma: 70 minutes, 6,790 ¥ return trip (about £47 / 54€)
- Yonaguni: 4 hours and 15 minutes, 6,700 ¥ (about £46 / 53€) return ticket, only twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays
How to travel around Ishigaki?
- By bicycle: you can rent a bicycle for 700 to 1000 ¥ (about £7 / 8€) a day. From Ishigaki City, the southern part of the island is flat and accessible. I recommend a 20 km tour to explore Fusaki Beach area which takes about half a day.
- By bus: I used buses to go on the east side and visit Shiraho Village and Maesato Beach. Thanks to the airport bus line, the only one to have frequent buses, it was convenient. You can get bus passes for 1000 ¥ (about £7 / 8€) a day or 2000 ¥ (about £14 / 16€) for 5 days. At first, I thought I would only use the buses but the timetable to go north to see Hirakubo Lighthouse, for instance, wasn’t convenient so I decided to rent a car instead for a couple of days.
- By car: I wasn’t so much impressed by the sites in the north of the island even if I loved driving on its quiet roads with the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other side. Since my favourite spot of my mini road trip, Kabira Bay is accessible by 5 buses every day; I didn’t find it so worth the time and money to rent a car in the end, except if you are on an extended stay like me and want to explore everything. Besides, you want to make sure you have the appropriate international driving licence, in my case, as a French citizen, I had to do an official translation at the Automotive Federation (JAF) in Tokyo for 3000 ¥. I rented a car at Kumanomi Rentacar for 10,500¥ (about £72 / 83€) for 3 days and paid about 3000¥ (about £21 / 24€) for fuel.
Where to stay in Ishigaki?
During my 3 weeks in Ishigaki, I stayed at 3 locations that were comfortable and budget-friendly. I spent most of my time in Ishigaki city as it was the only place in low season where all shops and restaurants were all open.
- Blue Cabin: The best value for money considering the location, right next to the ferry terminal. More like a capsule hotel than a hostel, it is modern and spotless. Men have access to a sento (public bath), and ladies have access to two private jacuzzi rooms. Although the cabin has all the space to the ceiling contrary to a capsule hotel, the lack of space especially for my luggage and the lack of a proper guest lounge with access to a kitchen was the reason I started to look for another place to stay. But if you stay only a couple of days, it will be good enough, and you will be close to all the best izakayas in town. Bonus, they have a scuba diving gear drying space.
- Chura Cucule Hostel: This design and cosy hostel is a bit further away, about 10 minutes walking from the town centre. This is where I moved after Blue Cabin. What looked like a disadvantage was, in the end, a benefit. I was further from the souvenir shops and closer to lots of local shops. I made good use of their fully equipped kitchen thanks to the proximity of the JA Farmer’s market and enjoyed way more space in my single room for slightly cheaper than at Blue Cabin. Without a doubt, Chura Cucule is one of the best hostels I have stayed at in Japan.
- Sora Yado Guesthouse: My address in Kabira. They offer western twin rooms and Japanese tatami rooms in a lovely 1 story house with a view of the swimming pool of the neighbour dive centre. It is conveniently located halfway between Kabira Bay and Sukuji Beach. I stayed 3 nights as a base during my mini road trip around Ishigaki Island. Note they offer free parking, which is not the case when you stay in Ishigaki City. I also advise you to go grocery shopping before leaving Ishigaki City.
If you are looking for something more luxurious, I recommend Fusaki Beach or Maesato Beach where the splendid ANA Intercontinental Resort is located. These places are outside of the town centre but at the same time close enough for when you want to go out.
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This article was written in partnership with the tourism and convention bureau of Okinawa. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly. Photo credits: Sachi of Prime Scuba took some of the manta rays and macro pictures in this article.
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