Riding a car on Iriomote Island is a weird experience: it takes nearly two hours to follow the one and only road from one end to the other around half the circumference of the island. There are two traffic lights, one at the strategic crossing to the island's main harbour, the other one, push-button style, in front of a school. The universal speed limit of 40 km per hour overland, and 30 km per hour in settlements, allows you to observe the landscape while driving.
Occasionally we see some goats or birds – once even the rare Kanmuri-washi (Crested Serpent Eagle) – but the most consistent sight is the image of a kind of spotted cat. The cat is depicted on signboards and traffic signs. Sometimes we see cat statues guarding bridges, sitting in public rest areas or in people's gardens. Are the inhabitants of Iriomote fanatic cat lovers?
No, the traffic signs warn to watch out for the Iriomote Yamaneko, an endemic wildcat that has only been discovered in 1965. The endangered wildcat has the size of a normal house cat and lives in the wild interior of Iriomote, but goes hunting for small animals in the fields near the coast. There, it has to cross the island street and cars are the No 1 enemy of the remaining 100 Yamaneko cats. A “Yamaneko Emergency Service” operates 24 hours to provide a veterinarian immediately to any injured wildcat...
As the Iriomote Yamaneko is very shy and hunts mostly at night, it is very unlikely that you will see one during your visit. In fact, the chances of meeting an Iriomote native seems only slightly higher; almost every person we ask is originally from Tokyo, Osaka or Kobe.
No wonder: Until WWII, Iriomote was a Malaria-infested wilderness where nobody wanted to live. Iriomote island is the biggest island of the Yaeyama group in the South of Japan, but still only 2300 people live there permanently. 90% of Iriomote are covered with dense rainforest and mangroves. Over the last years, tourism has much increased, although the visitors are still predominantly Japanese. They come to the wild Southern island for trekking, kayaking and diving, and quite recently, canyoning.
Masses of water thunder down next to us, adding to the intermittent rain, but never mind, we have come here by kayak and a short hike and are wet anyway. With a height of more than 50 m the Pinai-sâra is the highest waterfall of Okinawa prefecture. We had seen photos of the waterfall in summer, a thin white thread in the green jungle mountains, but now at the end of February and after heavy rainfalls, the name, which means “beard waterfall” in the local language, seems more appropriate – it looks like a thick Santa Claus beard.
The Pinai-sâra kayaking and trekking tour is the most popular option for outdoor fans on Iriomote, but there are several other trekking tours and shorter hikes, like the 45 minute trek to the Mariudo waterfall. You get to the starting point by cruise ship on the Urauchi river, which is lined with mangroves.
More to the South, water buffalo carts bring visitors to the small island of Yubujima, where they can relax in a butterfly garden or with a coffee in the cafeteria. But one of the best things to do on Iriomote, as on all the Okinawan Islands is relaxing at one of the dream beaches. The most famous one is Hoshisuna Beach with excellent snorkelling right from the beach, but during our recent visit we found the charming small Mimikri Beach on the Cape Unarizaki.
But whatever your plans for Iriomote – bring a little time!
The speed boat from Ishigaki to Iriomote takes 40 mintues and costs 2360 Yen return. To get around the island you can take the public bus four times a day (day ticket 1030 Yen) or rent a car (around 5000 Yen for 24 hours).
Accommodation is usually paid per person and starts at around 3000 Yen pp, while the posher hotels cost 10 000 Yen and more. The cheapest Minshuku might be the Yamaneko Minshuku in Ohara at 2000 Yen pp. There are three campsites on the island (400–1000 Yen pp per night). Only one of them, the Haimida camp site, operates year round.
The tour to the Pinai-sâra Waterfall and our ferry ticket in 2017 were sponsored by Hirata Kanko.
We visited Iriomote as part of our work writing German-language travel guide books for Japan, namely the Stefan Loose Japan and the Baedeker Japan. For our research we have been on Iriomote three times since 2009.
We are writing this series about the Okinawan Islands because we personally think it is one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of the world and not high enough on most peoples wish list (yet?). Would you like to go to Iriomote?