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Okinawa: The Rest

Ishigaki Island, Japan’s southern most island, is at the same time Japanese and not. Japan has an incredible ability to make cities and towns in even tropical paradise seem ugly and run down. Ishigaki city had its charm, to be sure, including a very nice park, and a very nice library, but on the whole it was not much to look at.

Showing us how far to various places

Not sure what it is, but it looked cool

A nice rock formation

Cool playthings


Classic Japan

The hibiscus are quite common in Okinawa

I do enjoy the camera's macro function!

Get outside of the city limits by just a few feet, though, and the entire atmosphere changes. The houses look different, the flora is entirely unrecognizable, and it goes from being a place that could be anywhere in Japan to truly being gorgeous!

We flew into Ishigaki around 4pm and got the lay of the land a bit. We spent most of the rest of the day planning the rest of our trip. We decided to go exploring Ishigaki by bike on Saturday (this is Friday by the way), then head to Iriomote island on Sunday. Meanwhile Georgia had used her budding talents as “good restaurant chooser” (a title I just made up on the spot, if you can believe it!) to find us a place for dinner where we sat on the terrace eating taco rice (Okinawan specialty, though I can’t say I was super impressed, it was basically everything inside a taco, with rice, without the taco…) and drinking delicious tropical flavored drinks while we watched as a number of planes flew absurdly low overhead, (we were only a few km from the airport) The restaurant was called “Puff Puff” though when put into katakana it was written “Puka Puka.” This is interesting in its own right because “puka puka” in Japanese is the sound someone makes when smoking something. Basically, this restaurant’s name was translated correctly from Japanese to English! Quite the shock indeed for us folk used to the lifestyle in Oita prefecture.

Vroom Vroom over Puff Puff

The next day bright and early at 9:45 we headed over to the bike rental shop and got our bikes. Cam and I got some mountain bikes, and Aine and Georgia got tanks. Well, they were mamacharies, but I’m quite sure they were made of 100% industrial steel. We headed off on this gorgeous day and explored the island, while keeping our end goal in mind: the beach. We followed the main road towards the east, marveling at the sights and sounds of tropical Japan.

Nice contrast

Are you kidding?


After about two hours we arrived at a nice little cafe where I had Ishigaki salt ice cream, another local specialty.

View from the cafe

It was also then that I got a call all the way from Nakatsu, from Mr. Fujiwara who runs an English conversation class I go to once a month. He was wondering whether I could teach a class on May 6th, the day after I got back from Okinawa. The only reason I answered the phone is because if I didn’t pick up he’d just keep calling anyway, but I politely told him there was no way in hell I was doing that. Sorry. Refreshed, we set off once more for the beach, a mere two kilometers away. We never would see that beach…

The high sun

At noon the sun was so directly above we barely had any shadows


Perfect timing!

As we made our way down the last slope to our final destination, disaster struck! Aine, who had been biking a bit ahead of us, was suddenly not on her bike, but rather on the ground, along side her bike, with articles of clothing and lunch meats strewn everywhere. I think we all panicked quite a bit when we noticed it at first, and she was conscious, but in a lot of pain when we got to her. Her face had swollen up quite a bit, and she told us her legs really hurt. There was no bleeding to be seen though, just a few scrapes. Luckily for us a van from a nearby resort hotel came up the road so I stopped them and they called an ambulance. I went in the ambulance with Aine to translate, leaving Cam and Georgia basically by the side of the road with four bikes. I won’t go into too much detail about the whole process, but it was quite a frightening ordeal. The ambulance took us all the way back to the Ishigaki city hospital to get x-rays done. Meanwhile Georgia’s phone had run out of batteries, and Cam had left his in the hotel room. Luckily Japan is still a bit backwards in some areas of technology, so they had readily available pay phones everywhere. I told Georgia by payphone to see if they could find someone who spoke English at the hotel since I could not really help them from the city.
Luckily, there was an English speaking staff member at the hotel. His name is Kaz, and he turned out to be one of the greatest people in the world. Cam and Georgia asked him what to do about their predicament (the two of them and four bicycles 20km outside of the city) and he basically answered: “Well, you’re screwed, there is no way for you to get back.” In the next breath, he said: “But, I get off of work at 4, and even though my car isn’t very big, I’ll drive you guys back in groups, one person and two bikes at a time.” This for him is about a two hour trip, it taking about 30 minutes each way. Without him, Cam and Georgia might still be at that hotel in Ishigaki trying to figure out what to do with those bikes.
After we finally re-united (it’s 6:30pm by now) we decided that that was not quite the adventure we had been looking for on Ishigaki island. We did, however, get to see an aspect of Ishigaki not many other people have: the inside of the hospital. (You’re not missing much, folks! It’s not worth the effort involved…) We also scrapped our plans to head to Iriomote the next day, choosing to go a bit closer to Taketomi island instead, a suggestion from our savior Kaz.

