Box turtles, fruit bats, crested eagles, tree-climbing lizards, and scores of tropical fish. No, this is not the latest Disney feature—but the creatures I saw during a three-day visit to Iriomotejima in Okinawa. Iriomote National Park covers nearly 40 percent of this island paradise, known as home to the rare nocturnal yamaneko (“mountain cat”). Many visitors come from neighboring Ishigakijima for a daytrip, but this unpretentious tropical destination is worth a few days’ admiration.
Iriomote’s number-one activity is a trip up the Urauchi River, Okinawa’s longest, where mangroves and an abundance of lush greenery thrive. Canoes and kayaks can be rented for a more independent journey, and a trek to two waterfalls awaits after the cruise. The second, Kanbire Falls, allows close enough access for swimming. More serious trekkers can continue on for an 18km demanding hike traversing the island.
Package tours can be booked through most hotels for around ¥8,000, but it’s also possible (and cheaper) to turn up at the dock, book your spot on the boat for ¥1,800 and navigate the hike on your own. There are seven boats daily on the hour, starting at 9:30am.
Sunbathing on its varied beaches is another choice pursuit on Iriomote. Hoshisuna is fantastic for snorkeling, and gear can be rented at the store above the beach for ¥1,575 a day. Haemida is a lengthy stretch of sand about 4km west of the last bus stop, Toyara. The only other living creatures you’re likely to find there are a million hermit crabs and a few goats.
For a different kind of bathing, Painumaya Resort is home to Japan’s southernmost and westernmost onsen. Day use runs ¥1,500, which includes three mixed-gender heated outdoor pools (one other, the largest, is out of service indefinitely), a swimming pool, and both indoor and outdoor baths in segregated women’s and men’s areas. All are situated amid a dramatic jungle background beside the river. The resort has a casual café and nice restaurant where you can order craft beers from Ishigakijima.
Other than the Ishigaki beers (the weizen gets top marks, even by German standards), Iriomote has some excellent homegrown pineapple and brown sugar. The former is sold at unmanned stands for ¥100 throughout the island. The tasty brown sugar makes its way into ice cream, yogurt toppings, shaved ice, and just about anything else that can be sweetened. Iriomote beef, though no wagyu or Kobe, is also nice to try. Restaurants near your lodging are usually willing to do pickups for dinner service.
Accommodation centers around the island’s two main ports. To the north, the area west of Uehara is the most convenient because of its proximity to popular attractions. Hoshisuna Pension rents basic rooms above the beach from ¥5,500 per person and offers sunrise and sunset yoga for guests. La Teada has sea-facing rooms on the southern end of the island west of Ohara port and charges around ¥11,000 per spacious room. They rent bicycles too—a perfect way to reach Haemida beach.
Last, several campsites provide cheap or free lodging. Hoshisuna offers grassy space behind the pension for ¥300 per camper and has tents for rent. There’s also a free campground behind Haemida with showers and a large, covered cooking area.
Other than renting a car or scooter, the main transportation on the island is one bus that runs both ways along the island’s main road just four times a day. If you plan ahead, it serves the purpose and will drop you everywhere you want to go. On our trip the friendly bus driver even made special stops to highlight wildlife and his favorite pineapple stand! Most accommodations have their own vehicles and are happy to take you to/from the port.
Both ANA and JAL fly to Ishigaki, often through Naha. From there it’s a 40-minute ferry ride to either port on the island. Tokyo Travelpal (www.tokyotravelpal.com) offers package deals at fair prices.