Iriomote Island: Go trekking through primeval forest — without leaving Japan

By Alena Eckelmann

“Japan.” It hardly evokes mental images of lush, green jungles. Yet just off the radar of Western travelers is Iriomote Island, one of the country’s last areas of deserted wilderness. Although popular with domestic eco-tourists and lovers of water sports, this destination largely remains a secret among foreigners in Japan.

Iriomote is part of the Yaeyama chain, one cluster of the many islands that make up Okinawa. Edging close to the Tropic of Cancer, it lies roughly 2,000km southwest of Tokyo, and is 200km closer to Taiwan than to Naha. Although the island’s 289km2 make it the second largest in Okinawa Prefecture, Iriomote has only about 2,200 residents. The land is shared by an almost equal number of cows grazing on stretches of level ground near the coast.

The island’s only road runs along the coast from the west to the south, connecting nearly all of Iriomote’s villages along the way. Four-fifths of the land mass is covered in subtropical, primeval jungle and numerous small mountains, the highest of which is Mt Komi, at 470m above sea level. Most of the island comprises Iriomote National Park, which was established in 1972 and which is the southernmost protected nature reserve in Japan.

Iriomote’s reefs offer excellent snorkeling and diving opportunities. You can arrange lessons and rent gear at the dive shops dotted along the road in the villages. Hoshizuna Beach is one of many fantastic snorkeling spots, but its main attraction is the sand, which is actually tiny corals shaped like stars. Photo by Alena Eckelmann

But pristine ivory coastline is hardly unique to Japan’s southern archipelago. What sets Iriomote apart is its interior, which boasts rivers flanked by mangroves, creeks crisscrossing the mountainous terrain, and majestic waterfalls, all covered in dense jungle vegetation.

There are several varieties of mangroves and ferns along the two main rivers, Urauchi-kawa and Nakama-kawa. Urauchi-kawa in particular gives the impression of a mini version of the Amazon, meandering its way through the jungle landscape for about 8km before it narrows down and becomes impassable by boats. Sightseeing craft carry day trippers upriver to Kanpire-no-take and Maryudo-no-take, two scenic waterfalls that are the highlight of a short and gentle hike starting at the boats’ landing point.

The real adventure, a cross-island trek, begins at the top of Kanpire-no-dake and finishes in Otomi village near Ohara in the south. The treacherous trail stretches some 21km and can take an entire day to conquer; it’s an excursion not to be taken lightly. Only two dozen signposts, starting at the top of the waterfalls, mark the route. They are sometimes difficult to make out, as nature has its way here. Landslides and false trails created by lost hikers make the narrow path confusing. The trek is a constant up-and-down over hilly terrain, and requires crossing countless creeks and several larger streams. As you maneuver across slippery rocks in the waterbed, leeches await the less-than-surefooted. Locals also warn about poisonous snakes known as habu.

But the adventure pays off, as hikers can see jungle vegetation like palms, ferns and lianas up close. The island is also home to the Iriomote mountain cat, or yamaneko, which is much talked about but rarely seen. Photo by Alena Eckelmann

At dusk you should be out of the thicket and onto the forest road, which starts where the trail ends at signpost #24. This path is, apparently, all that remains of a plan to build a paved road across the island. Walking the final 7km stretch in darkness, the white pebble stones of the road leading the way, you’ll feel relief after the adventures of the jungle. The eerie quietness is broken only by the occasional bird chirping somewhere at roadside. Then, suddenly, a dramatic spectacle unfolds as tens of thousands of fireflies appear and punctuate the darkness of the night with their tiny lights.

After the hike you can have a soak at Painu Maya Resort, Japan’s southernmost hot spring. It offers indoor and outdoor baths, steam saunas, an outdoor pool and a large relaxation area with massage services to soothe those tired legs.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

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Did it, wasn't overly impressed. The Whitsunday chain in Oz is hard to beat.

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Thank you for the recommendation! I'll go give it a try!

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Mountains, hills and forests cover over two thirds of Japan. This is a little known fact among foreigners, I suppose. Here are some primeval forests and many natural forests still now. Our ancestor had protected and respected these forests.

But...The present Government, especially ministry of land and ministry of agriculture, is destroying these forests. We must make the Japanese Government stop these wrong policies, for the interests of humanity.

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I personally enjoy Nakanokamishima (仲ノ神島) better.

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Burikko, I think they do know. Whenever I go hiking in Okutama and other natural places in Japan, I always see a disproportiately high number of foreigners.

BTW, the destruction of Japan's forests has been directed by the government, but the local people who carry it out do not seem to oppose it.

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I agree! I went to Iriomote in April, and had a blast. Highly recemmond it to people needing to escape the uptight, concrete society of the mainland.

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With a bunch of cackling patagonia clad obatarians and their tagalong cancer-stick-sucking oyaji-tachi husbands in velcro-shoes and hat-clips, toting ice-picks on their backpacks in July, and elbowing their way ("Me first!") to the scenic viewpoints, cooing "Sugoi! Sugoi!" and basically making eejits of themselves. Nah, I'll give it a miss, thanks.

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The fact that it is in Japan makes me think - h'mm domestic air travel or should I go to PNG or elsewhere for half the price?

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The term "primeval" I think, needs to either be defined or thrown out. What does it mean?

Also, Burikko, who are the ancestors that protected and respected these forests? Heavy forest utilization has been occurring in Japan since the 8th century.

JeffLee, I disagree many local people do oppose national forest policies in a variety of ways.

For more on forests and local communities in Japan see my blog, <a href="">In the Pines (</a>.

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