Iriomote Island in Okinawa: Mangroves and Mysterious Cats
Wild, remote and truly beautiful, Iriomote Island is a world away from most people’s imagin-ings of Japan. From kayaking through mangrove-lined rivers to sunbathing on tropical beaches, the island has something for every traveler. As the largest of the Yaeyama islands, just off the coast of Ishigaki, it is a tropical area with intensely hot and humid summers and warm winters. Closer to Taiwan than Japan, the islands have a unique culture rich with tradi-tions and entire species found nowhere else in the world. Be it a single day of adventure or a weekend of exploring, the island offers the perfect escape from everyday life.
Yamaneko Museum/ Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center
From your first few steps on Iriomote, you may have noticed a common theme. From taxi signs to the local mascot, a small cat is found across the island’s landscape. Depicting the increasingly rare Iriomote Yamaneko, the nocturnal creatures are a rare sight, even for lo-cals.
Only around 100 are believed to remain on the island, living in the dense forests and avoiding the busier spots at all costs. Unfortunately, the cats are sometimes hit by passing cars, but a small sanctuary exists to care for them and hopefully return them to the wild. With around 10 fatalities a year and more accidents, the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center aims to not only help injured animals but teach locals and visitors more about these unusual animals. Their work is not only focused on the feline residents, however, they also explain the unique ecosystem of the island along with the invading species, those lost to extinction and the work being done to protect the fragile habitats that remain.
With preserved cats and plenty of posters, videos and details murals depicting the island’s natural balance, it is a fascinating introduction to the island’s unseen residents.
Address: Komi, Taketomi, Yaeyama District, Okinawa Prefecture 907-1432
Access: A 40-minute drive from Uehara Port or a 15-minute drive from Ohara Port. The center also has a dedicated bus stop 10-minutes away called ‘wildlife conservation center’).
Hours: Sat - Sun: 10am - 12pm, 1pm - 4pm. Mondays: Closed. Tues - Fri: 10am - 4pm.
Booking: Not required.
Website: https://iwcc.jp/ (Japanese only）
Yubu’s Island’s Buffalo Trips
Your journey to the small island of Yubu, just off the east coast of Iriomote offers the chance to try a rather unusual form of transport. Pulled in a traditional wooden cart by the island’s water buffalo and their dedicated human colleague, you can enjoy a taste of the ultimate ex-ample of slow-travel.
Working with the same trainer for their entire careers, the buffalo are well cared for, with our guide explaining he sees his buffalo, Sota, as a coworker, rather than machines or work tools. Working for 20 years, the animals can retire on the island and also choose their work-ing days - if they don’t want to work, they don’t have to. Meandering through the shallow wa-ters towards the small island of Yubu, Sota took his time as he ventured across.
The leisurely pace of the journey is the perfect opportunity to take in the beautiful views of the island as it draws near. Home to a botanical garden with small, beach-side cafe, the is-land is a tiny tropical getaway perfect for families and couples. Decimated by a typhoon over 50 years ago, the island was slowly re-planted by a dedicated local couple who remained when other residents moved to Iriomote. Today, the island has over 40,000 palm trees, a but-terfly house and a bright blooming of a variety of bougainvillea, carpeting the gardens in bright colors throughout the year.
After exploring the shaded paths, watching resting buffalo and spotting unusual butterflies, be sure to enjoy the local Maharu ice cream at the Manta Ray Beach Cafe. Made in Iriomote using Ishigaki ingredients, you can try special local flavors like brown sugar while sitting on a retired old buffalo cart or strolling along the sandy beach. When you head back across the water, the guide will often play a local song, so sit back, relax and experience the traditional life of Iriomote.
Address: 694 Komi, Taketomi, Yaeyama District, Okinawa Prefecture 907-1432
Access: A 30-minute drive from Uehara Port and a 15-minute drive from Ohara Port.
Hours: 9 am - 5 pm (the last buffalo leaves the water buffalo carriage station at 4.15 pm, re-turning at 5 pm).
Entry: Admission with return water-buffalo cart is 1,720 yen for adults, while entry on foot is 600 yen. Children’s fees are half the adult prices, with children under 6 going free.
Booking: No reservations are required.
Urauchi Boat Tour and Waterfall Hike
Stepping onto the gently rocking riverboat, you can secure a window seat and enjoy the sight of the slowly-passing mangroves. Taking its time and pulling up close to interesting spots, the journey includes an informative talk (in Japanese) as well as taking you to the start of a gen-tle hike through the jungle. With open sides and plenty to see, the hour-long boat journey is a relaxed chance to admire the tropical nature of the remote island.
The drop-off point has a seated area and plenty of waterside boulders to rest on, with a spot to change your shoes if you borrowed some from the boat center.
Following paved paths through the jungle, hikers of all levels can enjoy journeying to two of the most scenic waterfalls on the island. Having been dropped off by the boat cruise along the Urauchi river, the 1.5km path will take you through the lush greenery to the Kanpire and Maryudo Waterfalls.
