Japan is well-known for its cities and temples, but less so for its tropical islands off the southern coast.
We were tempted by Okinawa’s tropical islands but didn’t have the time or the funds for another flight – it’s the sort of place you want to go for a week or so. We decided on small but beautiful Iki Island for a three-day trip instead – an hour’s catamaran ride away from Hakata Port, Fukuoka. It turned out to be one of our biggest and best travelling adventures yet.
We had some difficulty booking accommodation as most of the limited supply of hotels only had Japanese websites. We managed to find Kaneya Annex, handily near to Ashibe Port, via Rakuten Travel, who accepted our booking but emailed to say that there were no English speaking staff at the hotel. We began to think few English speaking people must venture to the island, and we were right. Talking to people we met in Japan, no one seemed to have heard of Iki Island either. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we sensed the language barrier might be an issue…
We booked tickets for the catamaran with some difficulty and got plenty of stares as the only tourists. As we approached Iki Island, Phil tracked the catamaran via Google Maps, only to find that we were docking at Gonoura Port, at the other side of the island to Ashibe Port. Nightmare. It turned out that the catamaran alternates which port it docks at, but we weren’t to know this from the Japanese signs at the ticket office.
With the help of Google translate and a bit of sign language and map pointing, we found our way into tiny Gonoura town to wait at the bus stop. People were coming to look and point at us, cars stopped to check that we were OK, and an old man dragged Phil off down the street, clutching his map to show us where the ticket office was.
We boarded the bus as it was getting dark (slightly worrying as we had no idea where our hotel was), and found ourselves amongst a group of teenagers who had been at Saturday school. As we neared Ashibe, the bus driver stopped and must have asked one of them to speak to us in English, because a girl came over and asked us the name of our hotel, before giving instructions to the driver to drop us outside. The kindness of strangers in Iki Island was already overwhelming, and we had been there less than an hour.
Our hotel was a traditional ryokan (think futons and tatami mats) with an onsen (hot spring bath) and a miniature oyster farm on the ground floor, obviously.
The hotel had very kindly written us a welcome message and had put English Post-it notes on the onsen changing room doors. We thanked them via Google translate!
Iki Island is best explored by bike, and because of the steep hills the rental bikes from Iki Chari are all power assisted – what an invention. They were great.
One of the best things about cycling in Japan is that there is a vending machine at every corner, even in the most remote of places, so you never need to worry about being thirsty.
Drivers were so polite and considerate on Iki Island that they drove on the other side of the road to overtake you.
We spent two days meandering our way up coastal hills, racing down valleys past traditional rice terraces and taking in some of the sights of this sleepy island.
Iki has a rugged coastline with Torii gates and shrines reaching out to sea.
The Harahoge jizo statues (statues of guardian deity of children) at the edge of a small fishing village look out to sea. In the Shinto faith they promise freedom from suffering and pain.
Iruka Dolphin Park
In the late 1970s, Iki Island was in the press for the wrong reasons, as fishermen carried out mass dolphin slaughters to try and improve their fishing catches. Worldwide condemnation stopped this activity, and the Iruka Dolphin Park goes some way to restoring dolphin numbers off the coast of the island.
We went to the park at lunchtime and for 200 yen got to see the dolphins being fed by a very excited conservation worker shouting into a microphone. Not too necessary as we were the only visitors there!
Monkey Rock (Saruiwa)
This 45m high cliff located at the tip of the Kurosaki Peninsula is known as Monkey Rock, for obvious reasons.
Here we met a crazy Japanese tour group who encouraged us to have lots photos and gave advice on how to take the perfect shot with the monkey.
A little girl also came up to us with her Mum to give us some sweets and say a shy hello. We were beginning to feel like celebrities…
Iki has some beautiful beaches – Tsutsukihama beach has been voted one of the top 100 beaches in Japan.
We left our bikes in the shade of the trees and had the whole beach to ourselves – after 1 September, even though the weather is still around 25 degrees, summer is officially over for the Japanese and the beaches are deserted. The perfect time to visit.
Iki has been producing Shochu (distilled from two-thirds barley and one-third rice) since the 16th century. It’s potent stuff.
We’d heard that you could take a free tour of the distillery and try some free tastings (open from 8.30am -5pm). You can, but note that the staff don’t speak English. Not to be defeated, we got on the wifi and via good old Google translate we had our own personalised tour of the distillery.
We had to exchange our shoes for plastic slippers but that was the only health and safety concession going – we could clamber up thin ladders to the top of the vats and smell the barley and rice fermenting, seeing each stage of the brewing process as we walked over the precariously thin metal grates. Really interesting, and something you just wouldn’t be able to do in the UK.
We finished with some tastings of shochu and saki, as well as Japanese whiskey. We had to stop as we didn’t want to be too wobbly on our bike ride home.
Food on the island
Iki is famous for its expensive delicacy Iki beef (from Wagyu cattle) with its distinct marbling. Unfortunately, it was just too pricey for us to try, but the smell of steak wafting from the traditional restaurants was delicious.
Admittedly, there were very few food options on the island, and no bars. It’s not a touristy place, but that’s what we liked about it. We soon learnt that the newly-opened supermarket at Ashibe port would be our friend, especially the surprisingly tasty MOS Burger downstairs.
When we checked out of our hotel, we thanked the staff for a wonderful stay (via our phones) – the receptionist cried and all the staff waved us off as the chef drove us to the ferry port. Maybe they thought that this would be the start of an English tourist boom, or maybe they were glad to see us leave, but it was very touching!
Iki Island is well worth the extra effort and hassle of the language barrier to experience unspoilt, rural Japanese life, and the islanders gave us one of the warmest welcomes we have had on our trip. It was hard to believe we were in the same country as hectic Tokyo.