May 07, 2014

    Japan's little-known paradise

    UNRULY stalks brushed against the windows of the white Suzuki minivan as it bumped down an unmarked dirt road through a field of sugar cane.

    When the road abruptly ended, we continued on foot down a barely perceptible path through thick tropical foliage, fighting through branches and brush.

    And then there it was: a tiny secluded cove with smooth white sand spread between rocky outcroppings and the Pacific Ocean's million shades of blue.

    "There are many secret beaches on Ishigaki, but this one is my favourite," said Haruna Miyaji, a local music teacher and my unofficial tour guide for the day, as we stood on the deserted beach.

    It was early January when my husband and I made the journey to Ishigaki, a beautiful Japanese island over 1,900km south-west of Tokyo.

    At the tail end of a string of volcanic islands that stretches south-west towards Taiwan, Ishigaki is the main hub of the remote Yaeyama Islands.

    The refrain that I heard repeated over and over was: "It's the most beautiful place in Japan."

    So it is little wonder that the laid-back island has become an increasingly desirable destination for Japanese seeking an escape from the country's dense metropolises.

    A new airport that opened last year now offers more direct flights from cities across Japan (including flights from Kansai on Japan's new low-cost airline, Peach), making the island easier to reach. But the appeal of Ishigaki has turned many temporary visits into permanent stays.

    "I didn't like the big city," said Masahiro Kurihara, a longtime resident originally from Tokyo. Kuri, as everyone calls him, has owned Cafe Taniwha, a no-frills neighbourhood bar, with his wife, Fusa, for the last 15 years.

    Another part of the island's appeal is the friendliness of the locals. Time and again, I observed that the local residents were noticeably warmer than those I have met elsewhere in Japan.

    Another transplant we met that night was our eventual tour guide, Haruna, originally from Takamatsu, who was one of the few English-speakers in the crowd.

    When she discovered that we were relying on public transportation, she offered to show us around. So two mornings later, we met her and her boyfriend at the time, Sada (they have since married), and headed north on what would be a counterclockwise circumnavigation of the island.

    Ishigaki is shaped roughly like a banjo - or, more fittingly, its Okinawan cousin, the sanshin - with a rounded body and slim, necklike peninsula stretching northwards. After driving for an hour, we arrived at a small lighthouse at Hirakubozaki, the northernmost tip of the island.

    From the peaceful promontory, with wind whipping through my hair, I watched a solitary paraglider sail above the electric blue water that extended to the horizon.

    Our next stop was the summit of Nosoko Maapee, a small mountain crowned with distinctive boulders. Pointing out the rocks, Haruna recounted a local legend involving a heartbroken girl who climbed the mountain and turned to stone.

    As we lingered at the peak, snacking on onigiri and savouring the view, a lone hiker from Kobe named Masako appeared, and suddenly our merry band of four grew to five.

    Masako said that she vacations in the Yaeyama Islands annually, having visited nearly 20 times over the years. When I asked why she kept returning, she smiled broadly and replied: "The weather, the food and the people."

    On all counts, I understood. The sunny weather that day was ideal, Haruna and the rest of the gang from Cafe Taniwha were proof of the amiable people, and the food I had eaten had also been fantastic.

    At a noodle shop called Yaeyama Style, I had already slurped several bowls of Yaeyama mazesoba, a creamy ramenlike dish with chunks of pork and chewy wheat noodles that were nothing like the buckwheat soba found in other parts of Japan.

    There had been a delicious green curry soba at Amuritanoniwa, a funky cafe where we also sipped Ishigakijima craft beer produced on the island.

    In the town's covered arcade, Yugurena Mall, we had devoured cakelike Okinawan doughnuts and multiple scoops of curiously light-green ice cream subtly flavoured with Ishigaki salt.

    And at Misushi, a sushi restaurant recommended to us at the Cafe Taniwha party, we feasted on fresh seafood as well as luscious nigiri made with lightly seared Ishigaki beef, a local speciality.

    But it was not until the next stop on our road trip that I fully comprehended why people referred to Ishigaki's natural beauty with such awe.

    Kabira Bay is home to the island's most famous beach, a place that could easily be mistaken for Thailand or the Caribbean, with its sugary-white sand, aquamarine water and rocky cliffs from which visitors first glimpse the snapshot-worthy shore below.

    Although swimming there is not permitted - black pearls are cultivated in the bay - rickety glass-bottom boats take tourists on short (yet fascinating) excursions to spy the neon fish, giant clams and lively underwater universe that thrive in the coral reefs just yards offshore.

    Then we made one final stop before returning to town: Mirumiru, a hilltop ice cream shop where the exotic flavours - purple yam and dragon fruit - were as impressive as the views from atop the grassy knoll that sloped towards the sea.

    After that eventful day trip, there was an easy rhythm to our remaining time on Ishigaki. We spent days lazing on beaches and nights at hole-in-the-wall reggae bars with local surfers and Tokyoites a tad too fond of awamori, the Okinawan distilled spirit.

    On our final day, we borrowed bicycles and rode about 6km out of town to Fusaki beach, where we had the entire expanse to ourselves all afternoon.

    When the sun eventually began to set, we slowly pedalled back along the sea wall, watching the last rays of light illuminate what now felt like our own secret slice of paradise.