My final island hop is to Ishigaki, where 50,000 inhabitants drive most of the Yaeyamas’ economy via the tourism, farming and pearl-harvesting industries. I rent a car to tour the shores but soon find the Shisa roadside again at the turn to north-coast Yonabaru beach, only this time they are plentiful, bear-sized, psychedelic and wackily cute. “Shisa are guardian angels of safety and need to be adorable and familiar for their people,” says Hisashi Katsuren, half of the husband-and-wife team who create these popular kawaii (cute) interpretations at the prodigious Yoneko-yaki Pottery studio.
Curving around Route 79, I pull up to the Yaeyama’s most recognizable landmark: Kabira Bay. The turquoise water is sprinkled with tiny islands of milky white sand blanketed with verdant greenery, with the glass-bottomed vessels on its surface appearing almost suspended in space. It’s as if a painter’s paradise were reconstructed by Mother Nature herself.
Craving one last local delicacy, I take a pew alongside locals at Kitauchi Bokujyo Misaki-ten (formerly called Yakiniku Kinjo), located in the heart of the city, to sample Ishigaki beef. The restaurant is famed for the marble of its meat, and I soon discover that its reputation is well earned: The juices from the smooth beef slowly flood my palate, intoxicating me as much as the local brew in my hand.
Like all good travelers, my final duty is to think of those back home. In Euglena Mall, I stumble across a store adorned with decorations of cotton minsaa, a local alternating four-block, five-block repeating pattern ingrained in architecture styles and interior design throughout the Yaeyama islands. Traditionally woven by women as gifts for their fiancé, the motif’s pure meaning is interpreted as “please visit me often, anytime.”
It’s advice I intend to heed.
Tokyo-based writer ROBERT MICHAEL POOLE has covered travel and entertainment in Asia for Newsweek, CNN, The Wall Street Journal and The Japan Times.