Yaeyama Islands

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2005, 12:00am

1 Ma-sando, Ishigaki City, Ishigaki-jima

Ma-sando means 'delicious' in the Yaeyama dialect, and at the harbourside restaurant of the same name the concept becomes tangible. Background Okinawan ballads set the tone, while the chef and his fireball-spitting wok offer plenty of thrills for diners who sit too near the service counter. Try the toku-toku (1,500 yen, or $105), which includes mimi-ga (julienned pig's ear in vinaigrette), sunui (tangy seaweed), goya champuru (bitter-melon stir-fry) and homemade rafute (stewed pork Okinawan style). Look for the giant red lantern hanging outside on Shiyakusho Street. Ishigaki-jima is the main Yaeyama island; Ishigaki City is Japan's southernmost town.

2 Torinji Temple, Ishigaki port

Escape the afternoon heat in the small but leafy grounds of Torinji Temple, several blocks' walk west of Ishigaki port. Shafts of sunlight blend with wafting incense, lizards scurry between gravestones and the temple's ancient banyan tree roots seem bent on strangling the concrete deities. Enclosed by a stone wall (which is what ishi-gaki means), the temple was built in 1614. Its shady courtyard is a good place to watch worshippers come and go, enjoy birdsongs or even read for a while.

3 Taniwha, Ishigaki City

Tall tales and quirky characters are never lacking at Taniwha, a backstreet cafe-bar popular with yachties, Japanese artists and mainland escapees. Under management of avid sailor Kuri-san, a steerage-like atmosphere prevails: floorboards creak and groan, nautical charts and postcards of far-off places plaster the walls, and there's a long wooden counter along which tall glasses of awa-mori rice spirit are slid into customers' hands. Drinks cost about 500 yen and food is available.

4 Kuroshima

Jump aboard one of the regular ferries bound for Kuroshima, 30 minutes from Ishigaki port. Cattle farming is its economic mainstay, and the moment you step onto the sandy jetty near Hozato village the unmistakeable aroma of ranch land arrests the senses. Rent a bicycle from one of the elderly women at the jetty and strike out on long quiet roads for Miyasato and Higashi-suji, villages filled with sun-beaten wooden houses. Coral rock walls contain menageries of goats and chickens, while rambling hibiscus and flowering plumeria trees have long been left to their own devices.

5 Ishigaki-jima

Avid scuba-divers head for the pearl-farming village of Kabira, half an hour by road from Ishigaki City, from where dive-boat operators whisk them off to South Point, site of the 'manta scramble'. In May and October migrating manta rays make pit-stops here and divers have a chance to ogle these giant, bat- like creatures. High visibility and depths of about eight metres make the site ideal for novice divers. South Point Diving Service, a short walk from Kabira Bay beach, can hit all the best dive spots by boat within 10 minutes. Inquiries: (81 98) 882 277 or e-mail [email protected].

6 Iriomote-jima

The Kuro-shio, or Black Current, which passes through Okinawa acts as a huge conveyor belt for the flotsam and jetsam of Southeast Asia's boat-dwellers. This explains the bewildering range of junk strewn along Haemida-kaigan (Haemida Beach), on the 284sqkm Iriomote-jima, 40 minutes by boat from Ishigaki-jima and home to about 2,000 sugar-cane farmers and fisherfolk. M&M tubes made in Ohio, motor-oil canisters from Manila, shampoo bottles from South Korea, cigarette lighters made in Bangkok and the odd message in a bottle are some of the items you might find in this beachcomber's paradise.

7 Taketomi-jima

An authentic taste of Yaeyama culture awaits on tiny Taketomi-jima. Just 9km in circumference and a mere 1,500 metres at its widest point, it's the most popular day-trip destination for tourists staying on Ishigaki-jima, a 15-minute ferry ride away. Little remains of its legacy as a trade and political centre for the Yaeyama Islands from the 14th to the 16th centuries, the height of the Ryukyu Kingdom era. Yet the neatly laid-out neighbourhoods of red-tiled wooden houses, each surrounded by walls of coral rock to fend off the late summer typhoons, and divided by streets of fine white sand, are considered some of Okinawa's best-preserved examples of pre-second world war Ryukyu architecture.

8 Kondoi Beach, Taketomi-jima

At low tide, beyond the blinding white sand bars, lies some of Yaeyama's best snorkelling. For a small fee, old village men wearing conical hats will ferry you out in their flaky wooden skiffs and wait while you drift with the current across coral reefs teeming with marine life. Most visitors to Kondoi Beach, however, are too enraptured by its white star-shaped sand grains (made up of tiny coral polyp skeletons), which they scoop for souvenirs, that they rarely go further than the lagoon shallows.

9 Tony Soba

No self-respecting local foodie would admit to having failed to eat at Tony Soba, a small corner diner in Ishigaki City. A brothy goat noodle soup, or hija-jiru, is its speciality. The boss, chef and waiter is a little man with a loud voice who'll spin you yarns all afternoon. Black and white photos of him wrestling giant tuna or smiling from a ship's wheelhouse in mountainous seas off the coast of West Africa lend some currency to his long-winded tales, but he won't be offended if you decide not to believe them.

10 Guesthouse Rakutenya

Eighty years ago, this charming old weatherboard building on a quiet Ishigaki City street was a cider factory. These days, Guesthouse Rakutenya is a beacon for travellers in search of simple lodgings with a laid-back Yaeyama atmosphere. Take an airy, well-lit room with tatami mats, roll on a futon and wake up to the unfamiliar sound of a beachcomber's mobile - pieces of sand-polished sake bottle, shells and driftwood - tinkling on the dawn breeze next to the window. Rooms cost 3,000 yen per person per night. Inquiries: (81 98) 838 713 or go to www3.big.or.jp/erm8p3gi/english/english.html.