Upon my return from our second family holiday in Japan, I was asked what I got up to. Among my list, I mentioned SUP in Ishigaki. One popular response was “Where the heck do you do SUP in Japan??”. It seems that many people are not aware of the tropical beach side to Japan in the Ryukyu Islands southwest of Japan towards Taiwan which consist of small islands with idyllic white sand beaches. Even the Japanese perceive Ishigaki as exotic! Given, we had been to Japan before we wanted to punctuate a city break with a beach holiday. There is no doubt it is adding to the travel woes to catch another flight with kids in tow especially when everyone’s still jetlagged but it’s worth it to see a very different and contrasting side to Japan where the locals go for their staycation. With that in mind after a bit of research we settled for Ishigaki. Ishigaki is a a stunning island in Japan's Okinawa archipelago and is the top trending travel destination for 2018 on TripAdvisor. We chose Ishigaki for the family friendly activities, incredible food options and the warm turquoise waters.
There are several domestic airlines which fly several times a day to Ishigaki from the major cities in mainland Japan. We departed from Osaka as we were planning day trips from Osaka on our return. The flight would take just under 2 hours from the hustle and bustle. On the day of our outgoing flight, it was grey, dreary and the summer rain lashed down. We dreaded the worst for our mini beach break! June in Japan is considered to be rainy season but we thought we would chance it as it was still technically shoulder season. As we stepped off the plane the first thing that hit us was the humidity. I had to take a moment and question: “Are we still in Japan?”. The contrast in climates could not have been greater. We had left a concrete jungle to palm trees and farms. I was drawn to Ishigaki based on the fact that it was not over developed. There were only a couple of resorts to choose from and most places were not crowded. Ishigaki and its open spaces would be a welcome break.
The sun was intense and the heat was stifling. We later learnt that there was a typhoon the week before where it rained for a week. We had lucked out. If you are planning to visit Ishigaki, I strongly recommend that you hire a car to explore the island whether you have kids with you or not. Taxis are expensive and the buses are infrequent. The Japanese car hire firms were friendly and efficient although not very proficient in English. Don’t forget your International Driving Permit which you can easily process on the day in most post offices back in the UK. An added bonus is that the Japanese drive on the left too!
So with the aircon on full blast we set off for a 30 minute drive to the InterContinental Ishigaki Resort where we were staying for the next 3 nights. The roads were easy to drive, mostly country roads but well paved. I expected nothing less given I was still in Japan after all. The InterContinental Ishigaki Resort was a perfect family retreat. They had really thought out the whole hotel with the family in mind. The classic seafront rooms were a generous size for a family of 4 with small sofa bed perfect for children under 10. The outdoor pool was thoughtfully equipped with floats for children and even a slide. The impressive creche was so immaculate we felt guilty letting our kids run riot in there! Being a father, I actually appreciated the free valet parking which made getting in and out of the car with two toddlers almost effortless. The resort also provides a self-service coin laundry and save on the hotel laundry bill.
As I mentioned the InterContinental Ishigaki Resort caters for all the family. Whilst the kids were in the creche for the morning, I signed up to a morning of Stand Up Paddle boarding (SUP) and snorkelling tour. The warm ocean was crystal clear and easily competes with the Caribbean sea. Before we even stood up on the paddleboard, my guide Tomo asked me 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! The tour was one-on-one and Tomo had a waterproof camera to take photos of me whilst I concentrated on balancing whilst paddling! I think my guide Tomo was just being nice when he said I was a natural…(I did only fall in once!). We paddled to some reefs and slipped on our snorkelling gear to see the coral teeming with fish and even a few Nemos! It was my highlight of Ishigaki. In contrast, after two flights and not to mention a Shinkansen ride to Osaka, my wife was longing for more relaxing activities. She was delighted with the treatments at the in-house SPA Agarosa and Yoga on the beach at sunrise.
Outside of our resort we there were plenty of fascinating sights for all the family. We first set off for Kabira Bay, an enclosed bay famous for its white sand beaches and turquoise waters. The only way to tour the bay is by a glass bottom boat where you can clearly see the coral and sea life without getting wet. It’s perfect for inquisitive kids! Don’t forget to take a view from the observation point for a bird’s eye view of the bay. Another unmissable viewpoint on the island is at the Tamatorizaki Observatory Point where you can get a sweeping panoramic view of Ishigaki island. Here you can marvel at the different hues of blues in the Pacific Ocean.
For a rainy morning or afternoon, I would highly recommend the Ishigaki Yaima Village, a reconstructed village which showcases the local Yaima culture. Initially, I had my doubts as it looked a bit “Disney” but the variety of cultural experiences kept the kids thoroughly entertained, the highlight being the playful Squirrel Monkeys and the kimono fitting. They slept well that night.
It was surprisingly cheap to dine out in Ishigaki given that it was on an island and in Japan. It did not come as a surprise that the sashimi was the freshest I tasted. However, Ishigaki is also renowned for the cattle raised on this little island and the beef it produces. It is arguably even better than the famous Kobe beef. Fortunately, the concierge at the InterContinental Ishigaki Resort had already made lunch and dinner reservations 3 months prior to arrival. I recommend reservations as most restaurants require advance bookings even during the off peak season. My stand out favourites were Hitoshi Ishiganto where I mistakenly ordered a sashimi platter for three persons but still managed to finish it without assistance and Sumibiyakiniku Yamamoto for the mouth-watering tender beef!
Our short visit to Ishigaki was a pleasant and relaxed introduction to the Yaeyama islands whilst only scratching the surface of the Okinawa archipelago. For the more adventurous, the neighbouring island Iriomote which is mainly covered in jungles and mangrove swamps offered a variety of active pursuits such as kayaking and canyoning. We gave these a miss until our daughters were a bit older so we will be back!