It was impossible to miss her at the Narita International airport. Tracy Kraft, our photographer from Maui, was the first one of the crew to arrive in Japan, and her near 6ft tall, slender body with long blonde hair stood out like palm tree above low dark bushes.

By Tomoko Okazaki.

I couldn’t believe that she was in Japan. Shortly after, Norwegian sparky miss Tuva Jansen, flying in from France, came out of the gate with her big gear bag, several days after us, Susi Mai finally arrived in Ishigaki. She had just competed in the PKRA event in Dominican Republic and had missioned 2 days of traveling to meet up with us. She flew in and filled us in with all the gossip on what’s happening on the world tour. What a feeling to finally see my best buddies in my home country for the first time ever! We now had one month to discover the culture and magic of Japan’s final frontier, Yaeyama Islands.

Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture and is made up of three major island groups, one of them being the Yaeyama Island chain. This island chain consists of 12 small islands that are located not too far off the coast of Taiwan. Ishigaki Island is the most populated of the Yaeyama’s, and serves as the region’s transportation hub. Ideal for us to base out of for our Japanese adventure.

We settled in to the Island Club, our friend Chikara’s vacation rental and dive tour company on Ishigaki Island. Island Club overlooks the ocean, with a snorkel area only steps away, and is conveniently set up with a kitchen, wireless internet, and the nicest local staff you could ever imagine. Not bad for a remote island!

Chikara is “the man” of the island kite scene. He is the first kiteboarder in Ishigaki and is respected by all. His strong sense of safety and his good attitude have helped Ishigaki become a prime spot to kite in Japan. Ishigaki’s conditions are good, it’s beautiful, and it has a great welcoming vibe. Chikara was our ideal captain and weather man, as he knew exactly what would happen with the wind and tide conditions daily, and of course where it would be good for kiting.

Our first day there, Chikara took us on his boat to check out one of the islands off of Ishigaki. A secret spot, only accessible by a 30 minute boat ride. This spot was a magical place that had not yet been “exposed”. A sandbar that only unveils itself from the crystal clear, blue water as the tide goes down. It literally appears out of the blue. Timing with the tide is therefore key. Anxious to get in the water, we all hopped off the boat and rigged on a sandbar that was exposed only enough to be suitable as a launch pad. We went for our first flatwater session in Japan, and would be venturing back here throughout our trip.

It was now time for us to try some exotic food and well, good sake, of course! We each claimed our cushion, around the low, Japanese style table, chopsticks in hand. In front of us was a plate of foreign sashimi, (raw fish), shell meat, and more unknown raw items. The girls were brave enough to pick shell meat out of swirling little shell with toothpick and eat it. That was the first and last time. A cold sapporo was in hand to save the day. By the way, it’s Japanese custom to serve each other. Never poor your own drink, it’s rude.

Having a whole month to spend in the islands, we had plenty of time to do some exploring off of Ishigaki Island. We decided to take a ferry to one of the bigger islands called Kohama. Upon our afternoon arrival, we were greeted by the manager of Haimurubushi resort, where we would stay, and unknowingly be treated like princesses. We were given a golf cart to cruise around the sizeable resort, kite gear loaded on back. Our oceanview suite was furnished with a deluxe massage chair, flat screen tv, internet, and a bath tub with a view. We were each pampered with 2 bath robes, 2 pair of slippers, and a deluxe bed, among other things. You want to shower? Well, tough choice between an ocean view bathtub or 2 other deluxe showers. To top it off, the food was top notch and was most likely prepared and waiting for us before we even arrived. We didn’t know that there was such a thing as a 9 course meal! (9 Japanese style courses, small. Whew!) By the way, even the toilets (with the heated seats) will wash your bum, just press the button and be prepared!

Our first night at the resort we had typhoon-like weather, which Okinawa is famous for. Heavy rain, lightning, and wind, perfect for an evening of multiple episodes of Sex in the City on the flat screen. Luckily we awoke the next morning to sunshine and wind. Just enough to get in a bit of riding. Kohama is a great spot for kiting. Just a 5 minute ride in your golf cart to perfect side shore winds, flat aqua blue water, and a long open beach. If you’re lucky you’ll see a Japanese rider, guaranteed to have a huge smile on his face. They’re so stoked to see others on the water, typical of the people of this area. Kind and happy.

By the afternoon the heavy rain had returned, but somehow this resort is still beautiful. Lush in greens and flowers, Kohama has a large pond of water lily’s surrounded by a community of ducks and a water buffalo cruising in it. There’s a large outdoor lap pool, a huge wedding chapel and just a feeling of true Japan. Tracy’s twisted creativity was in full works, so we grabbed the rain boots and umbrellas and had fun playing with ideas and shooting all kinds of things in the rain.

Tomoko Okazak

After a few nights , we headed back to Ishigaki Island Club. Throughout our stay we had a consistent mix of weather conditions, still, hot humid days, sunny windy days, and a few with rain, but we were never short of things to do. On the days that were windy we would mission to a spot to kite. Otherwise, you would find us shopping the local markets, snorkeling, walking the friendly streets to test the many Japanese snacks and candies. Everything in sight in the stores and on the streets was foreign and interesting to the 3 blondies.

It has been Susi’s dream to visit Japan, and she seems a bit taken by the Japanese animation. Susi found a box of candy that comes with a Manga toy. She was so stoked with the Manga characters that she ended up buying multiple boxes, just to get the whole Manga collection.

Tracy and Tuva seemed to find some stuff they like as well. Tuva found the shopping to be quite a treat, taking a liking to the hand made jewelry selection and stylish hats especially. Tracy, on the other hand, was quite interested in hitting the well known electronic stores. Me, back in my home country, all the food is looking good to me! I was craving seaweed, locally made fresh tofu and salads for breakfast, while other girls looked at me like I am crazy.

