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Essential Travel Information
CashJapan is still very much a 'cash culture', which is rather surprising given that it is arguably the most technologically-advanced nation in the world. Many restaurants, bars, and even some shops will not accept credit cards. This reason, along with Japan's low crime rate, makes carrying cash a sensible option for many travellers. However, relying completely on cash carries risks, and it would be sensible to have at least one credit card to fall back on in the case of an emergency.
Withdrawing Cash at ATMs>> Click here for detailed information and a map of Ishigaki's JP Bank ATMs.
Credit / Debit cards such as those carrying the Visa / Mastercard / American Express logos can be used to purchase goods and services throughout Japan. Note however that there are exceptions; some small shops along with many bars and restaurants may only deal in cash. Security is rather poor when compared to that in many western nations, with cashiers frequently accepting payment without asking for a pin number or even checking the signature on the card. Remember that your card issuer may apply a surcharge along with their own exchange rate when you make purchases abroad.
Goods and Services
Japan is often said to be one of the most expensive countries in the world, and wild fluctuations in the value of the Yen against other currencies can have a major impact on the bottom line for foreign travellers. Prices of goods and services on Ishigaki island are broadly comparable to prices on the mainland, however, low salaries mean that the island lacks the high-end exclusive bars and restaurants which are found in cities such as Tokyo.
When it comes to eating out Japan is surprisingly cheap. If you're on a budget you shouldn't have too much trouble finding a place to eat for around 1000 Yen (excluding drinks). Naturally if you want to spend more you shouldn't have any problems finding and establishment willing to take your money; Ishigaki beef is considered to be the finest in Japan and it is priced accordingly.
>> Click here to read more about Ishgiaki's nightlife scene
You could quite easily spend a week shopping for cutting-edge electrical goods and clothes in Japan's major cities, however the same cannot be said for Ishigaki. The island's shops offer a great selection of souvenirs, such as bottles of star sand, hand painted 'shiisaas' and accessories made from polished 'yakougai' shells, but in terms of standard consumer items choice is very limited. For most tourists this shouldn't be a problem, after all, who travels all the way to a tropical island only to spend time hanging around department stores?
If you know that you're going to need something in particular, such as an electrical item, it is recommended that you purchase it before you depart for Ishigaki in order to avoid disappointment.
Japanese ImmigrationCitizens from many nations can enter Japan for the purpose of non-paid activities without the need to arrange a visa in advance. The period of stay permitted for most nationals is 3 months, although this can usually be extended for another 3 months. For more information check Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs site or consult with their embassy in your home country.
http://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/short/novisa.html (visa exemption country list)
http://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/index.html (general visa info)
LanguageForeigner visitors are sometimes under the misapprehension that people from Ishigaki speak a dialect which differs significantly to standard Japanese. This is simply not the case, and if the truth be known the Japanese spoken by most people in Ishigaki differs very little to that spoken in Tokyo, and is far easier to understand than many of Japan's regional accents/dialects. Basically, if you can speak survival Japanese in Tokyo then the same survival Japanese will serve you well on Ishigaki island.
Shimamuni (Yaeyama's native language)
Ishigaki has its own native language, 'Shimamuni', which is completely distinct from Japanese. The language is occasionally spoken alongside Japanese by the island's older generation, but it is unlikely that you'll encounter it unless you go out of your way to do so.
Getting to Ishigaki
For most travellers an internal flight from within Japan is the only viable way of getting to Ishigaki. The good news is that huge discounts on internal flights are available for people travelling to Japan from abroad.
>> Click here to read more about flights and discount tickets to Ishigaki.
DrivingTo drive in Japan you'll require either a Japanese driver's license or an international driver's license. Note however that many car rental businesses on the island only accept Japanese driver's licenses.
