Manta Ray diving in Ishigaki Island, Japan

This Week on Ishigaki, Iriomote and Taketomi Islands – 10 November 2020

Mac here. I spent the last week on Ishigaki, Iriomote and Taketomi Islands part of the Yaeyama Islands, and it definitely wasn’t sedentary. For this week’s ‘This Week in’, I’m going to highlight five active experiences I enjoyed – diving, cycling, hiking, canoeing and, most relaxing of all, stargazing. 

The Yaeyama Islands are both the southernmost and westernmost inhabited islands of Japan. Together with the Miyako Islands and the Okinawa Islands they make up the three main island chains of Okinawa Prefecture. Of the Yaeyama Islands, Ishigaki Island is the most populated and serves as the region’s transportation hub. 

Diving: Ishigaki is famous for having the best diving in Japan. Amazing coral, diverse schools of fish and, most famous of all, the manta rays. My first day of diving didn’t look like this at all. A typhoon skirting Okinawa had made accessing the mantas impossible, leading to us heading to Ishigaki’s least desirable dive spots. However, even these had great visibility and yielded a variety of macro life. Things starting improving after that and we headed out to Taketomi and Kuroshima Islands. Some of the spots here are know as turtle paradises, as the photo below shows. On my final two days of diving I enjoyed the incredible coral that Ishigaki is known for, culminating in one of my favourite dives of all time during which time we saw 15 mantas at Kabira Manta City. My dive partner Brian snapped this incredible shot of me featured image) in awe of one of the mantas as it majestically swam past. Thank you to the entire team at Prime Scuba for a memorable 4 days of diving. 

Cycling: You know how I fell in love with Yubu Island last week? Taketomi comes a close second. Only 15 minutes by boat from Ishigaki, Taketomi is an island paradise with one of the last remaining traditional Ryukyu villages, which has been beautifully preserved. The village consists almost entirely of traditional, one-storied houses, which are surrounded by stone walls, and covered with red tiled roofs and topped with shisa statues to ward of evil spirits. 

I would be posting a lot more letters if my Post Office looked like this:

Post Office on Taketomi Island, Ishigaki

The best way to enjoy the island is to rent a bike and visit its beautiful, pristine white sand beaches. You can walk to a bike rental shop, or take the shuttle buses run by some of the shops direct from the port. I recommend a fatbike, a bicycle with wider thicker tyres, especially if you intend to go ‘off-piste’, as I did. If your buttocks are up to it, take your bike across the rocky beaches. I think I am still feeling the aftereffects of this little adventure, but it was worth it.  

Cycling on Taketomi Island, Ishigaki

Hiking: I woke up well before the crack of dawn in order to hike to the summit of Mt. Yarabu-dake. A stunning spot from which to watch sunrise. 

As a tour guide myself, I appreciate the elements that go into crafting a memorable experience for your guests. Hiroshi Tomori was a great guide, introducing the culture and history of Ishigaki Island. As well as that, he is a talented musician to boot. Here he is playing his grandfather’s sanshin and singing some traditional Yaeyama minyo (folk songs) from the summit of Mt. Yarabu-dake. 

Hiroshi playing sanshin at the summit of Mt. Yarabu-dake, Ishigaki Island

Canoeing: There are few more calming experiences than watching sunrise from a canoe. Our early morning began with stargazing in the Mare district in Iriomote before canoeing on the Maira River. Our guide, Kamijo Haruhiko, had created a custom ‘Iriomote Sunrise Canoeing’ tour for us, and it was absolutely magical. 

Sunrise canoeing in Iriomote Island

Stargazing: I graduated from university with a Master’s degree in Mathematics and Physics, so astronomy has long been close to my heart. Sadly, the light pollution in the world’s greatest metropolis makes stargazing in Tokyo tough. 

But I was a long way from Tokyo! Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2018, the first location in Japan to receive accreditation through the International Dark Sky Places Program. Local authorities have issued a schedule of public lighting retrofits to achieve full compliance with outdoor lighting policies by 2023. The goal is to encourage sustainable coexistence with the planet’s nocturnal ecosystem, and promote the value of dark skies nationally and internationally, and of course to promote stargazing tourism. 

Stargazing on Ishigaki Island

I enjoyed three stargazing experiences on Ishigaki and Iriomote Island. Each one was different, but the Shani-Shani Stargazing Tour by Utakuna Ishigaki-jima was especially memorable. Our guide, Keiko, led us stargazing from the rooftop of Ishigakijima Beach Hotel Sunshine’s shinkan. We had a chance to lie down and look straight up at the sky, allowing our eyes to acclimate to the sky. We also looked through a telescope at several heavenly objects, and were able to make out Saturn’s rings. 

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