Have you ever been to the state capitol in your home state (or parliment in your country?) Since you finished school? Yet isn't that one of the places you tell tourists to visit?
You often see the travel advice that you should go where the locals go, and while that may be true for restaurants, it does not apply to tourist sights. Come to think of it, it probably does not apply to restaurants either, at least unless you appreciate drinking establishments. When it comes to restaurants, the advice should really be "do not go where the locals do not go".
The locals have high thresholds. After all, they are the ones who have to come back again and again if they like the place, they will tell their friends they also want to see in the restaurant. To most restaurants, a returning customer is much more valuable than a temporary visitor.
This usually works to ensure the survival of any reasonably good and reasonably priced restaurants. But even in countries with such high standards as Japan, you occasionally come across a restaurant that serves bad food. Even more rarely, bad and expensive food. Those places are probably set up for a well-established drinking clientele. Do not go there. You will feel out of place anyway. And those are not places where you want to take your kids. Just watch out for places with plenty of expensive bottles and expensive food. You are better off in places with less bottles and more customers interested in a great meal.
But that does not apply to sights. Yet there are very few New Yorkers who have actually been on top of the Empire State Building (although they do not make the mistake tourists do, and think that the Chrysler building is the Empire State building). Unless they were forced to go as part of a school trip, many years ago.
You will not find many Okinawans in the Shuri castle, even if it is located just outside the city of Naha, where most Okinawans actually live. Unless they work there. But it is an amazing place and somehow fuses Japanese and Chinese architecture in a way that creates a wholly new experience. It is absolutely worth seeing once you come to Okinawa. But if you live there, well, you have already seen it once. No reason to go there again. Unless you work there.
There are tourist attractions which also draw locals, like zoos and parks. And there are attractions which were conceived for the locals, and not as tourist attractions at all. Most of the skyscrapers in New York, in fact. The Empire State Building observation deck was built as a mooring station for airships. But over time, by being remarkable, they draw people who want to see them, and not just the locals who may be in the mood to tear them down and put up something more useful. This is especially true for things which lose utility over time. Like the Tokyo Tower, no longer a working broadcast facility but a thriving exhinition center, or most steam trains (nowadays run as tourist attractions, rather than for the benefit of the locals).
As a tourist, you want to experience something that is not possible at home. The locals are already home. So go where the locals do not go. Unless it comes to restaurants.
Is Ishigakijima worth visiting?
Yes, absolutely. The island is still not highly exploited, despite having been in the Guide Michelin as one of the most beautiful places in the world for several years. And there are more than enough sights to fill a week.
What was the weather like?
Ishigakijima is part of a small archipelago, the Yaeyama islands, which both contain the westernmost and southernmost points in Japan. But it is further south than the main Okinawa island (an hour by plane) so the weather is even sunnier and warmer. More like Tahiti than Hawaii.
How did we get there?
We flew from Naha, the capital of Okinawa prefecture. There are direct flights from Tokyos Narita airport, and a few international flights. But the main traffic between Ishigakijima and is from Naha, the prefectural capital. Even though some of the islands are closer to Taiwan than Okinawa proper. It takes less than an hour, unless the airport is congested - which unfortunately is the case during the major Japanese vacations. And since Okinawa has a strong military presence, both from the American air force, navy, and Marines; and from the Japanese self-defence force, the North Korean antics were causing more military activity than usual. As the Naha airport is also a base for the Japanese airforce, you can blame Kim Jong-Un if your flight starts late.
Ishigaki airport, however, does not see heavy traffic. It is rather small and quite new, which means easy to use. You may even want to arrive early so you can try the icecream stand. Most of the flavors is what you would expect but the Island Banana is just incredible.
Where did we stay?
Ishigakijima is not very large, and with a car you can get from anywhere to anywhere else within 45 minutes. It is also a great way to see the beautiful sights around the island - and there are plenty of those. So it does not matter so much where you stay, if you tent a car. We stayed in Nata Beach Villa, a fairly new place with great amenities and four large beds in a family room. It was not actually on the beach, you had to walk three minutes through a real jungle - an actual jungle, what the island must have looked like before humans arrived. And then you get out onto this spectacular beach, that literally stretches for miles, with soft sand and corals and seashells sprinkled throughout.
Where did we shop?
