Who doesn’t love the idea of chillaxing on a remote tropical island, especially as winter approaches? How about one that is remote, yet relatively easy to reach, offers blue water, white sand beaches, deep green jungles and dark, star-filled night skies? You want Iriomote, the second largest island in Okinawa Prefecture.
Ninety percent of Iriomote’s 290 square kilometers is covered in subtropical jungle so dense that for centuries the people living on the west side of the island and those living on the east side of the island never met. These days the island has a local population of less than 2,500. The economy is supported by sugar cane farming, fishing, and, increasingly, tourism.
Some tourists visit Iriomote on day trip tours from nearby Ishigaki island (just 40-45 minutes by ferry), but if you really want to slow down and enjoy the delights of the island, plan to spend a couple of nights. Accommodation choices range from a 3-star beachside hotel, to traditional ryokan and minshuku, to simple guesthouses and camping. Personally, I like to stay at ryokan or minshuku, which always provide wonderful meals made with local ingredients.
Tour the mangroves
The largest town on the island is Ohara, which has one of the island's two ferry ports. From this port, visitors can also catch a boat ascending the Nakama River to get a closer view of the mangroves growing on the tidal river’s banks. Mangrove trees love brackish, tidal water and grow in such a way that the tops of their roots are submerged at high tide and exposed to the air at low tide, an eerie sight, but one the plants have evolved to require.
There are seven different varieties of mangrove growing on in the Nakama River, some that clump and others that prefer to grow independently. The mangrove seed is particularly interesting. It is about the size and shape of a pencil (OK, a little fatter) so that when it drops from the mother tree it can embed itself in the soft sludge of the river, rather than being carried away on the tide.
Travel by water buffalo cart
The small island of Yubu sits across a shallow 400 meter strait from Iriomote and is now a kind of nature preserve. It is popularly accessed by taking a cart pulled by a water buffalo. The super-sized cows are more common in Taiwan, just some 250 kilometers away, than they are in Japan, but they seem quite at home wading between Iriomote and Yubu.
The ride (1,760 yen round trip) includes a complimentary serenade by the cart’s driver, accompanied by his trusty sanshin, conveniently stored in his box seat.
Yubu is a very small island with wide paths through the vegetation that allow relaxing exploration. A Bougainvillea greenhouse, a butterfly garden and the remnants of the island’s school (everyone was moved off the island after a major typhoon in the 1960s) are among the sights. A small pond provides relaxation to those water buffalo not on cart-pulling duty. There is also a cafeteria serving excellent lunches and a small café on Manta Beach on the east side of the island.
The entire island of Iriomote is a national park and the wilds of its jungles, rivers and waterfalls have plenty of scope for adventure tourism. Guided jungle walks to remote waterfalls, canyoning, and kayaking or canoeing along the coast or in rivers are particularly popular activities.
Eco-tour operator Motti leads jungle walks and canyoning tours. I joined an easy hike through the jungle to Kura Falls on the north end of the island (half day tour: 7,500 yen). Guide Mochizuki Tappei was very knowledgeable and explained the history of the trail (made by locals to facilitate wild boar hunts), the distinctive parasitic traits of some of the jungle plants, and the devices that kept track of hikers on the trail (to ensure that no one gets lost in there) and the movements of the native animals of the area.
Iriomote has the distinction of being home to the elusive and endangered Iriomote Wildcat. There are believed to be less than 100 left in the wild. A little larger than a housecat, with rounder ears and a thicker tail, the nocturnal cat eats mostly lizards, snakes, fruit bats and insects, although it has been known to pick off wild boar piglets. The wild boar is the next highest animal on the Iriomote food chain and we saw plenty of signs of their presence during our hike. The best place to learn about Iriomote’s fauna is the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center.
At just four meters in height, Kura Falls is by no means the largest waterfall on the island (that distinction would belong to 55-meter Pinaisara Falls on the western side of the island). Nonetheless, it was highly satisfying to hike in and spend some time at the falls soaking up its overall environment. Other tourists visiting at the same time had kayaked partway up the river and then hiked the rest of the way.
Another fun “adventure” is a sunrise canoe tour. Tour guide Kamijo Haruhiko of HARUBARU Tours quickly taught us the basics of paddling and whisked us into canoes so that we could enjoy the sunrise over the ocean at the mouth of the Maera River. The morning was still and the sea was like glass. It was a supremely serene moment.
A bonus feature of a remote, sparsely populated island is that there is little light interference; one can actually see the stars. In 2018 the entire Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park became the first place in Japan to be designated as an International Dark Sky Park. These days, many tour operators offer star gazing tours, often after dinner, but even pre-sunrise. These tours are a wonderful opportunity to really enjoy the night sky.
Guides are very knowledgeable, quickly pointing out various constellations and planets. Some carry telescopes for an enhanced view, while others take visitors to the darkest places on the island with the most open sky. Smartphone users may want to prepare for their tour by downloading one of the many star finder apps now available to help identify constellations on their own. Be warned, some guides insist that even the smartphone app creates light interference.
The nearest airport, on nearby Ishigaki Island, has direct flights from Haneda, Narita, Chubu, Osaka and Fukuoka airports as well as from Hong Kong and Taipei. There is a bus service from the airport to central Ishigaki, near the ferry port and it is about a 40-minute ferry ride to Iriomote.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com. Her travel to Iriomote was sponsored by JAL JTA Sales Co Ltd.© Japan Today