Taketomi houses an entirely preserved Ryukyu village (the Ryukyu people are the native Okinawan people.) They have their own laws on the island preventing anyone who does not live there from owning land. Furthermore, no building on the island can be taller than one story, and finally when building roads and walls they must be built in accordance to Ryukyu tradition. As a result, it is probably one of the few towns and cities in Japan that doesn’t look ugly. I mean Japanese. It rained a bit during the day, but it turned out to be a nice way of spending an afternoon. We had a nice lunch on the island, and then headed over to the main attraction, a water buffalo ride! Well, we didn’t actually ride the animal itself, but we rode a cart which was being pulled by a water buffalo! Her name was Tomi-chan, and according to her handler she was such a good driver she held a class two driver’s permit. (She had only been on the job for 6 months!) I must admit, her turns were executed expertly. During the ride we were also treated to a sanshin performance. The sanshin is (as I understand it) the predecessor of the shamisen, and is made of wood and snake skin. It has three strings, hence the name “san”shin. After the ride we loaded up our souvenirs and headed back to Ishigaki.

Ryukyu 1

An example of a ryukyu house

Ryukyu from the top

View from the top

Ryukyu view from the top 2

With the sea in the background


These "shisha" are mixes between dogs and lions, meant to protect

Tomi-chan, our trusty steed!


The souvenir hat I bought on Taketomi!

For dinner we ate at yet another one of Georgia’s finds, “Iyu” which means “fish” in the Okinawan dialect. It was an Italian place with absolutely amazing food! I had an Ishigaki beef carpaccio which was delicious.
Monday, our last full day on the southern most fringes of Japan, was spent doing what we were meant to be doing on Saturday: laying on the beach. We took a 45 minute ferry ride to Iriomote island and visited “Hoshi no sune” beach. Hoshi no sune means “Star sand,” named thusly because the sand is made up of tiny little skeletons of various teeny weeny sea creatures. Many of these sea creatures have star shaped bodies, so interspersed with the sand are tiny little star shaped remains of sea creatures. It was an absolutely stunning beach. It wasn’t really a swimming beach as the water came up to your knees for about a mile, but the turquoise color of the water, and the little islands scattered around in the sea made for some gorgeous views. While Aine and Georgia did their girly sun bathing thing, Cam and I set out to do the only manly thing we could think of: building ourselves something out of sand. To add yet some more testosterone to the pile, we decided to build a Colosseum where we could host awesome aquatic crab fights to the death.



It's even pretty when you look the other way!

Can't get enough!

I am Spartacus!

It took me a good long time to build those arches!

Cam putting on the finishing touches

Our attempt at drawing in the water creatures

Trendsetters are we!

We never did manage to fill it with water to host the battle, but the structure itself came out looking quite nice! I spent a half hour making the arches on top. After a tasty lunch, a failed sea cucumber rescue and a full day at the beach we headed back to Ishigaki for our final dinner before flying back to Naha for one more day and then heading back to Nakatsu. We ate at a place called “Corner’s Grille” which was decidedly not anywhere close to a corner, but the food was quite tasty. It had better have been too, since I spent 60 bones on a steak there! Ishigaki beef is yet another local specialty, a beef similar in texture and taste to Kobe beef, only better (some argue.) While I always conclude after eating such an expensive meal that a steak is really never worth $60, no matter what the taste, it was exceedingly delicious.
The last day and a half in Naha were uneventful (considering what we had been through earlier) as we took it easy enjoying the last hours of our vacation. We explored International Street (kokusai doori) a bit more, and discovered a really nice little cafe which served this delicious red soba (buckwheat noodles) curry. After that meal we headed to the airport and flew back to good old Nakatsu. I can’t say I was extremely glad to be back, though sleeping in my own bed was nice after a week of hostels and hotels. Despite our misfortunes I had a great time in Okinawa, experienced an entirely different kind of Japan, ate some great food, some some beautiful sights, and all around enjoyed myself immensely, all the while spending an absurd and unmentionable amount of money. It was worth every penny, though!


P.S., as usual there are many more photos on my picasa account, so go here to check those out!

Categories: Pre-Japan
  1. disillusionedyogi
    May 19, 2010 at 8:18 am

    I am so jealous of your journey to Okinawa!
    It sounds and looks amazing.
    This is Liz (from Boston) by the way!

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