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.
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.