A Food Lover's Guide To Ishigaki
This modest archipelago in Japan's southernmost isles offers a slower pace of life—and plentiful gastronomic experiences
Although officially part of Okinawa, the Yaeyama islands, Japan's southernmost isles, are decidedly under the radar. The archipelago’s main hub of Ishigaki is just two hours by direct flight from Hong Kong, and making it a deliciously convenient destination to escape the bustle of the city. With its Hawai'i-meets-Japanese countryside vibes, and prized bounty of specialty vegetables, beef, and marine delicacies, Ishigaki should be on every food lover's agenda.
This classic kissaten (Japanese coffee shop) has been serving locals for almost half a century. Opened by longtime suppliers of coffee beans and equipment (the roastery is right next door), you know you’ll get a decent brew. The menu is deceptively simple, but all served with that humble Japanese attention to detail. At breakfast, the cafe hums along with regulars dropping in for their morning brew alongside eggs, thick-cut toast with coleslaw and potato salad, or Japanese-style breakfasts of rice with pickles and miso soup. If it’s hot outside–and it often is–you can even opt for an old-school kakigori (shaved ice dessert).
Umibouzu Kissa, Misaki 8-12, Ishigaki, Japan; +81 980 82 3674
Life is a little slower on Ishigaki, and it’s easy to let go those Hong Kong bar-hopping urges for a cocktail on the patio of Blue Cafe. Watch fishing boats and small passenger ferries bob in and out of the harbour as the sun disappear into the placid waters. A cafe by day, this isn’t a spot for the latest mixology trends–stick with classic cocktails, or local flavours such as sangria made with Okinawan fruits, and enjoy the serenity.
Blue Cafe, Misaki 2-6, Ishigaki, Japan; +81 980 82 5252
The Toyama family started Garden Pana in their own backyard, literally, growing a few herbs and spices to make their own blend for champuru, the essential Okinawan vegetable stir-fry. The blend became an island specialty, which sparked a desire to create native herbal products that represent the island. Today, the family home, around 20 minutes drive from the city centre, has been converted into a cafe and shop with a highly productive edible garden. Tuck into hearty dishes made with freshly-picked herbs such as choumeisou, Ishigaki’s famous “longevity herb”.
Garden Pana, Sakieda 239-14, Ishigaki, Japan; +81 120 917 078
Okinawans are known for their longevity, which many attribute to their diet of colourful vegetables and seaweed. Experience the true “Okinawan diet” with Tamako-san, an ebullient octogenarian who teaches farm-to-table cooking classes on her family’s expansive 70,000 square-metre farm. You’ll start by helping her pick the ingredients, which might be young papaya destined for a salad, onions for a champuru, or potato flowers for garnishes. Then you’ll return to the rustic kitchen and cook up a storm, eating your creations plus a jigsaw of myriad colourful dishes prepared by Tamako-san.
Marutaka Farm, Tonoshiro 2151-5, Ishigaki, Japan; +81 980831665
Fine dining is a relative concept in Ishigaki, where a wetsuit is likely only kind of suit you’ll encounter. Nonetheless, the Penguin family are almost royalty in Ishigaki, having made the island famous with their chilli oil, and more recently, a movie about the owners’ (a Japanese-Chinese couple) lives. Tables at this laid-back eatery are by far the most sought-after on the island, and the food and drink, which are a contemporary celebration of all things local, live up to the hype. Think dumplings stuffed with wild boar, indigenous vegetables and ultra-rare editions of locally-made awamori (Okinawan rice-based spirit). Swing by their shop (on the street behind the restaurant) for their curation of Made in Ishigaki goodies, including their famed chilli oil.
Penguin Shokudo, 199-1 Okawa, Ishigaki, Japan; +81 980 88 7803; penshoku.com
What To Buy
With an abundance of local produce and a passionate community of entrepreneurs, food souvenirs are abound in Ishigaki. Coffee lovers should visit Takeda Farm for beans grown and roasted by Takaharu Takeda and his wife. His signature blends combine beans from his own farm with those grown in Okinawa, Brazil, Malawi and Yemen, and you can taste them at the farm. For something a little stronger, on your way to the airport, leave some time for a tasting session at Seifuku Shuzo, a 70-year-old awamori distillery known for their artisanal wood-fired distilling, as well as lip-smacking awamori liqueurs made with native fruits such as the shiquasa citrus as well as ginger, yuzu and grapefruit.
Takeda Coffee, Sakieda 556-220, Ishigaki, Japan; +81 50 3393 9158; takedacoffee.com (by appointment only)
Seifuku Shuzo, Miyara 959, Ishigaki, Japan; +81 980 84 4118; seifuku.co.jp