>> Click here for detailed info about driving on Ishigaki island
A reasonable bus service with multiple routes connects the city with most of the island's top sightseeing spots and beaches. There is also a loop line which starts at the airport and stops at many of the city's hotels. Significant savings can be made by purchasing a 5-day bus pass.>> Click here to read more about Ishigaki's bus services
TaxisIf you're either at the airport or in the town center you should have no difficult hailing a taxi. Taxi fares a comparable to those in most western nations. A taxi ride from the airport to the town center will cost around 1000. The fare to Kabira is likely to cost in the region of 4000 – 5000 Yen.
Scooter RentalIf you hold an international driver's license you should be able to rent a 50cc scooter, with prices being in the region of around 1500 a day. Helmets are mandatory and they will usually be included in the price. Note that some outlets prefer not to rent to foreigners, often due to the absence of an English-language contract. Also, be sure to check that your travel insurance will cover you in the case of an accident. Many foreigners travelling abroad have fallen foul to travel insurance clauses which state that cover does not extend to motorcycle/scooter use.
Bicycle RentalBicycle rental outlets are found throughout Ishigaki and its surrounding islands. Note however that many outlets only offer single-geared shopping bikes. While these are fine for pottering around town they aren't really suitable for touring the island's hilly terrain (plan for the possibility of a puncture if you choose to do so). It must be said however that the quality of Ishigaki's roads, particularly out-of-town is excellent. People who ride road bikes at a competitive level often have nothing but positive things to say about training on the island.
Bicycle rental ranges from around 200 for an hour to 1000 for 24 hours. Expect to pay more if you wish to rent a mountain bike or racer. Some hotels have been known to offer cut-price / free bicycle rental to their patrons.
Travel InsuranceWhist medical care in Japan may not be as expensive as it is in the US, it would be foolish to travel without adequate insurance. If you plan on doing specific activities, such as diving, it would be wise to ensure that you are fully-covered when purchasing insurance in your home country.
Hazards & Safety PrecautionsJapan is regarded as being one of the safest countries in the world to travel to, however, no destination is risk-free, and most travellers will benefit from taking some basic precautions.
CrimeCompared to most western countries street crime, including muggings, pick-pocketing and random acts of violence, are virtually unheard of. Indeed, it's not unusual to see young men boarding the underground in Tokyo, wallets hanging out of their back pockets, with little fear that they will be stolen. If anything Ishigaki is even safer than the mainland in this respect. If you do lose your wallet or something valuable in Japan then there's a very good chance that it will be handed in at the nearest police station. However, Ishigaki does suffer its share of petty crime, much of it being opportunistic rather than planned; bike theft (and even bike seat theft!) is not uncommon.
Accidents and MisadventureNot a year goes by without tourists being killed by either the ocean or on hiking trips / tours. Sea conditions can change quickly, and even experienced snorkelers and kayakers have fallen foul to rapid currents and high winds. Naturally it's safer to join a professional tour, but even then there is still an element of risk. If you do choose to go it alone as a minimum you should probably be able to answer 'yes' to the following questions, although this is by no means an exhaustive list.
- Does anybody else know where you are heading and what time you expect to return?
- Do you know what time the sun will set? Ishigaki is positioned relatively close to the equator, and once the sun starts to sink towards the horizon it sets rapidly. Even on a moonlit night a dense jungle path can become pitch dark shortly after sundown.
- Have you checked the forecast for severe/bad weather warnings, including high winds.
- Do you have access to a cell phone and do you know the relevant emergency numbers?
- Would you be able to accurately explain your location to somebody over the phone?
- Is everybody in your party confident that they are capable of comfortably completing the chosen activity? When hiking both heat and humidity can quickly take their toll. Also, plan for changes in conditions which could make the acitivity more difficult part-way through. A shift in the tide can make returning to the shore more difficult, and heavy rain can make a mountain path treacherous.
- Is there anybody else in the vicinity who could be of assistance should you get into trouble? Activities such as trekking alone or snorkeling off a deserted beach with nobody to call for help naturally raise the level of risk considerably.
- Is at least one person in the group capable of adminstering basic first aid and CPR.