Ishigakijima is not big, and the economy is small. And it is far away from both mainland Japan and Okinawa, so there is a price premium on anything not produced locally - same as in Hawaii.
That said, there are a few supermarkets (mostly in Ishigaki town), but if you intend to eat out, there are plenty of restaurants. And convenience stores, since this is Japan - although not outside the city. So we shopped for souvenirs in the covered arcades in the city center.
If you can, buy things made on Ishigakijima itself. The souvenirs from Okinawa (or even made in China) are worth buying when you get there.
Find a shop that sells Minsah, the traditional weave of Ishigaki. They make for beautiful gifts.
One thing you have to realize is that like in most tropical countries, the people in the Yaeyama Islands live by the sun - they are up early, and then they close at 8 PM. Both restaurants and stores.
What should you eat?
If you stay at Nata Beach Villa, you will not want to eat anywhere else. No, seriously, the food is among the best we have ever had (and this is a family that sometimes eat in Michelin-starred restaurants). It is simple, rustc fare, but made with a lot of love and skill. The breakfast tofu will want to make you come back for your next meal before you have had coffee. And if the regular fare is to die for, you will feel that you have gone to heaven when you have their barbecue. You have to order in advance - well in advance, because there are only two barbecue sites. But the seafood is all from todays catch, the vegetables are freshly picked, and the Ishigaki beef is well on ifs way to establish itself as one of the famous beef brands of Japan, right up there with Yonezawagyu and Miazakigyu (which are just below Kobe beef, the most famous and overrated Japanese beef).
For those who are meat lovers, the fact that the beef is produced right there in the island (you can see them feeding across the road from Nata Beach Villa, in fact) also means that it is cheaper than products imported from mainland Japan or Okinawa.
Your kids will probably love Yaeyama Soba. The noodles in these islands are similar to those of Okinawa, but nor quite the same even though they are also made from wheat. The broth is different, and they are not served with braised pork. But our kids loved the Yaeyama noodles so much that they ate our noodle portions too.
How did we get around?
We rented a Nissan Serena at the airport and drove. The international car rental agencies like Hertz or Budget have no presence here, but both Nippon Rentacar and Nissan Car Rental (which we used) have English-language presences. Driving is easy on Ishigaki island - even if you drive on the left, the roads are wide and there is not a lot of traffic outside of Ishigaki city. There, it can get as crowded as any town at rush hour.
People on Ishigaki tend to drive rather fast. Much faster than what it says on the speed limit signs. As everywhere in Japan, the priority is on smooth traffic flow, not following every single dot or comma of the traffic regulations. Since it is a felony to drive too fast, you want to be careful as a foreign driver. And remember that the alcohol limit is 0%. No beer for the driver.
There are not a lot of parking spaces, and they are either coin parking or they request you to drop off the key. You pay per hour you have been parked, but also be aware that the parking lots close at 8 PM, so if you are late you might have to stay in Ishigaki city.
What is there to for toddlers?
The beach is the best place for your kids, but if you want to spend a lot of time in the water, you should do it inside jellyfish nets. Like all tropical waters, the waters around Ishigaki island are full of marine life, including box jellyfish. If your child gets stung, pour vinegar on the sting and take them to the doctor immediately. As box jellyfish are not able to swim, but go where the wind and currents take them, you have less to worry about if the wind blows away from land.
But do not let that put you off using the beautiful beaches of Ishigaki islands. Be aware though that the the beaches do not consist of the same soft sand all the way out. There is a line of coral branches and seashells on the wavefront which can be painful to the feet of a toddler, even if they do not risk cutting their feet. But the sea is warm and the waves are soft. And if they are only playing in the wavebreak, there is no risk for jellyfish either.
That said, there are more things to do on Ishigaki Island than playing in (or laying on) the sand. The beaches which are not sandy are plethora of marine life, and this is one of the few places in the world where you can walk out onto an actual coral reef from the shore.
But that is typically not what brings visitors to Ishigakijima. The main draw, from a tourist perspective, is Kabira Bay. This Guide Michelin-winning inlet not only is stunningly beautiful above the surface, it is at least equally fascinating below the surface. But this is one of the few places on Ishigaki Island where snorkelling or scubadiving are prohibited. Ostensibly it is to protect the marine life (and make no mistake, it is worth it), but this is also one of the few places where you can cultivate black pearls. Just like Tahiti. The proprietors of the pearl oyster cultures would likely be rather unhappy with snorklers and divers among their prizes. And three-year-olds can not snorkel anyway.
