Ishigaki, Japan is a hidden gem amongst the islands of Okinawa. White sand beaches, cobalt blue water and kind-hearted people – you’re sure to be enchanted!
Located southwest of Okinawa, only 300 km from Taiwan, is Ishigaki island. It’s a part of the Yaeyama island group in the most remote part of Japan. A good deal of the island is also part of the Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park formed to preserve the beauty of this amazing island.
Ishigaki is on many hot lists as having the best beaches in Japan – and for good reason. It doesn’t feel overrun by tourists; although services and lodging can provide well for all your needs, the island still manages to feel undiscovered. Sure, there are souvenir stores eager to tempt you and guide services competing for your business, but the island maintains genuine hospitality, a kind culture and a laidback island vibe. It’s an even simpler approach to life than we experienced on Okinawa.
You’re free from the tourist feel, but still in a paradise bursting with beautiful landscapes, colorful views and alluring water that make you feel like you escaped to another world.
We have loved Okinawa island each time we’ve gone, but Ishigaki Island surpasses it hands down. Okinawa always felt different than the rest of Japan, with a heavy American presence. Ishigaki still feels like Japan, but in a tropical paradise. If we can only visit Okinawa Prefecture one more time, it will be to revisit Ishigaki island!
When you google Ishigaki, a picture of Kabira Bay is most likely what will come up. Oftentimes you see pictures on the internet and are excited to see it in person, just to be disappointed that the pictures were heavily edited and it’s not as picturesque as you thought. That’s not the case here. It was everything I imagined and more.
We signed up for a glass bottom boat tour to take us through Kabira Bay for 30 minutes. The bay is part of the Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park so you aren’t allowed to snorkel or swim, but boats are allowed and a glass bottom boat tour is a great way to see the coral and wildlife in the bay.
Royce’s excitement could not be contained. This was his favorite part of the trip; he got to “snorkel” without being in the cool water! We saw large sea turtles, sea cucumbers, bright coral, giant clams and so many different fish!
It was incredible – the boat would be floating over the coral, so close but not touching it, then take off through the deeper part of the bay. No matter how deep the water, we could still see the coral because the water was so clear. This was definitely a highlight of the trip!
Walking down to the beach you pass by several shops to buy souvenirs or treats. Behind there’s a sign that points out the scenic route and I’m definitely glad we took it. The best views were from this path. It’s where most of the pictures are taken that you see when you google Kabira Bay!
This trip was special for us. Not only was 4-year-old Royce comfortable snorkeling but 2-year-old Jeannie was brave enough to try and loved it! We can now snorkel as a family, and I’m so excited for our next snorkeling trip!
Read “Teach your child how to snorkel for your next family adventure” to learn how we taught our kids to snorkel.
We walked down from our hotel and snorkeled anytime. Being November, the water wasn’t as warm as it could be so it took a minute to get comfortable.
There were so many fish I couldn’t believe it. It was exciting to see. The highlight of snorkeling in front of the hotel was finding a cute little clown fish with his baby clown fish, living in an anemone. Oh, and it was being followed by a blue fish. Sound familiar? Nemo was real and we found him! To add to the irony, it was a dentist (Matt) snorkeling and watching them! We didn’t capture Nemo and bring him home, though – just pictures!
The next day we took a boat out a bit farther, but still near the hotel, and snorkeled for 30 minutes. I hadn’t believed the fish we were able to see in front of the hotel – but this little trip was even more mind-blowing! The coral was beautiful, the fish were abundant and it was just a quick ride down the beach.
If you are planning a trip to Okinawa to go snorkeling, we highly recommend Ishigaki. It doesn’t seem to matter where you go, the snorkeling is amazing! If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, book a trip to see manta rays! We wanted to try and see the manta rays but booked it too late and there wasn’t room for us. Something for us to do next time!
One of the excursions offered by our hotel promised a lot of fun: swimming to a sacred blue cave off of the Ishigaki, Japan coast! It cost ¥9,000 per adult, which seemed too much, so Matt decided to take matters into his own hands. Here’s his adventure:
After hearing about the sacred blue cave, I asked the hotel staff if they knew where it was. When they told me it was a secret, but near Yonehara beach, it was game on! Never tell me something is secret or forbidden if you don’t want me to try to figure it out.
Within a couple minutes I found the cave on Google Maps, and my friend Curtis and I planned our man-venture. We took a taxi to the beach only to discover that we had no cell phone, barely enough cash to get us back to the hotel, and one of us had forgotten his snorkel and mask…but we set out anyway, determined to have fun!
As soon as I dove into the water, several thousand fish burst through the water around me. The fish and scenery were beautiful, but if you’re going to the cave, be sure to go at high tide: we had 0.5 meters of water or less to swim in for most of the journey, swimming over sharp or rough coral. Life jackets saved the day!
We passed some secluded beaches, briefly explored a small cave, and then found it: the Blue Cave!
After swimming through shallow water to approach it, the dramatic entrance blew us away. The rock drops away at the mouth of the cave, providing plenty of space for some acrobatic entrances. It just got cooler from there! After climbing out onto the coral beach, we saw that the cave had an exit through the roof and out into the jungle!
We scrambled up the rocks to take in the view. Between the stalagmites and stalactites, we found a sneaky tunnel under the boulders and out onto the beach. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d have no idea the tunnel existed.
We swapped the snorkel for the swim back. I floated backward and had a relaxing time, especially because the current was with us. We each had a couple scrapes along the rocks, but agreed it had been an awesome adventure.
This trip ended up being more of a relaxing trip than an adventurous one. We stayed at Club Med, an all-inclusive resort, which maximized our time to relax and enjoy the island. We didn’t need to worry about what we were going to eat or what we would do with the kids during all of our activities.
While Matt was out exploring the Blue Cave, I went paddleboarding and laid by the pool reading a book. We had drinks and snacks by the pool while playing games that we brought with us. Our friend took a windsurfing class, there were food classes and other activities to do at the hotel.
While the grown-ups played, the kids had their own amazing adventure with the kids’ club that Club Med staff hosts. They went swimming, did treasure hunts, played at the beach and made crafts. It was nice that the kids could have a great time with other children while we enjoyed adult activities. I may have snuck peaks at them a few times during the day!
I thought I’d be sad that we ended up not doing all the adventures we imagined. However, relaxing was exactly what we needed.
Plan your trip:
We could have taken a direct flight from Fukuoka but decided we didn’t want to drive. The flight we took was from Iwakuni to Naha Airport in Okinawa and then on to Ishigaki. We were pleased with this decision as it was nice to make a 5 minute drive home (instead of 3 hours) at the end of a relaxing trip.
The off-season is nice because there aren’t as many people. I recommend going closer to the summer season so the water is warmer and the weather is more predictable.
What we wish we would have known:
The excursions are sometimes much less expensive if you arrange for them on your own, rather than through the hotel.
Mount Omoto is the highest mountain in Okinawa Prefecture; we would have liked to hike it.
The star sand beach that you hear about is on a different island.
Rent a car- then you can take yourself to the different points of interest all around the island.
Book the manta ray trip in advance!
We would like to stay longer. Or at least plan another trip!