If you search on Instagram with #Ishigaki or #Taketomi then all you will see is beautiful young things, brilliant blue skies and sunshine. But my reality was turning 60, mostly heavy leaden skies and occasional bursts of blue. The other thing that does not come across in the photos is the humidity which takes a bit of getting used to and makes you spend longer in coffee shops, restaurants and even your hotel room.
Flying in to Ishigaki, we could see the beaches, the green interior and the shallow reef that surrounds it. There has been an airport in Ishigaki since 1942, but the new one only opened in 2013, so it is very modern and the bus from there to the port was easy to find. We headed straight to Ishigaki by ferry – sitting at the back, zipping along at 40mph on two huge outboard type engines, you feel a bit like an extra in a Bond movie, although Bond would be in the speedboat overtaking the ferry!
Taketomi is a national park and the Ryukyu village looks pretty much the way most of Okinawa looked sixty or seventy years ago, small houses with heavy red clay tiled roofs to combat the typhoons, surrounded by grey walls built from dead coral. Many of the houses have guardian lions on them, known as ‘shisa’. Our hotel was styled in the same manner. Staying there was my birthday present from my partner Richard – a very special treat. We had a gourmet meal the night we arrived which was delicious and the service at the hotel could not be faulted, from the ride in the golf buggy to our rooms to the lovely smiles who placed delicious plates of food in front of you.
I started my big birthday with a swim in the pool, then after breakfast we decided to walk along the beach to the village. Only it wasn’t really beach, lots of very jaggy dead coral! I had lugged beach shoes from home, but stupidly was wearing flipflops and Richard ended up wearing two odd flipflops we thankfully found washed up on the beach and carried his deck shoes. Sadly the plastic pollution on this stretch of the coast is bad, probably because few people walk it. The hotel offered lots of interesting thing to do like weaving a mat, but if they had offered to take part in a beach clean up that would have been more my scene. We brought back a few token items and put them in our hotel waste bin but I guess on such a small island disposal of rubbish is a major problem, as it is everywhere. We did however find some lovely shells on the beach and one good bit of coral.
The village has a few restaurants and lots of cycle hire shops so it must get a lot busier at times. Apparently since it was featured in a Japanese TV drama in 2012, it’s popularity has soared. However, we saw few people and enjoyed trying to photograph the many butterflies. The outing offered through the white lanes on the buffalo cart did not appeal. When we came back in the evening we could only find one other restaurant open apart from the one we had already eaten in at lunchtime. The famous sunset beach was grey. So it was basic noodles and pineapple liquor and soda for tea, then back to the hotel for a cocktail!
The next day, after another early swim and leisurely breakfast, we took the ferry back to Ishigaki where we had booked three nights in an Airbnb. Ishigaki is very much a working port and busy town rather than a cute tourist destination. With such a damp climate and a typhoon season, most of the buildings now are flat roofed and concrete, which sadly gets mouldy very quickly unless frequently painted, so the overall look of the place is very different from Taketomi. Our Airbnb was in an old wooden style building with a very vintage kitchen and bathroom but a lovely central space with hammock and swing where we could chill enjoying the air conditioning. When it cooled off, we explored the port, laughing at the boat with the toilet on the back, and watched the old men playing gateball, a bit like croquet, then shopped for ingredients for our meal, glad to be cooking again.
The next day it was grey again, but very warm so we took a different ferry to Irimote island to have lunch and go to the beach. The captain kindly slowed down as we passed a fisherman who had just hooked a fish. The beach sign had another perfect example of mouldy concrete behind it, but the beach itself was lovely. By the time we had eaten lunch, blue was appearing and we had a lovely swim in very shallow water and spent ages watching the tiny crabs and creatures living in little shells scurrying to and fro.
To round off our trip, we booked a snorkelling trip. Our guide, Andy picked us up and another couple of girls, here to study Japanese and we headed off along the coast. We parked and donned the wetsuits and swam out over the reef. Andy has dived and snorkelled all over the world and knew the area very well, so he was able to find turtles, cuttle fish, sea snakes and Stone fish to point out to us. He also did a great trick blowing a ring of air underwater. Eventually other boats arrived and it got busy. Again it was sad to see the fish being fed bread to attract them and a big bit of coral being broken off by an anchor being pulled up. Finally we started to get a bit cold and headed back. As we changed we watched runners taking part in a 60km ultra run – very challenging in the heat and humidity! A snack of pineapples and bananas grown on the island and lots of chat about the environment, diving tales and how difficult learning Japanese is, then it was time to say goodbye to Andy and the girls.
On our last evening, we had a great seafood meal of sashimi, sushi and tempura. We sampled ‘awamori’ a spirit unique to Okinawa, distilled from rice so much stronger than sake which is made by brewing alone. Mixed with passion fruit juice and lots of ice, it slipped down well. It is so popular, they import the special indica rice from Thailand as they can no longer grow enough locally. A walk around the harbour, spotting more guardian ‘shisa’ lions, hoping for a sunset but no, still grey skies. But that is reality, not Instagram!