Ishigaki, like Naha, is located in the Okinawa Prefecture, but it is on an island further south, and over 400 km away (which is about 1 hour by plane). I (Merge) however, was traveling by ship, and given that Ishigaki is home to beautiful secluded beaches, extensive limestone caves, forested mountains with great vistas, and one of Japan’s top three views at Kabira Bay, I was delighted that it was on the Westerdam’s itinerary. Also, I was looking forward to learning more about the traditional Ryukyuan culture that it is known for. My research had told me that as the principal island of the Yaeyama archipelago, Ishigaki was not only a key transportation and tourism hub but also a treasure trove of unique attractions. In particular, I was looking forward to the Stalactite Caves, the Yaima Village, and of course, Kabira Bay.
I had planned to meet up with Jose, another cruise passenger, to share a taxi tour around the island, but we also met Joyce at the taxi stand, and she joined us for the day. The three of us piled into a taxi and even though our driver spoke very little English, we were able to communicate by using the Google Translate app on our phones. Our driver suggested that we let her take us to all the top sights, and we agreed. Our first stop was the Stalactite Caves, a geological marvel showcasing impressive limestone formations, which offered a glimpse into the island’s ancient natural history. Some of the formations were lit up with coloured lights which made them look even more unusual.
Our next stop was Banna Garden, an expansive park showcasing a diverse natural environment. Our driver took us to one of the high observation platforms that gave us panoramic views of the city and the surrounding landscapes.
We then went on to Yaima Village, which I was really looking forward to for two reasons. One, it is known for providing an immersive experience into traditional Ryukyuan culture. Six houses, dating from the early 1900s, have been relocated here and set up as mini-museums, each highlighting different aspects of the island’s deep-rooted customs and lifestyle. And two, the Squirrel Monkey Garden is located on the grounds of the Yaima Village.
The first house we visited was the Uechi house, a restored farmer’s house. It had some interesting exhibits including a sugar cane press (shitoguruma), traditionally powered by water buffalo.
As we made our way to the second house, the Kishaba residence, the Squirrel Monkey Garden was on our way so we stepped in for a quick visit. Or so I thought! The squirrel monkeys were adorable – cute and endearing – and I couldn’t pull myself away. I am absolutely smitten, besotted, head-over-heels in love with these delightful little primates, and I got down on the ground and wandered through the garden, surrounded by these beautiful animals. Their scientific name is Saimiri boliviensis, more commonly known as Bolivian squirrel monkeys, and despite being in a wild environment, they are used to being around humans, and so incredibly friendly. They loved it when I stroked the back of their hands! I sent Jose and Joyce off to look at the other houses in the rest of the village, and told them to pick me up on their way out! Much to my disappointment, they were back in 45 minutes, despite my prompting that they could explore for longer! I never did see the rest of Yaima Village!
As I trudged my way back to the taxi, I was only partially comforted by the fact that next on our tour agenda was Kabira Bay. Kabira Bay is not only known for its crystal-clear waters and vibrant coral reefs, but also has the distinction of being one of the top three beautiful bays in Japan. They’re not lying, the turquoise blue is of a shade I cannot recall ever seeing before. The bay is a protected area, and swimming and snorkeling are prohibited in order to preserve its delicate marine ecosystem. However, you can go on a glass-bottom boat tour, which we did. Unfortunately, the water was not as clear as I had hoped, and my photographs don’t do it justice.
Joyce really wanted to go to a restaurant for lunch that served Ishigaki Kobe beef, and our driver recommended one in town. However, on our way there, she made a stop in Arakawa, northwest of Ishigaki town, just so we could get some more panoramas from a different viewpoint.
Once we were back in town, our driver dropped us off for a late lunch at Yakiniku Otsuka Honten, a restaurant known for serving great Ishigaki beef. The meat and sides are brought out to you, and you cook them on a grill right at your table, Teppanyaki style. While I enjoyed my meal of grilled thinly sliced loin, I am not a big meat eater, so I can’t tell you whether this was better than most. But my lunch companions raved about how tender and delicious the meat was, so I would recommend this place based on their feedback.
As I made my way back to the cruise ship, I realized that this was my last stop in Japan on this cruise. Sayōnara Nihon! Tomorrow, Taiwan!