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Friday, July 8, 2011

Okinawa Getaway: Day 6 6月30日

Only one day left on Ishigaki 石垣島, and the western half of the island had still to be explored (by me, anyway). Today was going to be my last chance, so first thing in the morning I headed over again to Nankokuya 南国屋 and rented another 50cc scooter for the day. Once everything was good to go, I was off, headed west and following the coast road as it wound its way around the island.

First stop was the Chinese-style Tōjin Grave 唐人墓. I’m not exactly sure of the circumstances, but this monument was erected in 1971 in honor of several hundred Chinese laborers who died offshore of Ishigaki in 1852. Apparently, the workers were on their way to California on an American or British ship when they rebelled against the slave-like conditions on board, and were massacred by the crew.

Nearby is this interesting memorial to three US Navy aviators, who had the misfortune of being shot down off the shore of Ishigaki on the last day of the Second World War (August 15, 1945). The three were captured by Japanese soldiers on the island, tortured and then executed, two by decapitation and the third bayoneted to death. Even on this picturesque island, the tragedy of war was never too far away.

After paying my respects at the monuments, I backtracked a little bit in order to visit Fusaki Kannon-dō 冨崎観音堂, a temple first constructed in 1701, though I’m not sure how old the current building is. The caretaker pointed out the trinity of gods in a small rear hall that are the object of worship here.


Across the road from the entrance to the temple, there was a nice view of both Taketomi 竹富島 and Iriomote Islands 西表島.
My trusty set of wheels. The rental fee included both helmet and rain gear (which was to come in rather handy later on in the day).

Another day, another lighthouse with a beautiful vista. A short detour brought me to the Ugan-zaki Lighthouse 御神崎灯台, with its great views across Ishigaki. There were several small boats in the waters below – a look through my binoculars revealed that they were disgorging divers. According to a sign at the foot of the lighthouse, this stretch of ocean is a popular spot for seeing manta rays. 

Back on the main road, it wasn’t long before I reached Ishigaki’s most renowned tourist spot, Kabira Bay 川平湾. And most overrated, in my humble opinion. Sure, it was pretty, especially when viewed from above. However, the beach was more suitable for wading than swimming, and there were a lot of glass-bottomed tour boats coming and going (which probably explains why there were a lot of Taiwanese tourists there, as well). Still, it’s worth a visit to see what all the fuss is about.

The one advantage to being in a commercialized hotspot is that there are places to grab a bite to eat, which is what I did after having my fill of the view. For lunch, I finally sat down to a bowl of Yaeyama Soba 八重山そば, the signature dish of these parts of Okinawa 沖縄. It went down well, helped in no small part by the side dish of sashimi 刺身 that came with the set, along with the mug of Orion Beer オリオンビール that I’d ordered as well.

In the photo above of me standing on the sand at Kabira-wan, you may have noticed the dark clouds in the background. As I was leaving the bay for my next destination, Yonehara Beach 米原ビーチ, the rain started coming down, and I was grateful for the fact that not only did I get a rain suit included with the scooter, but that it (or they, for it was in three parts) fit even my gaijin 外人-sized body. Thankfully, by the time I reached Yonehara, the rain had stopped…for good.

Yonehara – if there is one memory that I’m going to treasure above all others from this trip to Okinawa, it will be this beach. Not for the sand, but for what is in the water.

Let me start out by saying that “Ishigaki’s most rewarding beach experience” (according to The Rough Guide to Japan) begins with a very LONG wade across a broad stretch of dead coral (which means it was a very good thing I was wearing a pair of flip-flops on my feet). At first it was hard to understand what the writers at Rough Guide were talking about, until I reached a point so far from shore that my backpack could barely be seen anymore. Then, suddenly, the reef ended and the depths opened up. I felt a little intimidated at first, especially as every time the sun disappeared behind some clouds, the water became eerily dark, but I hadn’t come this far just to turn around and wade back, so I plunged in. What followed was 2½ hours of the single best swimming/ocean/beach experience(s) of my life to date.

Not having a camera that could take underwater photos, and having to rely on the cliché that it was “like swimming in a giant fish tank/aquarium” (even though it was), means that I can’t truly convey how wonderful a time I had out there. When the sun was shining, the water became a clear blue scene of the edge of the reef teeming with brightly colored tropical fish, of various shapes and sizes. I’m not very good at estimating depths, but I guessed that I was swimming in about 30-40 feet (9-12 meters) of water in some places. Despite lacking proper equipment such as a snorkel or a pair of flippers (I had only a prescription diving mask and the aforementioned beach thongs), I had no problem at all maneuvering through and around the reef. When I needed to take a break, all I merely had to do was stand up on a section of reef, and check to make sure my bag was still there (the little speck far in the distance never seemed to move), before submerging myself again. Unlike Kabira Bay, Yonehara Beach was everything it was cracked up to be (and more!).

At one point, I looked down and saw a huge fish that appeared to be almost my size. From a Google Images search, I believe what I saw was a grouper:

There are signs at Yonehara warning you to watch out for jellyfish, which can deal a deadly sting if you’re not careful. I didn’t see any while I out there, but I definitely came across a couple of sea snakes, which were of a brighter black and yellow coloring than the one in this file photo:

Eventually, I became aware that it was getting late in the afternoon, and so reluctantly I slowly made my way back to shore, where I discovered it was now past 4:00 in the afternoon. I was soon traveling on Route 79, the same road that I had taken the day before to the Ibaruma Bay 伊原間湾 junction. It wasn’t long before I came to the intersection where Route 87 meets 79. Yesterday, I had turned right from 87 onto 79. This time, I turned right onto 87 from 79, and made my way through the interior of the island and back again to the city 石垣市. Seeing as it was still only 5:15 by the time I reached the downtown area (I had until 6:30 to return to the scooter), I decided to head west again as I’d done this morning in order to check out Funakura-no-Sato 舟蔵の里 (, which I’d passed earlier on my way to the Tōjin Grave. It’s basically a grouping of traditional Okinawa dwellings that house a restaurant and gift shop. I didn’t eat or buy anything there, but it is a nice spot for a quick stroll.

I made it back to the rental place with time to spare, and after dropping off the scooter, set off in search of food. All the soba 蕎麦 I’d been eating for the past few days had tasted great, but I needed meat, and so I dined at Vanilla Deli バニラ・デリ, located just up the road from Eifuku Shokudō 栄福食堂 (see the entry for Day 4), and treated myself to their “best burger”. I had been a semi-regular visitor to Vanilla Deli during the time I stayed in Ishigaki in order to use their computer to check my email (usage free with one drink order – their Chai Lattes チャイラッテ were great), but this was my first meal there. The burger wasn’t bad, but the beer selection was disappointing. For the only time during my trip, I didn’t have Orion or one of the local craft beers – Vanilla Deli only has Kirin Lager キリンラガービール.

However, on Ishigaki Island, good beer is never far away, and so I ended my last night there by treating myself to another bottle of the local brew 石垣島地ビール at an outdoor café close to the port.

Ishigaki’s main (covered) shopping arcade. Lots of souvenir shops, plus a small public market every morning.

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