Vegan Island Hopping in Okinawa - Ishigaki
With a big international community in "Naha", there is no shortage of delicious Vegan food on Okinawa's main island. But how are your chances of a decent plantbased meal when visiting one of the smaller, more remote islands?
Part One - ISHIGAKI Island
I visited the beautiful island of Okinawa for the second time, during the last COVID-free summer (Yep, time lines can officially be identified as pre- and, hopefully soon, post- COVID).
It was also my first time visiting as a Vegan, and my first time outside of Naha, Okinawa's main and largest island.
We flew from Tokyo Haneda Airport to Ishigaki island, which would be our start- and end point of this 5-day trip, during which we would be hopping on- and off some of the surrounding islands.
In order to catch the cheap morning flight, we took the evening high way express bus to the airport, slept a couple of hours in one of the lounges and woke up at an ungodly hour... The flight takes about 3,5 hours.
"All you need" at Ishigaki Island
Ishigaki island is the second largest island of the Yaeyama islands, with the largest airport. From the airport you can take a bus that brings you to the harbor- and center of the city, which has everything you need for a relaxed holiday. Restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, all the tours and activities to sign up for (e.g. paragliding or segway tours), the departure point for the ferries, and some amazing and affordable guests houses.
TIP: Similar to the Japan Rail Pass system, you can purchase a multi-day all-you-can-ride pass for the ferries connecting the islands. Depending on how many of them you'd like to visit, this is great value and allows you to see many different places!
Our guest house for the night had a shared kitchen we were free to use, as well as a shared roof top with 3 very social cats.
TIP: If you don't want to go through the trouble of asking a hotel if they can provide meals for you, at the risk they make mistakes, a guest house that allows you to bring- or cook your own food may be a nice, affordable alternatives. Often run by locals, they will be knowledgeable and helpful on locating supermarkets and eateries, too.
I love exploring supermarkets in new areas, as you'll never know what you'll find (being able to read Japanese is important, however). The supermarkets in Ishigaki were full of amazing foods and veggies, many of which I've never come across on the Japanese main land. They'll often also sell local tofu, seaweeds and bread, which are often plantbased. I make sure to always buy some emergency foods here. TIP: As Okinawan fruits are absolutely delicious and often used as gifts all over Japan, some supermarkets offer a shipping services, where you can have them send your groceries to your home address. We may or may not have ordered some of those ridiculously good pineapples...
Ishigaki Tofu Pudding
Izakaya and local eateries
I found that the staff at the local Izakaya I visited were very friendly and flexible!
Whereas in other locations throughout Japan, staff is often hesitant or simply rejecting any changes to the menu, in Okinawa I haven't had any trouble asking my food to be made without eggs or dashi.
Asking the server if I could order Goya Chanpuru - an Okinawan stir fried dish with bitter melon and tofu, without any meat or egg, his simple response was
"Yes, why not?".
The menu often includes other gems like fried tofu and Umi-budo "sea grapes" - algae served with ponzu. Just be sure to confirm the ingredients in case of doubt, and be careful to confirm if they use any dashi or katsuo (bonito).
Note that there are also more party-style Izakaya with traditional Okinawan music and dancing, which may or may not force you to participate halfway through... As they may be more crowded and focused on entertainment, rather than food, we found it harder to customize the menu (and/or have a conversation at all due to the noise), but they had some amazing mango- and pineapple alcoholic beverages with fresh fruit! And the traditional music is definitely a fun experience!
Veggie Tempura at Restaurant "Morinokenja"
We visited this restaurant, which advertises as "food that is gentle to your body" and uses with almost exclusively produce from the island! It had a very fancy, yet at-home atmosphere; The chef seemed to have a lot of fun doing his thing in the kitchen, while the lady at the bar was hanging out with the local obaachan all night - who seemed to visit at least a couple of times a week.
They confirmed the veggie tempura set was made without eggs, and they make their own Okinawan alcohol. A great place for a more luxury dining experience! The tempura was very flavorful and the veggies of high quality. The salt is locally sourced and super strong!
Tofu no Higa
Tofu no Higa is an Ishigaki based Tofu company with their own restaurant, that has been running for over 70 years. Their pure, high quality tofu products are loved by locals and tourists alike, and you will find customers lining up as early as 6:30 in the morning!
The restaurant is about a 10-minute car ride from Ishigaki port - be careful not to miss it, as it is located on a side road in the middle of nowhere.