Plus, if you're planning on entering the ocean:
- Do you know when the tide is expected to go change and the relative depth of low and high tides? The tide changes twice a day, and large differences between the depth of the ocean at low and high tide increase the risk of strong currents.
- Have you checked the beach for no swimming signs?
- Have you received reliable information that the area isn't subject to strong currents, particularly rip tides. (The location of rip tides at Yonehara beach is indicated by a sign near the car park).
- Do you possess suitable equipment? For example, fins and a rash guard are generally considered to be essential items when snorkeling.
Road SafetyAlthough driving on the island is relatively safe by world standards Okinawa has a pretty bad rep within Japan, particularly when it comes to drunk driving. As a pedestrian you should take great care when crossing roads even when a green man indicates that it is safe to do so; many junctions are poorly designed, and jumping red lights is not uncommon.
The 'habu snake' has a notorious reputation, but the fact is that incidents are few and far between. Mosquitos can be an irritation, particularly in the jungle, although malaria is no longer a concern (however during World War 2 it killed thousands of citizens and soldiers on the island).
People are stung by 'habukurage' jellyfish every year, and there have been fatalities throughout the Okinawa prefecture. For this reason extreme caution is advised if swimming outside of net-protected areas during the jellyfish season. There are many hazardous sea creatures, and the advice is to avoid touching anything in the ocean unless you know exactly what it is. Although Miyako island has suffered a couple of fatal shark attacks, there are no recently recorded incidents involving sharks in Yaeyama's waters.
UV ExposureAverage daily UV exposure on Ishigaki and its surrounding islands is extremely high, and even on cloudy days it frequently tops the scale on Japan's national weather forecasts. During the warmer months many of the island's women hide literally every inch of their bodies from the sun in order to avoid skin damage. This may be excessive but the short and long term effects of sustained UV exposure should not be underestimated; even Japanese tourists have ended up hospitalized with severe sunburn and sunstroke. The following items are recommended.
- Sunglasses. Most quality pairs should block over 99% of UV. Polarized lenses will significantly improve scenic views. They'll also cut reflections from water, revealing Ishigaki's beautiful reefs below the surface.
- Sunblock. In Japan sunblock is sold in pathetically small volumes and often for silly prices. Save time and money by buying some quality water-resistant sunblock before heading to Japan. Frequently applied factor 50 recommended.
- Long sleeved T-shirts. Forearms are often one of the first places to burn - give them a break every once in a while.
- Hat. If you're planning on being outside for a few hours then a hat / baseball cap can be invaluable. Headwear, ranging from modern baseball caps through to traditional Okinawan-style hats can be purchased at many souvenir stores throughout the city center. Hats which protect the back of your neck are most effective (even if they do look a bit silly).
LandslidesLandslides are a very real danger throughout most of Japan. Take particular caution before heading out to mountains like Nosoko Maapee or Mt. Omoto, particularly during or after periods of sustained heavy rainfall. In 2010 massive landslides on Mt. Omoto blocked the mountain path to the summit.
EarthquakesEarthquakes can happen at any time throughout Japan, and although Ishigaki isn't living in fear of the inevitable 'big one' in the same way that Tokyo is, there is the possibility that you'll experience an earthquake during your trip, although it's likely to be rather tame.
Tsunamis (tidal waves)In 1771 an earthquake off Ishigaki's east coast caused one of the largest tidal waves in recorded human history (read more here). Japan has established an extremely advanced tsunami warning system. Shortly after an earthquake the risk of a tsunami, along with its predicted height if there is to be one, will be broadcast via a ticker on NHKs channels (Japan's national TV network). If a real threat is perceived sirens will sound throughout the island and people will be urged to stay away from the coast or seek higher ground in the case of a large tsunami.
Ishigaki is hit by one or two typhoons of varying severity every year. Typhoons naturally have a major impact, flights, ferry services and holiday plans in general.
>> Click here for more information about Ishigaki's climate, including typhoons.
Japan's Emergency Telephone NumbersPolice: 110
Fire / Ambulance: 119
Emergencies At Sea: 118