If the theme song for our last island was Everybody Has A Water Buffalo, this island’s theme song was most definitely In The Jungle. Iriomote Island, the second largest island in all of Okinawa, is covered by dense jungle, abundant wildlife, few people, and zero convenience stores. It was, for me at least, the most anticipated destination of our entire trip, and the island did not let me down.
As our ferry pulled into the port, we were lucky enough to witness an interesting – and probably rare – sight. A whole group of people had piled onto the dock, waving and shouting farewell to the outgoing ferry. At first, I wondered if they did this for all the ferries, if these jungle islanders were really that insanely friendly.
They were quite friendly, as it turned out, but that wasn’t it: they were sending off one of the islanders who was leaving, probably for a job or to attend university. A well-dressed young man in his early 20s stood on the stern of the departing ship, shouting and waving and shooting a canister of colourful streamers, which trailed along behind the ship as it pulled slowly out of the harbour. As we disembarked from our own ferry, I walked past a tearful pair of older women, assuring one another that they – and the young man – would be okay. It was a fascinating testament to the close-knit nature of the community on this island of barely 2000 people.
Following the Island Road
After getting off the ferry we were whisked off to pick up our rental car. I’ve never rented a car before – not as the driver, anyways – and expected there might be some kind of official procedures involved. But no, not here: they checked my license, we paid our fee, and they gave me the keys. As we loaded our bags and ourselves in they gave us the simplest directions in the world: “Follow the road.”
A few minutes down the road we pulled over to take in our surroundings. Mangrove trees lined the beach on one side, and the river’s edge on the other.
The view of mangroves along the riverside from one of the first bridges we crossed.
The Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Centre. Iriomote is a paradise for birdwatchers, and many of the birds are preserved here, slightly creepily, as taxidermic specimens.
This guy was my favourite. Too bad he ended up stuffed, but I’m sure he lived a long and happy life before that happened…
Iriomote is also home to a unique (and endangered) species of wildcat, the “Iriomote Yamaneko.” There are less than 100, and every year a few are killed by cars. More than anything else, I was terrified of hitting one with our car by accident. We saw this taxidermic one in the Wildlife Conservation Centre. He was a rescue cat named Yon who had his paw crushed by a car: he was rehabilitated and lived for over 15 years under the rehabilitation centre’s care.
A very not-endangered animal that shares the island with the Yamaneko and all the birds is the wild boar. Residents hunt over 800 of them a year for population control (and food). I can confirm that they are very delicious…
Continuing along our drive we passed many flooded rice fields. It was Zelmukii’s first time seeing rice fields, so we stopped for a quick photo. The rice fields in Okinawa were flooded over a month before they are in mainland Japan, where we live!
A mangrove in a mangrove grove! As seen from a boardwalk. There are lots of different types, apparently, and the spikes sticking out of the ground around the trees are characteristic of this particular variety.
The Jungle Cruise
After driving roughly halfway around the island, the majority of the road (the west side of the island is protected and pretty much uninhabited), we grabbed lunch and then set off on an afternoon jungle cruise. It’s almost exactly like Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise – except in a real jungle, with real jungle life, and real jungle weather… so actually completely different.
Our boat driver took us up the Urauchi River, Iriomote’s “Little Amazon,” to a disembarkation point, after which we hiked through the jungle in search of waterfalls. Our hike took us about half an hour down the trail to Kanpire Falls, where we stopped for a quick break before returning to catch the last boat back. The trail actually extends all the way through the centre of the island to the other side, but to cross it you need a lot of time, survival gear and a police permit. They didn’t used to require a permit, until one day a hiker ventured into the jungle… and was never seen again.
View from the boat. Unfortunately I couldn’t get many non-blurry pictures as our driver was gunning it pretty hard. (We did the “20-30 minute boat ride with informative commentary” in 10 minutes, with zero commentary, heh).
Our driver. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was rushing us so that we’d have more time to hike, since it was already mid-afternoon and the last boat back was at 4 o’clock.
Yet another mangrove on the river bank. I imagine, if there were mangrove ents, they would be like the octopi of the ent world with all those legs.
We arrived at the dock upriver and ran into our also-from-Yokkaichi/Vancouver (what are the odds?!) friends Ben and Codi, who were touring around Ben’s mom. They took this photo for us before heading back on the same boat we’d just arrived on.
Our boat man taking a break after dropping us off before the return trip.
Hiking through the jungle, we saw lots of small waterfalls along our way.
There was lots of interesting plant life as well, like this giant ribbon tree.
About halfway along our route, we climbed these stairs to reach the viewpoint for the first main falls, Mariyudu Falls.
Mariyudu Falls, as seen from the viewpoint. There was a lot of mist in the air as it was beginning to rain, which made photography difficult.
Despite the rain, we pressed on. Zukii even found this awesome vine to show off his Tarzan skills.
