Ishigaki, Japan’s Hidden Wonderland

You probably haven’t heard of it but Ishigaki, a small Japanese island, has just been named TripAdvisor’s top-trending travel destination for 2018. Once virtually ignored, even by the Japanese, this banjo-shaped isle is currently being compared to Hawaii thanks to its heartbreaking white-sand beaches, translucent waters and epic marine life.

Situated 1,200 miles south-west of Tokyo, and less than four hours by plane, Ishigaki is the second largest of the Yaeyama Islands in Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture, a cluster of volcanic islands that taper down towards Taiwan. Set to surpass the Aloha State in popularity this year (the island saw a huge 8.77 million visitors in 2016), Ishigaki has more than a touch of the Polynesians about it. In fact, it even has its own aloha shirt, the kariyushi, decorated with traditional Okinawan emblems.

The island has a population of 50,000, largely concentrated in its eponymous capital but venture moments from the city to find fragrant fields of pineapple, sugar cane and mango trees, floury soft beaches and lush mangroves. Spring is the best time to go, when rainfall is minimal, the temperatures hang around the mid-20s, and the manta rays are in residence.

Ishigaki’s recent spike in popularity has seen several new hotels pop up around the island. Book ahead to bag one of the seven rooms at Seven Colour Ishigakijima, a teeny-tiny luxury resort on the private Yamatozan beach on the west coast. While the swish Grandvrio Resort Ishigakijima Villa Garden on the south-western flanks has a traditional Ryukyuan vibe.

Much of Ishigaki’s attraction is its heavenly white-sand beaches lapped by Pantone-blue seas-serious rivals to the Maldives or Seychelles. A 30-minute drive north of the city is Kabira Bay, a dazzling blue lagoon with Okinawa’s Mount Omoto hovering in the distance and one of the few places black pearls are still cultured. Sadly, swimming in its waters is prohibited thanks to a delicate coral reef, strong currents and potential encounters with jellyfish, so hop on a glass-bottomed boat tour.

There are other places to dive: try Manta Scramble, the island’s most popular dive spot renowned for its glut of manta rays, while surf pilgrims should head to Yarabuzaki beach on the west coast.

Naturally, all this beach action works up an appetite. Load up on the carbs with agepan, Okinawa’s tiny fried doughnuts from Antoshimo. Okinawa famously has one of the longest life expectancies in the world, so for a proper local feast head to Funakura no Sato, which specialises in nuchi gusui or Ryukyuan longevity food – largely green and yellow vegetables. Or you could order the rich, creamy ramen made with the island’s signature wheat noodles (rather than the traditional buckwheat) and topped with prized Ishigaki beef.

Although remote; Ishigaki is no sleepy backwater when it comes to its nightlife. Misakichou is the city’s entertainment district, where most bars and clubs stay open until 5am. You’ll still find the odd ramshackle beach bar along the coast serving shots of awamori, the Okinawan rice shochu (spirit), or Ishigakijima, the local craft beer. Try both at the buzzy Elephant Caffe in Misakichou, or an espresso awamori at Bar Nobu, a cool cocktail bar run by former Tokyo TV director Nobu Okamoto. End the night in true Japanese style belting out Islands in the Stream at Karaoke Box.