Ishigaki is one of my favorite places I’ve ever been, and we only stayed there a day. I wish I’d known–I would have made it a bigger part of our plans.
We got our first view of the island as we took the bus from the airport to the harbor, where we could walk to our hotel. It was mostly sugar cane fields and houses reeling from the blows of typhoons past, although here and there were small communities of houses that huddled together to make an informal town, these lumps of civilization merging with one another more and more until we reached the harbor, which finally seemed like it was part of a proper town.
As the towns grew in size, Ishigaki reminded me more and more of a James Bond-type paradise: tropical, warm, slightly rough around the edges, a bit down on its luck. A place where Bond’s pressed polos and $500 Ray Bans appear even more starkly affluent, and where his pounds and pounds sterling will fetch him even more martinis to lube him up for hot sticky nights with a woman who he’ll forget the moment she’s shot by enemy agents. I even saw the obligatory over-the-top resort hotel, the ANA Intercontinental, though it wasn’t up to Bond standards quite yet.
When we approached the harbor, the Bond vibe intensified: new boats and old boats on scary blue water, all just waiting for a chase and some explosions to liven them up. The only things missing: a shadow government, a weak currency, a madman with a volcano lair (and the volcano to build it in).
The water was scary blue in that I was literally afraid of what the color might mean. It was the color of a blue raspberry Icee, an almost radioactive blue that I’d never seen except in flavored drinks and travel photos. (I always assumed those were photoshopped!) In person, the color seemed too unnatural to be appealing. Could this really be the same angry, steel-colored water that we have on the Oregon coast? Besides its vibrancy, the color was also so flat that the water looked opaque. But as we passed a dock, I saw the posts going down into the seafloor, and the visibility was astonishing; I could probably see five feet down the side of it before the water got too cloudy–white cloudy from oxygen. Just inches away, the water seemed flat again, but now it was clear that I was actually looking through feet and feet of impossibly blue water. “The literal definition of aquamarine” Jason called it–“sea blue” in Italian–a word I’d never thought to break into its component parts and wonder why it referred to such a light, light blue, and which made me wonder how scary blue the water in the Mediterranean must be.
I was already falling in love with Ishigaki, but I’d planned to spend the day on Iriomote Island. We asked about ferry tickets at the harbor, and Jason and I were jetted there on a bumping ferry that knocked my teeth together. (More about Iriomote next week.)
Shannon stayed behind while Jason and I went to Iriomte, mostly exploring the local watering holes, so he knew just the place for dinner: Banana Café. As we walked there from the harbor, the twilight that had welcomed us back to Ishigaki fell away into night. Motorbikes raced down the street with high-tuned engines whining, and the people that we passed seemed to ignore us.
I’d never noticed how much attention I’m paid in Japan until Ishigaki took it away. On the mainland, people look at you with just a tiny bit of fear, mostly nervous that you’ll try to talk to them and they’ll be forced to use their rusted-shut English. These people seem surprised and relieved when I use Japanese. On the big island of Okinawa, people look at you with a bit of annoyance because 1) tourists are annoying and 2) theyr’re sick of playing host to the American bases and the bumbling soldiers that get drunk and, at best, make enormous fools of themselves. When I speak Japanese to these people, the attitude is “It’s about damn time.” But on Ishigaki, where tourists are very plentiful but there’s no American base to cramp them, they seem not to care whether you’re Japanese, and my skin color didn’t seem all that alarming. My Japanese was neither surprising nor hoped-for, and no one showed the least bit of fear, anger, or annoyance when we spoke English. We just existed.
This must be what people find relaxing about tropical islands: the locals are chill from tons of sun and sea and warmth, and they’re so accustomed to tourists they don’t get pestered by your presence. You can just be, and that’s all.
Banana Cafe was lovely, a sort of cafe/restaurant/bar fusion with low lighting and candles and tasty drinks and yummy food. The owner was very kind but not over-friendly. We had our dinner and drinks, then stopped at a convenience store for local beer that turned out to be excellent. Even Jason liked it, and he never met an alcoholic drink he couldn’t criticize.
Before we settled in for the night, I stood on the balcony of our hotel and looked out toward the harbor and the sea. I wished I’d known it would be so relaxing here; I wished I’d known I’d love it so much.