For the second chapter of the trip we picked the southermost islands of Japan as a way to rest, enjoy being in the nature and possibly get a bit of sun. It was basically perfect.
DAY 5_ ISHIGAKI THEN TAKETOMI
The taxi driver was waiting for us perfectly on time at our door step to bring us to the station and catch a limousine shuttle to the airport. It turned out to be very easy to buy the tickets, load our stuff and get to the airport by the most direct route. Once at the airport, we got overwhelmed by how neat, organized and easy the whole procedure was. There was no queue, no rush, smooth, fast and precise service.
While waiting for the flight we realized that, beside another couple, we were the only non-Japanese and it felt very nice, it really meant that we were flying local.
We arrived in a half-sunny Ishigaki and by bus reached the city center to then walk to our accommodation, Hostel Chura Cucule. I wanted to try the capsule accommodation but at the same time felt already claustrophobic at the idea so we opted for this option: a small partition room, 1,5m wide and 3 m long, with plenty of height. The cool thing is that they have two separate wings for man and woman so we spent the following nights separately and in our own personal nests. While booking, we thought it would be funny; when we were almost there, we started thinking that it was stupid and once there we found it simply genius.
Since we couldn’t check in till 15:00 we decided to go for a quick lunch at Men’ya Yaeyama Style where we experienced for the first time the automatic ordering machines (look at the pictures, decide, put cash, select and wait; easy) and from there we went directly to Taketomi, the closest, smallest island next to Ishigaki.
Already at the ferry we could distinguish the local and foreign tourist: regular clothes vs beach wear was a funny contrast to see.
We arrived very quickly and didn’t expect that renting bike would be a bit of a complex task. There are no bike rentals at the port and several companies offer shuttle rides to their shops in the nearby village. We didn’t know so we just walked and in only 15 minutes we were in the center of the island and at the closest rental shop. It was a beautiful path of lush vegetation so we didn’t mind, and all in all I think I even preferred it over a car ride in the tropical heat.
We got out tiny bikes and discovered that we could return them the latest at 17:20 (while the last ferry is at 18:15), I guess it happened too many times that tourists wanted to use the bikes till the last moment and ended up stock on the island.
Anyways, we were given a map with a suggested route of 1 hour around the island. I think it took us 30 minutes including some D tours. We stopped plenty of times along the way to look at the vegetation and the beautiful beaches.
The Kaiji Beach or star sand beach on the south of the island is a tiny stretch of white sand and almost volcanic rocks. As the name suggests, the particularity is that the sand grains are in star shape, quite pretty I should say.
From there we cycled to the Kondoi Beach on the west of the island overlooking the nearby island of Iriomote. It’s undeniably a beautiful place it’s not as mind blowing as I expected it and the temperature of the water was disturbingly high, like hot-bath hot. So after a brief swim and some laying on the beach watching people bathing fully dressed we finally understood the policy “don’t ride the bike or enter the shuttle while wet” and headed back to the city center, dropped the bikes, drank tons of water and took the shuttle to the ferry.
We reached smoothly the port of Ishigaki, took a break and decided to go for dinner. We stopped at a Singaporean restaurant, Tsuru shōten, because they promised salads and after an interesting meal made of a coriander salad and barely cooked chicken on steamed rice, we walked a bit around and called it a day.
There are 4 ferries a day to get to Hateruma, the furthest island on the south of Japan, and we wanted to catch the first one. We arrived at the port after a small breakfast and took the ferry that left precisely at 8:30 and took over 1 hour and a half to reach the destination.
Once in the port of Hateruma we immediately asked how bike rentals and they looked at us confused pointing at a rental shop literally 50 m away. That was easier than in Taketomi.
We got our bikes, a map in the weirdest proportions and started cycling.
Because we strongly believe in the “but first coffee” philosophy, we decided to start our itinerary passing through the village. I had checked and I knew there were few options so we just stopped at the first one, the Kukuro Café. It was really a lovely place with a tropical vibe and chill atmosphere. We ordered two iced coffee and everything became immediately perfect.
Refreshed, in a very humid and surely above 30degrees climate, we started cycling south.
Passing fields, herds of cows, random goats and many trees full of fruits we arrived at The Southernmost Monument Of Japan that commemorates the addition of Hateruma to Japan from the Philippines and made it its most south point.
The view of the open sea, the greenness of the surrounding nature and the cliffs over the water were stunning.
With a mild wind we kept on going east along the coast till we arrived at the crossing to the Nishihama Beach. Because we were extremely thirsty and decently hungry we stopped at a very small kiosk, Parlor Boo Boo. We ordered Japanese ice tea, a rice and pork bowl and a very nice soft ice cream which was almost unsweetened but came with home-made syrup from the sugar canes that grow on the island.
Feeling human again, we went downhill to the beach and already from the first sight it was stunning. We hang our stuff from a tree and immediately jumped in the cold, crystal clear water.
We staid like this for a while and when we felt like it we took our bikes and cycled to a café very close by, Para Minpika. We arrived there, took a seat in the pretty garden in the back surrounded by banana trees and we ordered jasmine ice tea, lime-like lemonade and almond pudding. Since we were not really hungry that was just perfect. When I was at the counter to pay I also notice extremely cute pins for sale and I had to buy a couple as perfect souvenirs.