So what do you do? Luckily, the tourist industry already figured out a solution: Glass-bottomed boats. You should shop around a bit among the stands that sell tickets - some have English-speaking guides, other bigger windows into the sea. Once you go down the slope to the beach, however, and board the boat of your choice, your kids will love it. Not only do they get to ride in a boat, there are actual live fishes down there! They are pretty sure to appreciate the exquisite corals less than the adults, but when they see the fishes among the corals, you have to restrain them so they do not turn the boat over with their cries of "I saw Nemo" and "there is Dory!". Rest assured, they will talk about it for days.
Do we recommend an Ishigakijima vacation with toddlers?
Yes, without hesitation. The kids love the beaches and the reefs. The adults will appreciate the relaxed island atmosphere. It is easy to get around, the food is great, and so is the weather. It is worth coming back to at some point.
There will be more details later, but let me just summariza out Okinawa trip quickly.
Is Okinawa worth visiting?
Definitely yes. Even though it has been a part of Japan for 150 years, and defacto was a part of Japan for 300 years before that, the archipelago is unique in its culture, especially the music and the cuisine. And then, there is the nature and climate.
But make no mistake: You are in Japan. With slightly different food, but Okinawa is Japan. Japanese culture is everywhere, and people drive on the left side of the road.
What is the weather like?
Okinawa is on the same latitude as Hawaii, but it does not have trade winds providing natural air conditioning. It can become really hot, even in spring. Not for nothing can you grow tropical vegetables like mango, guava, pineapple and passionfruit anywhere. Do not be surprised to find a papaya tree in the back yard.
But it can also be really cold (relatively speaking) in winter. Not that you would get snow, but Okinawa becomes part of the same air mass as northeast China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. That means colder air seeping in from Siberia via China in winter, and typhoons in late summer and fall. And tropical heat in between. Which makes for great days on the beach, if you manage to miss out on the rain. Just like Hawaii, it rains quite often. Every few days. And these can be tropical rains, not the drizzle you might get in places like New York, Boston, London or Berlin. Although there can be days of endless gray drizzle too. And the weather can change fast in Okinawa. This is an island in the middle of the ocean, after all. You need to plan for the shifting weather too.
Where did we stay?
We stayed on Sesoko Island, a small island attached to the nearest town of Motobu by an impressive bridge. As a family of six, we needed something bigger than a hotel room, and Villa Kohola delivered. You have to be prepared to cook for yourself, but there is a barbecue at the back of the property. And you get both sea view and walking distance to a very nice (public) beach.
The barbecue area (and meat that is a lot cheaper than in mainland Japan, although you should try grilling fish, too) is one of the reasons you may enjoy cooking for yourself. The breakfast is another. If your kids are like mine, they would be plowing through the breakfast buffet, picking up everything not bolted to the table and eating possibly some yoghurt and a sausage. It is easier and more convenient to make your own breakfast, even if you have to wash up afterwards.
Where did we shop?
We made most of our shopping in the Motobu Aeon The Big Express, mostly because it was the supermarket closest to the bridge to Sesoko Island. You should buy your edible and drinkable souvenirs there. It is much cheaper than the gift shop at the airport.
Even if you can not read the labels, you will recognize the produce, the fish, and the meat. And bread. Yoghurt packs often say yoghurt in the alphabet, even if most of the text is in Japanese. And cereal is recognizably cereal after some checking (you are not supposed to squeeze the merchandise though), so shopping both for breakfast and barbecue dinner is easy. If you do not want to use the rice cooker that comes with the kitchen, buy a ready-cooked pack of rice which you heat in the microwave. Or even better, the onigiri - rice balls wrapped in nori seaweed with a tasty filling - that are the ubiquitous Japanese snack. Or lunch.
Okinawa is also the Japanese home of an innovation you may have encountered in Hawaii, in case you have ever been there: the spam musubi. Okinawans love the grilled slab of spam on top of a rice ball and wrapped with a strip of nori seaweed every way as much as Hawaiians.
