Ishigaki, Japan: what to do in Ishigaki for free

Almost everything we planned on doing on our holiday weekend went wrong, but took a turn for the best. We learned to go with the flow and learned the importance of traveling: the people you meet.

I went to Ishigaki island (part of the Okinawan prefecture and the Yaeyama island chain) last May with my friends. I was instantly in love and knew I had to take Daniel back again. Travel restrictions for us finally lifted in late June so we planned to take a quick hop to Ishigaki, just a 50 minute airplane ride. It took us DAYS to book the tickets and three booking agencies to finally get tickets. We almost called it quits from the get go. Then, we had an issue with our house-sitter which was quickly resolved by the kindness of our neighbors.

Oganzaki Lighthouse

Anyway, July 3rd quickly approached and we made it to Ishigaki. All the memories came flooding back and I was so excited to be on this little piece of paradise again. We had lunch, checked out a few local sites, and went to check in to our Airbnb. That is when the first unexpected thing happened: it was a shared home. We were under the impression that it was a full place to ourselves and had never done a shared home before. We were a bit upset about it, but went along with it. Turns out, it was one of the best mistakes we made the whole trip, but more on that later. We briefly talked to our hosts at 435, made dinner, and then took off to see some more sights for sunset.

野底岳展望台 Observation Deck

The next day was quite the disaster. We ferried to another island, Iriomote, one of the most untouched places in all of Japan. We planned to take a riverboat tour, go river trekking, learn about animals at the nature center, and see lots of waterfalls. We didn’t do any of that. We arrive to Iriomote and every car rental place was sold out of cars AND scooters AND bikes. Either that or they would not take our special license we have that every other car rental places accepts. We were stranded on the second largest island in Okinawa with no way around and it was 108F. So, we started walking. We were so fortunate to find one of the only bus stops just 10 minutes before the bus came. If we missed that bus, it wouldn’t be back.

On top of Mt. Mape

We planned on doing the river trek anyway. Their website the day before said “we are currently not doing reservations so just show up 10 minutes before your planned time.” But, when I checked their website that day, they showed it was already booked. All our plans for the day, gone. So, we hit up the closest beach to chill, eat our snacks, fly the drone, and check out a bit of the wildlife.

After the beach, we were beat. We had been out in the heat for about three hours at this point and just really wanted a cold drink. Thankfully, Japan is land of vending machines, so we planned on just getting a canned juice. But, we stumbled upon a fruit stand/cafe. They were so welcoming even though we were gross from being outside AND they were so sweet and considerate about our diets. After explaining our restrictions, they completely made their dishes into something we could still enjoy. The thought and time they put into our meals that day was so kind.

Kabira Bay from above

Then, as we were leaving, I noticed one of the employees carrying a box of tiny mangoes and I was just curious so I asked what they were. She replied, “mangoes, do you want some?” Mangoes are kind of a luxury item on the Okinawan main land, but in this part, they must be very common. She gifted us five of their homegrown mangoes which we saved for breakfast the next day.

We continued our 3 mile walk back to the ferry nice and refreshed and took a nice nap on the way back to Ishigaki. At this point, sunscreen was just sweating off and we had already gotten a fierce sunburn and were really going to feel the consequences.

Yonehara Palm Grove

We decided we needed more fruit juice and I knew the perfect place, somewhere I went last year, too. They took card, but the card reader wasn’t working and we were out of cash. Thankfully, we were headed to town and she was open for two more hours. So, we got some cash and returned to get juice and she was so ecstatic we were back! In fact, she was so grateful for our return that she gave us a small discount, how sweet!

That evening, we caught an early dinner and checked out the downtown area as well as hit a few major sites on the island. When we got back to the Airbnb, we showered, watched Netflix, and enjoyed some cold edamame as a snack.

About to board the ferry back to Ishigaki and was blown away by these waters!

The next morning, our hosts showed us around their garden: lemongrass, basil, Okinawan peppers, banana trees, cactus, aloe, tropical (or Surinam) cherries, guava, and ginger shell just to name a few. They told us all about the edible plants in Okinawa and how to cook most of them. The timing was impeccable since we just got terrible sunburns and needed relief. They said we could use whatever we wanted from their garden as long as we didn’t use it all.

This day was jam packed with the last few highlights we wanted to catch, starting with an intense hike. It was only 15 minutes, but as you can see, it was nearly a vertical climb. We went at the perfect time; not too early, but before the sun was at full force. Not to mention, not another soul on the mountain. We had 360 degree views of the island all to ourselves. We flew the drone and took lots of photos and enjoyed a snack. That’s when we heard a little shuffling noise followed by a quiet voice, “konnichiwa!”

On Mt. Mape with Hideo

Here is when we met Hideo (pronounced: hee-dey-oh), an old man I will never forget. His English was poor and my Japanese was poor, but we managed to learn a lot about each other nonetheless. He was trying to explain to us that he comes up here to paint. He showed us some of his work and I complimented it. Then, he offered us his painting of the mountain we were standing on. I couldn’t even begin to communicate to him how thankful I was, even in English. So, I just thanked him over and over again.

Downtown Ishigaki

Meanwhile, Dan was flying his drone and Hideo was FASCINATED! He took pictures with his phone to send to his friend who lives in the Japanese mainland. It was neat to see Hideo and Dan exchange modern and more old-fashioned art forms with one another. Hideo offered to take photos of us and THEN he drew us on top of the mountain and gifted that to us as well! Dan also managed to get Hideo’s phone number and I got to practice my basic translation skills. Dan sent him some of the aerial photography in exchange for the art.

Observation Tower in Banna Park
Observation Tower in Banna Park

We said our goodbyes and kept telling each other “kiotsukete” or “be careful” on the way down as it was very steep. We were met with more gratitude on the way down as we passed probably 20 people. I’m so thankful we had the mountain to ourselves with just Hideo and we got to interact.

The rest of the day we spent seeing things like another overlook on that mountain range, Tamitorizaki observation deck, a palm tree grove, and a lighthouse for sunset. It was a lovely day. And upon return to our Airbnb, though we were not invited, we learned that it was the celebration of the village we stayed in. We learned about the history and culture of that village and learned that it was their 66th anniversary. We did not want to intrude on the festivities, so we hung out by ourselves, though, still happy to witness such a lovely day for these people.

The Northernmost tip of Ishigaki

Finally, our last day. We had another slow morning, enjoying the last of our local fruit. We chatted with our hosts a lot and they kept bringing us parting gifts! Two guava, a farm fresh pineapple, ginger shell berries and leaves for tea, lemongrass, and some Okinawan peppers. It was just so sweet and thoughtful of them to do so AND we managed to get it all through airport security.

After we said our goodbyes, we made our way to a cafe right down the street. Our hosts knew the owners and the owners were glad to see us. The woman spoke very good English and was so sweet to accommodate our diets AND made sure to be very clear about what was vegan and what was not. Tipping is not commonplace in Japan, but we felt inclined to give a generous tip since tourism is so low, but they wouldn’t let us leave without taking some vegan scones.

Fusaki Angel Pier

The people of Ishigaki are some of the kindest I’ve ever met if not the kindest. Japan as a whole is filled with kind people, but the people of Ishigaki are unlike anyone else.

After that, we made our way home. We won’t ever forget this trip because of the incredible hospitality and kindness we saw.

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