The owner looked very happy to explain the meaning of each pin and when we were on the way out he stopped us and invited us to take some bananas from his harvest. It was simply very nice.
We were slightly early for the ferry but still decided to head back, drop the bikes and go to the station to find some quick warm food. Nobody was at the bike shop so we just left the bikes in the yard and left to the port. There is only one place where to order food, Umi Hata, and we read online that their Yaeyama-soba was good so Sourena went for it and I peacefully seat at a table in the shadow.
I was looking at the clouds when a man from the table next to us passed me salt and an egg. More than confused he managed to explain that it was a gift to us. That didn’t help the confusion but I happily accepted them and kept on bowing.
When Sourena came back a soba bowl was passed to us through the window and I transferred the confusion explaining the reason there was an egg on the table waiting for him. He also thanked the neighbors with extra bows and enjoyed the extra proteins.
We were not really ready for the rough ferry ride back, but we managed laying around for the whole ride and arrived safely in Ishigaki.
After a shower we headed out for dinner and I got inspired to stop at Euglena Garden for two reasons: they had salads and they had pizza. We ordered two of the first and one of the latter and we weren’t disappointed: the pizza was horrible, but it was really cool to see what they considered pizza. I later realized that you can eventually find Japanese food abroad but surely you are not going to find Japanese style Italian pizza, I was happy with the experiment, Sourena a bit less.
At around 21:30 we got out of the restaurant with the idea of going for cocktails, we passed in front of many nice places, but realized that it must have been too early for cocktails since they were all very empty and ended up just chilling at the hostel where we started chatting with people: many single travellers of all ages and almost all of them Japanese.
We got a lot of nice insights about Japanese society and we were glad we had booked a hostel because we would have never had the chance to meet so many interesting people otherwise.
We left the exploration of Ishigaki for the last day and we were beyond lucky that the weather lasted that nicely for our whole stay since rain season was about to start.
We took it easy in the morning and we went on a small mission: fruit. I have never seen anybody so excited about fruit as Sourena and the lack of it in the previous days was becoming heavy so I looked and found two places: the Yurateiku Market and the Fruit Jewelry Factory.
The first one is a farmers market where local productions are selected and sold: fruit, vegetables, but also jams, tofu, salt, rice balls, rice cakes, spices, doughnuts and flowers, plants, many things.
We ended up buying our lunch to go, a stock of greens and some random things. After all that, by the time we arrived at the Fruit Jewelry Factory we had satisfied our fruit desire and ordered coffee instead of the variety of jelly, ice cream, cakes and more all made from fresh fruit.
We took our order to go and arrived at the bus terminal to discover that we to wait 45 minutes for the first bus to the Kabira Bay, a bit too long.
Since we didn’t really have a plan B we decided to give car rental a try even though none of us had an international driving license. We had heard from another traveller met on the ferry about this place very close by so we just went and to my surprise we got a car without problems.
I was a bit concerned by the idea of driving on the “wrong” side of the street, but luckily the traffic was so slow and calm that it went quite smooth, I just kept on turning on the windscreen wiper instead of giving signals.
Having the car we had all the flexibility to decide the itinerary so we decide to make a loop passing through the island and driving along its west coast. We started by driving north to the the Yonehara Beach. The way was gorgeous and, as usual, we had the beach almost for ourselves and from there we could enjoy the beautiful scenery all around: rocky hills covered in thick vegetation till the sea.
From there we drove to the Kabira Bay, the most famous beach that unfortunately is not accessible because used as pearl cultivation. We had our picnic in the shadow of the trees, walked around and decided to go the Sukuji Beach to swim and cool down a bit.
To our disappointment the tide was so low that the water line had moved hundreds of meters back and it was really difficult to reach it so we decided to try out luck and drive a bit around and see if we could find another access to the sea.
Long story short, we couldn’t. Sceneries, landscapes and roads made up for it though since they were stunning.
I returned the car with the biggest proud smile and I think that the guy there noticed because he asked if we wanted to take a picture with the car, so we did.
We had explored enough for a day, but I still had one thing on my wish list: to try the famous salt ice cream. I had read that one of the best places was Miru Miru, a small shop overlooking the see from a hill at sunset. I couldn’t miss that.
We struggled a bit more than planned to find a bike big enough for Sourena to comfortably cycle 12km, but at the end we made it. It was challenging, like physically challenging to go all the way up the steep hill, but very beautiful and rewarding.
The ice cream was amazing as it was the view and that convinced us to ignore the closing hours of the rental shop to return the bikes and staid till after sun set. We then cycled easily back amazed by how quickly darkness was coming and once in town we went for dinner at a traditional sushi place, Sushi Taro.
Super satisfied with the day we walked back to the hostel and spent some extra time exchanging tips with the fellow guests and drinking fresh green tea. It was a real treat after a long day and we hoped to wake up early enough to explore some more before flying to Tokyo.
Sourena had planned to wake up early and take his racing bike for tour outside the city; I called him crazy and denied I would join.
At the end it was the opposite: he kept on sleeping and I took his bike to the best homemade tofu shop and restaurant in Ishigaki. Tofu Higa is so famous that by 8:30, when I arrived, they had sold out and closed for the day.
I took it as a sign and purely enjoyed the ride, the nature, a small cemetery, the view of the city from the hill and some traditional spots in the center.
I went back and made Sourena jealous while we finished packing for the next chapter of the trip.