Finally we made it to Kanpire Falls, and took a short breather before heading back to catch the last boat out of the jungle… not something we wanted to miss.
On the way back to the dock we came across this spawn of Satan in the middle of the path. I was walking at the front of the group and noticed it just in time. It raised the top half of its body off the ground, waving itself around, obviously sensing us as we stood frozen and watched in nervous fascination.
Thankfully, the mukade slowly sauntered off the path and allowed us to pass unscathed, as my loving husband cooed it to pose for just one more photograph.
Back at the dock, we explored the “battleship” rocks as we waited for our boat, and I found this perfectly formed pool.
One last photograph upriver before we departed, and I captured a bird in flight!
Photo of our sweaty, rained-on selves on the boat ride back.
As the clouds rolled in, the view if anything looked that much more magical. Jungles are supposed to be wet, after all!
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
As the boat carried us safely back towards the river’s mouth, the light rain turned to a full-on jungle-style downpour. We decided to check into our guesthouse, which turned out to be one of the neatest places I’ve ever stayed at, and get dried off. The owner directed us to a nearby restaurant for dinner, and after a bit of post-dinner exploits we retired to the guesthouse to enjoy the jungle atmosphere for the evening. After a night of sleeping to the soundtrack of the jungle and an amazing breakfast in the guesthouse, we reluctantly made our way to the port to continue our island-hopping journey.
Our guesthouse, “Pension Iriomote.” Everything looked amazing.
There’s a place for storing your surfboards out back – I don’t think these ones had been used in awhile.
Even under the grey sky pouring down rain, the yard was vibrant.
The outdoor shower for returning beachgoers. There was a star-sand beach in walking distance, but we decided not to venture there in the torrential rain. (There were proper baths inside, as well, don’t worry!)
The lounge was very relaxing, with mesmerizing ambient music playing in the background. I probably could have stayed here for a week and been content.
In the jungle, the mighty jungle… the WIFI works just fine. (Actually we didn’t even have 3G on our hike, though. No signal at all in the middle of the jungle. If we got lost or the boat guy abandoned us we would have probably never been found, haha!)
Our room key. I’ve always dreamed of actually using a key like this. Note the yamaneko keychain. Every little detail about this place was just begging to be photographed.
Wild boar soup for dinner, how could I choose anything else? The broth was amazingly flavourful! But perhaps not as delicious as the yamaneko…
…cookies, that is! I considered keeping them, because they were adorable, but I knew they’d just break in my bag so I figured I should do them the dignity of eating them while they were still intact. Tasted like gingerbread!
After dinner we drove to a nearby “settlement” (that’s what they’re called, there isn’t a proper “town” on the whole island), to “see” the meridian line. There is a meridian line running through this point on the island, marked by this monument, and usually illuminated by a laser. However, the laser wasn’t turned on, and a local told us (I think) that they had gotten in trouble for some reason (probably for pointing a giant laser at the sky).
After a magical – and very noisy – night in the jungle, we were treated to a delicious western breakfast before setting off for our next island adventure.
Iriomote Island Travel Tips
- If at all possible, rent a car for this island. There are buses that drive along the road, but they run very infrequently (according to Wikitravel, there are only five a day each way). Yamaneko Rentacar was good to us so I’d definitely recommend them! (The website is Japanese only; I’d recommend phoning them, or having someone phone them for you, a few days in advance).
- There are two ports on the island: Ohara Port on the south side, and Uehara Port on the north side. There is also a Yamaneko Rentacar by each port, so you can arrive into one port and leave out of the other, which is what we did (Ohara to Uehara) and I’d definitely recommend. There’s an additional fee for renting the car “one way” but it’s not very much.
- Do not expect easy access to food, especially outside of regular mealtimes: there are only a handful of restaurants on the island, and most of them are only open for either lunch or dinner. The food is good, though, so definitely take the chance to eat it when you see a restaurant that’s open! There are no convenience stores (not that we found along the one road, anyways), so don’t count on finding any ATMs, either.
- As I mentioned in the Taketomi Island post, you can do a water buffalo cart ride on this island as well – across the water out to a smaller island. We were water buffaloed out, especially since Zukii wouldn’t stop singing the Water Buffalo Song, but it looked cool so I’d recommend it.
- Plan ahead, especially if you want to do something more involving than a simple boat tour/hike. If I went back I would definitely plan to stay for at least two nights and do a kayak or canoeing trek up one of the rivers, but these have to be booked in advance (there are English-speaking guides available).
- Above all, if you are going to do the Yaeyamas, do not neglect this island! It was definitely the highlight of the trip for me.
Island Hopping Blog Post Series
Be sure to check out the other posts in this series, the JWs’ last grand adventure in Japan.
The Last Adventure: Island Hopping in Okinawa (Introduction)
Taketomi: The Little Village Island
Ishigaki: Island Road Tripping
Okinawa: The Big Island