The Little Amazonia in Okinawa
Iriomote is the largest and wildest island of Yaeyama archipelago, off to Ishigaki’s shores in Okinawa prefecture, Japan. Navigable rivers wind in lush forests and mangroves, while hiking trails in the jungle lead to waterfalls. Pleasant beaches of fine sand and turquoise waters complement the scenery.
A remote and unique destination in Japan, Iriomote fascinates travelers looking for lush landscapes and wild nature. A subtropical jungle covers about 90% of its superficies, preserved in the Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park to which the island is part. The environment is almost devoid of human alterations.
A small gem lost off the shores of Yaeyama archipelago, Iriomote is fiercely protected by its 2,000 inhabitants. A project of limiting the number of tourists on the island in under reflection to protect the local flora and fauna, and especially the famous Iriomote cat 🐈. The wild feline, affectionately nicknamed yamaneko ("the mountain cat") is a rare and endangered species, endemic to the island.
Access to Iriomote is only possible from Ishigaki by ferry ⛴️ sailing to the ports of Ohara in the south and Uehara in the north. Then, there is only one main road, hugging the eastern coast but that does not circle around the island, on which one can drive a car 🚙 or board a bus. The best way to discover Iriomote is to enter its dense forest, with a seasoned local guide.
Mangrove and rain forest along the rivers
Several excursions are organized following the same pattern: head upstream along one of the numerous rivers crossing Iriomote to reach a view point in the heart of the island, which is most of the time a waterfall. The different travel possibilities can suit anyone’s abilities:
- By motor boat,
- By canoe,
- By paddle, or,
- By canyoning.
Urauchi River (浦内川) is the largest of the island and of Okinawa archipelago and is the most convenient and ideal for a cruise. From the ship, one can admire the mangrove expanses that border the bed of the river in beautiful shades of blue and green, reminding of a small Japanese Amazonia. Half-way through, get on land to walk on a trail in the humid forest. After half an hour walk, one can reach Mariyudu Waterfall (マリユドゥの滝) which was listed among the 100 most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. The tour ends by an additional 10 minutes’ walk up to Kanbire-no-taki Waterfall (カンピレーの滝), more confidential and with a little difference in altitude. The full course takes two hours, with no particular difficulty for the walk. Other longer hikes (about one day) are also available.
The same type of excursion is also offered along Nakama River (仲間川), accessible from Ohara port. Booking in advance is recommended as well as choosing an early morning one getaway so as to arrive first on the viewing spot. Moreover, the visit of Pinaisara Falls (ピナイサーラの滝) is interesting, as it is hidden in the jungle and only accessible hiking.
Beaches and coral reefs in the north-western part of the island
As for the seaside, Iriomote is gifted with beautiful white fine sand beaches 🏖 that are still wild and very little domesticated. At best, one can find a small restaurant with toilets 🚽 at the entrance. The remarkable ones are:
- Ida no hama (イダの浜) in the west of the island and accessible only by boat from Shirahama port which is located about half an hour’ drive from Uehara port. Swimmers enjoy transparent waters with a view on the coral reef and surrounded by wonderful rocky landscape,
- Tudumari no hama (トゥドゥマリの浜) in the north, its very fine sand originates from Urauchi River and is very soft under bare feet, ideal for children,
- Hoshisuna no hama (星砂の浜) in the north is renown for its tiny star-shaped seashells. The beach is also ideal for swimming and snorkeling,
- Barasu-shima (バラス島) is a small inlet formed by coral off Uehara port.
Folklore amateurs will enjoy Yubu-jima island (由布島), with a ride from Iriomote on a cart pulled by a water ox at low tide. It also shelters an open-air and original subtropical botanical garden.
There is no temple or shrine to visit and very few shopping opportunities on Iriomote: tourism is 100% based on the natural environment. Of course, one must respect the instructions to preserve the environment and limit the use of car. There is nonetheless a large range of accommodation, mainly in the north-western part of the island, including affordable campgrounds, luxury hotels 🏨 and a few ecotourism lodgings. Temperatures are pleasant all year long, with a 23°C (73,4°F) on average, and rainy ☔️ months span from July to September.