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After a beach break? There’s more to Japan than big cities, traditional towns, rural villages and ski slopes. Just look to the Okinawa archipelago.
“Where on Earth did you go stand up paddle boarding in Japan?!” Many people don’t realise that Japan has a tropical side, but in the Ryukyu Islands southwest of the country towards Taiwan, small islands with idyllic white sand beaches await.
Ishigaki, an island in the Yaeyama chain, southwest of Okinawa island, is the top 2018 trending travel destination on TripAdvisor. Domestic airlines fly several times a day from major cities and it takes just under 2 hours to get there from the hustle and bustle of Osaka.
Having been to Japan before, we wanted to take a break from cities with a beach holiday. Catching another flight with kids in tow can add to travel woes – especially when jet lagged – but it’s worth it to see a very different and contrasting side to Japan. We chose the island for its family friendly activities, incredible food options and the warm turquoise waters. With only a couple of resorts to choose from, it’s also not overdeveloped, and most places are uncrowded.
The day of our outgoing flight was grey and dreary with summer rain lashing down. After dreading the worst for our mini beach break, we stepped off the plane to thick humidity; the sun was intense and the heat stifling. I took a moment, “are we still in Japan?” After swapping the concrete jungle for palm trees and farms, the contrast in climate could not have been greater. Having learnt that a typhoon had seen it rain for an entire a week just before, we realised we had lucked out!
Getting around in Ishigaki
If you visit Ishigaki, I strongly recommend hiring a car to explore the island; taxis are expensive, and buses infrequent. For UK travellers, International Driving Permits can be processed on the day in most post offices and (an added bonus), the Japanese drive on the left too! The car hire firms were friendly and efficient, if not very proficient in English.
The well paved country roads were an easy drive – I expected nothing less in Japan – and with the aircon full blast, we set off for a 30-minute drive to the InterContinental Ishigaki Resort. The hotel is a perfect family retreat: classic seafront rooms are a generous size for a family of 4, with a small sofa bed perfect for children under 10; the outdoor pool was thoughtfully equipped with floats for children and even a slide; and the impressive creche was so immaculate we felt guilty letting our kids run riot in there! Being a father, I also appreciated free valet parking – it made getting in and out of the car with two toddlers (almost) effortless. The resort also provides a self-service coin laundry to save on the hotel laundry bill.
Stand up paddle boarding in Japan
While the kids were in the creche, I signed up for a morning of stand up paddle boarding (SUP) and snorkelling in waters so warm and crystal-clear, they could easily compete with the Caribbean. Before standing on the paddleboard, my guide Tomo asked if I had done this before. Trying to impress him I replied confidently, “no but I’ve surfed once before!” He looked at me perplexed, but politely said that would help…
He took photographs on a waterproof camera while I concentrated on balancing whilst paddling. I think he was just being nice when he said I was a natural… but I did only fall in once! After reaching some reefs and slipping on snorkelling gear, we saw coral teeming with fish – and even a few Nemos! It was my highlight of Ishigaki. In contrast, after two flights and a shinkansen (bullet train) ride, my wife was longing to relax and delighted with yoga on the beach at sunrise and treatments at the SPA Agarosa.
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Outside our resort, there were plenty of fascinating sights for the whole family. Kabira is an enclosed bay, famous for white sand beaches and turquoise waters. Touring the bay in a glass bottom boat, you can clearly see coral and sea life without getting wet – perfect for inquisitive kids! Look from the observation point for a bird’s eye view of the bay, and the viewpoint at the Tamatorizaki Observatory Point for sweeping panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean’s blue hues.
For a rainy morning or afternoon, I recommend the Ishigaki Yaima Village, a reconstructed village showcasing the local Yaima culture. Initially, I had doubts as it looked a bit “Disney”, but a variety of cultural experiences kept the kids thoroughly entertained. The highlight was seeing playful squirrel monkeys and having a kimono fitting – they certainly slept well that night!
Eating out in Ishigaki
It was surprisingly cheap to dine out in Ishigaki given that it was a Japanese island, but we were not surprised that the sashimi was the freshest we had ever tasted. Ishigaki is also renowned for beef that is arguably even better than the famous Kobe beef!
Fortunately, the concierge at the InterContinental Ishigaki Resort made lunch and dinner reservations 3 months prior to our arrival – most restaurants require advance bookings, even during off-peak season. My stand out favourite restaurants were Hitoshi Ishiganto – where I mistakenly ordered a sashimi platter for three people but managed to finish without assistance – and Sumibiyakiniku Yamamoto where I had mouth-watering tender beef.
Whilst we only scratched the surface of the Okinawa archipelago, our short visit to Ishigaki was a pleasant and relaxed introduction to the Yaeyama islands. For the more adventurous, neighbouring island Iriomote, largely covered in jungles and mangrove swamps, offers a variety of active pursuits such as kayaking and canyoning. We gave these a miss until our daughters were a bit older – a good excuse to go back!