On the very tip of the Japanese archipelago, the Yaeyama islands, are closer to Taiwan than they are to Okinawa, the prefecture of which they're supposed to be a part, not to mention Tokyo. It makes sense then, that when you arrive in Ishigaki, the main island of the cluster, it feels much slower, sunnier and more laid back than the Japan most of us know.
These islands made up the Ryukyu Kingdom, an independent state that lasted for four centuries, and only made part of Japan in the late 1800s. They have their own distinct culture, language and way of life.
One could say that the people of the Yaeyama islands could be perfectly happy without mainland Japan, yet those in mainland Japan would be much less well-fed without these oft-forgotten islands.
KUROSHIMA, THE "COW NURSERY"
Take, for instance, Kuroshima, a tiny heart-shaped island of 10 square kilometres, which is dubbed a "cow nursery", is where many of the cows that end up on the country's best plates are born.
Cattle outnumber human inhabitants in Kuroshima, a coral island favoured for cattle rearing due to the high calcium content in the soil. All around are cattle farms with calves, which are auctioned off at around eight to nine months of age, to be reared in other parts of Japan, destined to become some of the country's most prized wagyu breeds.
The lesser known of these is Ishigaki's own appellation of beef, which is extremely well regarded locally and around Asia. On Ishigaki island, cattle farmers such as Misaki-san produce and butcher the cows themselves, and sell it at their own shop and yakiniku (grilled beef) restaurant.
The Yaeyama islands is also extremely well known for the long pepper, a pepper native to the Asian tropics, known in the local dialect as pipachi. This fruity pepper is dried and ground, and sprinkled on just about anything, especially on top of subtly-flavoured dishes such as Yaeyama soba, a small bowl of soup noodles topped with fish cake.
It's also an important ingredient in what is probably the best-loved chilli oil in the whole of Japan, made by Ishigaki restaurant Penguin Shokudo. The restaurant (to which Japanese people flock, as there was a movie inspired by the owners’ story) serves a menu led completely by what is seasonal on Yaeyama islands at the time, from native ferns to giant clams. Founded by a Chinese-Japanese couple, the menu reflects their backgrounds (mapo tofu made with Ishigaki tofu is a staple on their lunch menu), but is also an apt summation of the Yaeyama island's history as a trading port with a lot of Chinese influence.
The history of trade on the islands is perhaps best told by the story of Okinawa's famous liquor - awamori. This appellation-controlled rice spirit is made from long grain indica (Thai) rice, not japonica as is common on the mainland. This is a direct result of trade with Southeast Asia and China - Okinawa was an important player in maritime trade throughout the 1500s and it’s believed to have descended from the Thai rice-based moonshine, lao khao. As a distilled rice spirit bottled at anywhere from around 20 to 50% alcohol content, awamori isn’t for the faint hearted.
Traditionally it's most commonly consumed with ice, water (carbonated or still) or neat, but in recent years there have been distillers working on new ways to present awamori for a wider and younger audience. Seifuku distillery on Ishigaki island has used ginger, grapefruit, plums and yuzu to create awamori liqueurs, and were recently awarded a grand prix by Japan Airlines for the yuzu awamori liqueur which was served in their airport lounges.
Slowly but surely, the virtues of these unsung heroes from Japan's remote islands are being spread far and wide.