You will find prices in Okinawan supermarkets really reasonable. For many items, especially those which are produced in Okinawa, the prices are lower than those of mainland Japan. It helps that Okinawa is a little more than a day from the nearest main island by ship, instead of isolated in the middle of the ocean, like Hawaii.
How did we get there?
We flew Vanilla Air from Tokyo to Naha, the capital of Okinawa. It takes only about two hours. Actually, we then continued on ANA to Ishigakijima, and came back three days later. There are direct flights to Ishigaki, but not with Vanilla Air, and there were reasons we could not use them that I will explain later (although one of them was that Peach Air only allows you to book for five people at once, which is unpractical if you are a family of six).
Vanilla Air is not bad for a low-cost carrier, but you have to plan ahead and think about what you pay for. And you will be coming and going through the LCC terminals at both Narita and Naha airports. Which has some disadvantages, in particular at Naha airport. There is no restaurant in the checkin area (only a cafe serving specialty coffee, beer and ice cream). And the restaurants in the main waiting hall leave a lot to desire. You are better off buying some onigiri in a convenience store on the way if you want to feed your children, which is likely to happen if you are flying near lunchtime. Because there is no food aboard, unless you pay exorbitant inflight prices. And do not forget to buy plenty of water for your kids in the gift shop after security control. The airplane air dries you out and even more so if you are a child.
What should you eat?
Okinawan cooking is famous for a few dishes: Goya Champuru, a mixture of bitter gourd or winter melon (it seems to have several English names), tofu, fried egg, and spam. It may not sound appetizing but it is. And then there is okinawa soba, which is not buckwheat noodles like in the rest of Japan, but more similar to ramen, although a lot thicker and chewier (but not as much as udon). It is typically served in a broth with a couple of thick slices of soy-braised pork belly. Pork is another Okinawa speciality, and it is truly succulent.
But then there are the fishes. It is a rare supermarket where you can not find fresh fish, and Okinawa is no exception. But the fish here are not the same as those further north, since the seas surrounding Okinawa are much warmer than those where other Japanese fishermen cast their nets.
And the produce. Japanese people have almost the same attitude to vegetables as fish - they will not tolerate anything that is not as fresh as it can be. Unless it is seriously marked down.
Fruit in Okinawa is even better than the vegetables, but it is not available in restaurants (except for specialty cafes). Buy it in the supermarket and give to your kids as a snack or at breakfast.
How did we get around?
I rented a Toyota Voxy but we would have been much happier if we had stayed with the Nissan Serena we had before. Still, it worked and there were no problems fitting three grownups and three child seats, and our luggage. Child seats is a requirement for kids under six in Japan, and unless they are as tall as my biggest daughter (who can get by in a booster seat and actually does not fit in a normal child seat any more) they should not use booster seats.
When you drive in Okinawa, you have to be prepared to spend quite a bit on gasoline, due to the distance to the airport. We had to fill up twice. And differently from the rest of Japan, there are no trains here. Only the monorail that provides public transport in Naha city. There are buses, both long distance and local, but for a big family who wants to see things on their own, that is not an option.
What is there to do for toddlers?
Apart from jumping on the sofas, there were good outdoor play opportunities on the grounds in Villa Kohola, but no swings or anything. You have to remember Okinawa is subtropical, though, and that means sun block during the day and insect repellent as soon as the sun sets, or it gets even the slightest bit cloudy.
When your toddlers get tired of the beach (as if that might happen), you can drive for 20 minutes to get to the Ocean Expo Park. That is also highly recommended for rainy days. The Churumi Aquarium is both impressive and educational, and if that does not keep your kids entertained for the entire day, add the Tropical Dream Center (also rain-free).
One issue with Sesoko Island is that there is no place except the beach to go. When our kids were still in strollers, we (or at least me) enjoyed long walks. That is not an option in the rural surroundings of Sesoko Island. There are no sidewalks except on the road to the beach (where toddlers can walk quite safely), but the roads throughout the island are typical Japanese country roads, well paved but with half-meter deep ditches on either side. And people drive fast, completely without regard for potential pedestrians. It means the options for walking a stroller, as well as running for marathon training or similar, are quite limited.
Do we recommend an Okinawa vacation?
Absolutely! Okinawa has a lot to offer beyond its fantastic beaches, and while the sights may not be next door, they are really amazing - once you get away from the heavy urbanization of the Naha area and southern Okinawa.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.