We probably waited for about 40-minutes before finally being seated on one of the packed picnic tables (remember those crazy pre-covid days?). The menu is rather simple, but be sure to ask them to not use any fish toppings.
Okinawa is famous for their firm "shima (island) tofu", but this restaurant specializes in fluffy "yushi tofu". With the unique texture and mild flavor, it needs to be enjoyed fresh, which is why it isn't found much in mainland Japan. You enjoy the first bites of the tofu plain, to enjoy the natural, mild flavor, and then can top it with soy sauce, miso, salt or one of their add-on toppings available on the day. The set also comes with fresh, completely natural soy milk.
They unfortunately served my rice with a bit of furikake, containing egg and dried fish - so beware! As the restaurant is extremely crowded from start to finish (close as soon as they sell out), and run by a small family, we didn't even try to confirm which other options could be made Vegan, and just went for the safe choice instead - but there are definitely more dishes on the menu for non-veggies.
The only downside was that there was a ridiculous amount of large, black flies ready to attack your food as soon as it arrived. Everyone was half-eating, half- trying to protect their food and drinks from the flies, who just sat on everything. Some people even left without finishing their food. Probably not much they can do about this, but it definitely was not a relaxing eating experience.
If you have more time to spend, Tofu no Hira also offers a unique tofu making- and eating experience that takes about 3 hours (starting from 3 participants).
Ishigaki is a gorgeous island and there are many popular, as well as off-the-beaten-track spots to visit. One place that had me gasping for air was Kabira Bay, at the Northern shore of the island. This completely (un-edited!) photo show the insanely beautiful view: with white beaches, the bluest sky and water, and beautiful green. You are not allowed to enter the water at this particular beach, but the views alone are worth a visit. You can take a hike in the area, take a tour by glass boat, or simply enjoy the view with some icecream, smoothie or local foods.
You should not have trouble finding a light snack, like a fruit smoothie, frozen fruits or sorbet icecream, but for larger dishes you may need to do some more research, or ask for alternations. A lot of the eateries here were focused around meat, as it's a popular tourist spot.
If you're up for a hike, the "Kabira Farm" is a 20-minute walk away. Here you can enjoy a fresh fruit (famous for their passion fruit!) juice on their beautiful terrace in the mountains, with a partial view of the bay. They also have some nice souvenirs, like homemade fruit jams (they're not cheap, though).
Finally, you'll find smoothies and fruit juices almost anywhere on the island. The people are mostly very friendly and willing to help. I also found seemingly Vegan onigiri and snacks in the ferry departure halls. I you want to be 100% sure, it's always best to bring your own food.
Mori no Kenja Restaurant 森の賢者
Address: 907-0024 Okinawa, Ishigaki, Arakawa, ４９−2
Access: 15-minute walk from the Ishigaki Port Terminal
Food: Island food! "healthy and kind to the body"
Price: Tempura plate￥950, onigiri set ￥600, homemade Awamori sake ￥700-1400
Service: Friendly, informative.
Tofu no Higa とうふの比嘉
Address: 570 Ishigaki, Okinawa 907-0023
Access: 8 minuts by car / 30-min walk from the Ishigaki Port Terminal
Food: Homemade tofu and local foods + fresh soy milk
Price: Large Yushi tofu set￥350 (S) ~ ￥650 (XXL)
Service: un-personal, fast. Almost like line-work. (Not rude or anything!)
Location: Bit out of the way, but a nice experience! Too bad about the insane number of flies attacking your food. Menu
Kabira Farm 川平ファーム
Address: 1291-63 Kabira, Ishigaki, Okinawa 907-0453
Access: 20-minute walk from Kabira Bay
Food: 100% Passion Fruit juice, Fruit Jams
Price: Large, Homemade 100% Passion Fruit Juice ￥1,575
Service: Very friendly
Location: Very nice to relax surrounded by nature with a nice view. The walk from Kabira Bay is not too exciting - no view and on the side of a "busy" (Okinawa standards) road. Website
Guest House Holoholo ゲストハウス ホロホロ
Address: 286 Okawa, Ishigaki, Okinawa 907-0022
Access: 8-minute walk from the Ishigaki Port Terminal
Price: ￥4000-4800 private 2-personal room
Service: Very friendly and helpful on advising local spots. Free to use the kitchen, we could leave our luggage early, and the cats are great companions!
Location: Close to the city center, with a larger farmers market and conbini nearby! Website
In Part Two, I will share my Vegan finds on Taketomi and Iriomote island! Be sure to have a look!