Broad and low, the Maryudo falls cascade down multiple levels, rushing into a surprisingly calm pool below. Round and extremely picturesque, the basin is what lends the fall its name, with Mary meaning ‘round’. One of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls, the Maryudo-taki (taki mean-ing waterfall in Japanese) can be seen from a special observatory point at the end of the trail as well as being spied earlier along.
Gentle and sloping, the smooth Kampire falls are a river-like flow with smooth rocks and plenty of plateaus. Featuring unusual circular holes and slippery with algae, the water-smoothed flats can be explored up close if you follow the water round from the main view-point, but do take care.
Heading back towards the boat, you can admire the jungle from a fresh perspective and re-lax as the boat carries you back along the calm river, without encountering any more water-falls of course.
Address: Urauchi River Sightseeing 870-3, Uehara, Taketomi-cho, Yaeyama-gun, Okinawa Prefecture 907-1541
Access: There are free shuttle buses to the boat departure point from Uehara Port at 9.10 am, please contact them for more information on the email below. The boat is a 20-minute drive from the port and parking is available.
Hours: Hours vary depending on the tour chosen and the season, please check in advance.
Entry: The cruise and hike cost 2,200 yen per person, a guided trek costs 8,500 yen and kayaking costs 10,000 yen per person.
Booking: Boat reservations are not required, but guided tours and kayaking must be booked in advance. Email: email@example.com
Look Closely at Star Sand Beach
Known as Hoshizuna beach in Japanese, this picture-perfect beach is the best place to look for the tiny sand shapes that give it it’s unusual name. While the beaches here are usually famous for their crystal blue water and snorkeling opportunities, this beach has both, plus an added bonus. Formed from the tiny exoskeletons of sea creatures called Baclogypsina sphaerulata, they live in the seagrass and eventually leave behind perfect stars when they die. Only a millimeter across, you have to look closely, but are sure to find some. The easiest way is to push your hand into sand and see what sticks.
Legend has it that the tiny stars are the love children of the North Star and the Southern Cross, born in in the seas of Okinawa but soon swallowed by a serpent, leaving only their skeletons behind. While this is not really a swimming beach, it’s a great place to relax and admire the few - it’s also a good spot for fishing, with a diving shop nearby.
Address: 289 Uehara, Taketomi, Yaeyama District, Okinawa Prefecture 907-1541
Access: A 50-minute drive from Ohara Port or a 10-minute drive from Uehara Port.
Transport on Iriomote
Transportation on Iriomote is limited partly due to the access - the main road only covers one half of the island, with the west half left to protect nature. As most people visit for a day with pre-arranged activities, you will usually be collected and returned to the port by your tour company and do not have to worry about transport.
Alternatively, there are taxis on the island and a limited number of rental cars, which should be booked in advance if required. Due to the wild animals of the island, it is advised that guests drive slowly and with great care, especially at night. Companies at Uehara Port in-clude McQueen (*) and Iriomote Hoshizuna (*), while at Ohara you can visit Iriomote Car Rental (*) or Kukuru Okinawa (*), among others.
There is a shuttle-bus service provided by both ferry companies, (Anei Kankou’s here (*) and Yaeyama Kanko Ferry’s here (*)) with information and tickets available from the ferry ser-vice desk on either island. These buses will take you to or from the port, but not from one regular bus stop to another. There are public buses on Iriomote but they only run a handful of times a day.
(*) the websites are available only in Japanese.
Access to Iriomote
As the largest of the Yaeyama Islands, Iriomote is served by irregular ferries and daily high-speed boat services throughout the year. There are two ports on the island - Ohara on the south-side and Uehara on the north-side and two ferry companies who work on the same services: Anei Kanko and Yaeyama Kanko Ferry. Both ports take approximately 40-45 minutes to reach by high-speed boat, while Ohara is 110 minutes by ferry and Uehara is 130 minutes by ferry. Fares are 1,830 yen to Ohara and 2,390 yen to Uehara regardless of which boat company you choose.
The services are weather dependent, so please check in advance if they are running normal-ly. It is common for the Uehara Port to close services, so you may have to make alternative arrangements from Ohara, although if you have a tour or shuttle arranged this is usually not a problem.
Anei Kanko website: http://aneikankou.co.jp/languages/e_index.html
Yaeyama Kanko Ferry website: https://www.yaeyama.co.jp/index.html (Google translation)
To reach Iriomote, you must first travel to Ishigaki Island. The most convenient way to reach Ishigaki is by plane, using their recently renovated Painushima Ishigaki Airport. There are flights to and from Tokyo, Osaka, Chubu, Fukuoka, Okinawa, Hong Kong and Taiwan Air-ports, as well as the smaller islands of Miyako and Yonaguni island airports. The airport is lo-cated on the East side of Ishigaki’s main island and is accessible by bus with an airport shut-tle service also available.
Ishigaki Ferry Terminal is a half-hour drive from the airport and there is a connecting bus service running every 15 minutes 7 am to 9 pm.
Bus Map: http://www.kotsu-okinawa.org/en/map_yaeyama.html
There are direct flights available from both Haneda and Narita Airport from airlines including Peach, ANA and JAL. The flight takes three and a half hours from Haneda and four hours from Narita.
Osaka has multiple daily direct flights from Peach, ANA and JAL which take just under three hours.