Iriomote island, the second largest island of the Okinawa Archipelago is famous for its fantastic beaches, some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the South Chinese sea and last but not least special wildlife and dense primeval forests. The island is almost 300 km² in size of which 90 % is a mountainous subtropical forest named the Iriomote National Park. It is one of the last primeval forests in this part of the Far East and is attracting the majority of its visitors with eco-tourism.
Iriomote offers plenty of opportunities for diving , canoeing and hiking through the densely forested mountains. These Iriomote forests are the habitat of one of the world’s rarest animals, the Iriomote cat. A nocturnal lynx of which is thought that the population is estimated to be around 100.
The island is located less than 200 km from the East coast of Taiwan, about 2000 km South East from Tokyo.
Iriomote Jima can only be reached by rapid boat (40 minutes) from the neighboring island Ishigaki (30 km away).
Ferries from Ishigaki sail to the two main ports on Iriomote island: Ohara (大原) in the South East and Uehara (上原) in the North West. On Iriomote there is a (limited) Bus service and it is also possible to rent cars and bicycles or take a taxi.
The Yaeyama islands have a subtropical climate and are in the center of the “typhoon alley” in the Pacific ocean. Unlike typhoons that normally are predicted days in advance be aware of tropical thunderstorms with heavy gusts of wind that can appear in a matter of hours. In such case the ferry service to one of the ports may be suspended and travelers are then rescheduled to the other port. Note that on the island itself almost no English is spoken and most information is in Japanese. My tip :
Weather conditions can change rapidly. If you don’t speak Japanese I strongly recommend to make use of one of the excellent day tour packages that can be booked in the port terminal of Ishigaki.
There are a great number of tour packages to choose from, accommodating all types of tourists from divers and explorers to elderly. If you don’t stay overnight in Iriomote then you have to make a choice. Most of the day tour packages cover one of the two main areas of Iriomote and basically that goes together with the two ports on the island. One type is sailing to Uehara and is concentrating on the forests and beaches around the Urauchi River. This river, the largest in Okinawa, is located in the North West of the island and meanders through a subtropical, broad-leaved primeval Forest.
The other tours are sailing to Ohara and are concentrating on the Mangroves around the Nakama River on the South East coast and offer the possibility to visit Yubijama island which is covered in another article.
The primeval forests of the Nakama river.
The mangroves around the Nakama river are the largest in Japan and various boat and kayak tours take the visitors upstream. The source of the river is near Mt. Omotodake (526m) the highest peak in the entire Okinawa Prefecture.
Mangrove forests are periodically inundated with seawater and support many active life forms. The whole area is left untouched and it is remarkable to see how quickly nature recovers. In the picture below the damage caused by the a devastating typhoon is still visible. However years later the forest has almost completely recovered.
The mangroves grow in areas along the deep bay and at the river mouths of the Nakama river covering an area of more than 100 ha. Further upstream where the river gets narrow the forest has a strong tropical atmosphere with fern relatives and communities of the palm family growing thickly.
Much further upstream there is a disembarkation point where you can see Japan’s largest Sakishima Sappan tree. The official name is Heritiera littoralis and the specimen in the pictures below is said to be more than 400 years old.
Of particular interest are the form of the roots that support the trunk of this tree. These trees had a significant role in the lives of the Yaeyama people to make boats, the roots being used for rudder blades. Slices of the enormous trunk were used as wheels.
The above picture was taken only 4 hours after the first one at the Nakama river bridge. Notice how quickly the weather can change and lightning and storm literally strike. We were glad to embark on one of the powerful cruise boats who brought the group safe and well to the harbor.
The Iriomote island is absolutely worth a visit and far from the high tech and neon lights in Tokyo, Osaka and other big cities you come across a part of Japan that few people know exists.