Our next venture took us to Taketomi Island, about a 10 minute ferry ride from Ishigaki. Taketomi is a very round, (9km circumference around), flat island with only 200 people living on it. It could very easily be called a time capsule. It’s very hermitic, with it’s own thriving micro-culture. This tidy little island has streets of white sand and tropical flowers contrasting with black rock walls. There aren’t any super markets, no gas stations, only a couple of local diners and a general store. You transport via foot, bicycle, or hop on the wagon pulled by the water buffalo. You can’t mistake the sound of the jamisen, a string instrument famed in the Okinawan music. This place looks like it’s straight from fairy tale. It’s decorated with little Okinawan style houses, which are famous for their red roofs with the symbolic protective Shisa, (a mythical Okinawan Lion) on top.

We rode bikes around to check out the island and found a little place to stay. We would stay here for a few nights, as our little magic island was nearby. It’s not you normal “hotel”. You share rooms with whoever comes, and each room is divided by only the shoji sliding doors, which are to be left open during the day. You sleep on mats, not beds. We were living as Japanese as you could live.

Obaa, (friendly way to call Grandma, in Okinawa) was an amazing lady, always smiling, always busy, cooking, offering teas and cookies to everyone, and never seem to be resting. She owned our “hotel”. She was a true Okinawan woman, probably in her 60’s with the skin of a 30 year old. The locals there age gracefully, if at all. We couldn’t get over the skin of all of the women and how porcelain it was.

After a restless night in a tiny room with 4 of us lying like sardines, mat to mat, we woke up by the smell of fresh baked bread. The bread the Obaa baked for us was the best bread ever. To ride here, we had to play with the tide and when it is low, it would be completely dry and when it is high then the whole sandbar vanishes. So we would ride in the mornings, sometimes in the company of our friend Tomo, and a few others from Ishigaki. The local kiters are so stoked to have people to ride with that it made it that much more fun. We’d always end up going back to kite for the sunset session when the colors were even more beautiful. We would stay there and watch the sun go down, while sometimes sifting through the star-shaped sand that Taketomi is famous for.

Tuva Jansen

Getting dinner here was always the mission. If you miss dinner at the only diner, you’re purely out of luck. Better hope they don't run out of food by the time you get there too! So, if you plan to stay on the beach late, you may compromise your dinner, so be prepared. The night we missed dinner, I fell asleep tucked in the small corner, as Tuva, Susi, and Tracy were still up talking. They were talking about a shot Tracy took that evening, of our toes in the sand. As I understand it, I joined in on the conversation in my sleep, and started mumbling, “toast”. This was just enough to spark a game of “make Tomoko say things in her sleep.” I woke up to the 3 of them red faced and in tears from laughter. Well I don’t remember a thing but I guess they tried play with my sleepy mind for a while and tried to get me saying some stuff in my sleep. Nice fiends!

After 3 weeks of island hopping, our mission in Ishigaki was pretty much accomplished. Great kiting, a brand new cultural experience, meeting new friends, seeing new places, and living together in Japan. We had a few days left, which would take us to Kamakura then Tokyo for the finale. We packed our things, said our good byes, and headed to my home town of Kamakura, where we then enjoyed real home living at my parents house. Kamakura is one of the oldest towns in Japan and also a little surf town. Not even a 5 minute walk from my house and you’re at a beach with a full surf culture. We surfed, visited temples, walked the beach, and rode bikes throughout the town.

The last day in Japan had to be spent in Tokyo, we checked in the nice hotel and got ourselves some champagne to start out our last night celebration. By 8 o’clock the bubbly was making for some good karaoke. After some so-so karaoke in the hotel room we headed to the real deal. We rented a private Karaoke room, as they do in Japan, and I can tell you no more, except that there was a lot of sake and laughter. The song “I will survive“ will never be the same now for me after this night.

How to get there:
Fly to Tokyo and then take a airport shuttle to Haneda airport for domestic flight. There is a direct flight to Ishigaki by Japan airlines and all Nippon Airways.

Where to stay:

Ishigaki Island
Island club offers a beautiful condominium style accommodation, for about $100 a night, and the owner is a kiteboarder so very accurate, daily report where to go and etc is available: www.islandclub.co.jp
Hotels are pretty reasonable and there are many hostels and dormitory inns around, for cheaper rate.
 
Kohama Island
Haimurubushi Resort, top of the class resort, service is amazing you can kite right in front of the resort. Many activities are available as well. www.haimurubushi.co.jp
 
Other islands
Taketomi. Very small local island, there are B&B style inns but mostly booked so make sure you make reservation in advance, or you can take a ferry from Ishigaki and commute.
Iriomote island. Very lush green island, beautiful waterfalls and jungles. There is a boat service and kitesurfing guide available. Contact waterman: www.waterman.co.jp
You can take a ferry to any of these islands from Ishigaki Island, very frequent schedule.

Places to eat in Ishigaki:

  • Asahi Shokudou: Japanese style diner, where many workers fill their belly (be ready to deal with lots of food) very cheap and you get to experience the full okinawan culture and taste.
  • Hawaiian grotto the owner is kiteboarder and well known cocktail mixer on the island, try one of his original cocktail with okinawan awamori (very strong sake made from sugarcane)
  • Natsuya grilled chiken cabob eatery and bar.

Thanks to Chikara and Island club, Mr, Samata and Haimurubushi resort, and all the local kiteboarders.

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text: Tomoko Okazaki, photos: Tracy Kraft windgirls 2006