Iriomote Island (西表島, Iriomotejima) is Okinawa's second largest island. It is largely undeveloped, with nearly 90 percent of its land covered by dense jungle and mangrove forests. Wide areas of the island are part of the Iriomote Ishigaki National Park, the southernmost of Japan's national parks and one of the country's most unique.
The island's attractions are based around tours to Iriomote's abundant nature including sea and river kayaking, fishing and sailing. Other activities can be enjoyed either on tours or individually such as beaches, snorkeling and various hiking trails, the most challenging of which is a 20 kilometer path through the interior of the island which should only be tackled by experienced and well prepared hikers.
Iriomote is also a popular scuba diving destination especially at Manta Way, the strait between Iriomote and nearby Kohama Island, where schools of manta rays congregate in spring and summer. Diving tours are available for all skill levels.
The island is also home to the Iriomote Yamaneko, a type of wildcat, which was discovered in 1965 and is only found on Iriomote Island. The chances of encountering an Iriomote Yamaneko are low as the nocturnal, house cat sized animal is an endangered species that is thought to number less than 100 individuals.
Most of the island's interior is covered in dense jungle accessible by a number of rivers that head inland from the sea. Jungle boat cruises are organized on the island's two longest rivers, the Urauchigawa (Urauchi River) and Nakamagawa (Nakama River), and guided kayak tours operate on both of those as well as many of the smaller rivers around the island.
Urauchi River Cruise
Boat Departures: 9:00 to 15:30 Closed: No closing days Fee: 2200 yen
Urauchi River is the largest river on Iriomote and is found near Uehara Port on the north western side of the island. The hour long cruises travel along the Urauchi River to a trailhead from where it is a 45 minute walk through the jungle to two beautiful waterfalls, Mariyudo and Kampire.
Nakama River Cruise
Boat Departures: boats depart only during high tide Closed: No closing days Fee: 1850 yen
The Nakama River Cruises start in the south of the island in Ohara and travel inland to a large mangrove tree where you can get off and walk around for a few minutes before catching a return boat. The hour long cruise has Japanese speaking guides who describe the river and mangrove trees along the way.
Kayak River Tours
Fee: around 8000 yen for a guided 3-hour tour
Kayak tours (commonly called "canoe tours" by local operators) are offered on the mangrove-lined Urauchi and Nakama Rivers as well as many of the smaller rivers around the island. Each river has one or two companies operating on it, with 2-hour guided tours starting at about 6000 yen per person (reservations should be made in advance). A small number of operators also offer unguided kayak rentals.
Fee: from 7000 yen for a half day tour
With a vertical drop of about 55 meters, the Pinaisara Falls are Okinawa Prefecture's tallest waterfall. The falls can only be reached by a 30-40 minute kayak ride along a mangrove-lined river, followed by a 30-40 minute hike into the jungle. Half day tours lead to the plunge pool at the base of the waterfall where visitors can jump in to cool off as well as have lunch in the surrounding jungle. Full day hiking tours continue to the top of the waterfall and require a certain level of fitness.
Omisha Road Park
Omisha Road Park is a small rest area with a parking lot along the side of the main road that has short walking paths. Visitors can follow the walking paths that lead into a mangrove forest on the one side and to a small river on the other side.
Iriomote has its share of beautiful beaches which offer swimming, snorkeling and diving opportunities. Most of the beaches around Iriomote do not have any public facilities, and some of them can only be reached by boat as the island's coast is only partially accessible by car.
When using the beaches always beware of strong currents that can pull you out to sea and poisonous creatures such as Habu Jellyfish, a type of box jellyfish, that are most prevalent from June to October. Signs in English inform about the dangers while some beaches have netted off swimming areas. Although stings are rare, if stung you should pour vinegar over the sting, remove any tentacles, and seek medical help as it may become life threatening.
Hoshizuna no Hama
Admission: Free, no parking fees
Hoshizuna no Hama means star sand beach, and is so named because the grains of sand found here are shaped like tiny stars. The sand is actually the skeletons of small one-celled organisms that live among the sea grass. This beach offers nice snorkeling and swimming, but is rather shallow during low tide. There are no public facilities at the beach besides the parking lot.
Tudumari no Hama
Admission: Free, no parking fees
Tudumari no Hama is a quiet beach also known as Tsukigahama (Moon Beach) for its crescent shape. The wide beach is one of the best sunset spots on the island. The Urauchi River flows out into the sea on the southern end of Tudumari no Hama carrying with it lots of fine sand deposits which can be seen at the mouth of the river.
Fee: from 5500 yen for a half day snorkeling tour
Barasu Island is a small coral island a short boat ride from Uehara Port. Unmarked on most maps of Japan, the island can only be reached by joining tours which typically allow for a short stay on the island before moving on to snorkeling in the waters nearby. The clear waters surrounding the island offer plenty of opportunities to see corals and marine life.
Yubujima Suigyu Cart Ride
Hours: 9:00 to 17:00 Closed: No closing days Fee: 1760 yen includes entry to the islands botanical garden
Yubujima is a small island separated from Iriomote by a shallow, sandy strait. Water buffalo take carts filled with visitors to the island where there are restaurants, souvenir shops and a botanical garden. The cart rides are interesting, if not touristy, and some cart drivers describe the island's history and play the sanshin (Okinawan stringed instrument).
Yamaneko Museum (Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center)
Hours: 10:00 to 16:00 Closed: Mondays, Dec 29 to Jan 3, days following national holidays, and June 23 Fee: Free
This museum serves also as a refuge for Iriomote Yamaneko that are rescued after being injured by cars. The wildcats can only be viewed through a live video feed, while the rest of the museum has displays on the ecology of the Yamaneko and other animals found on the island. English explanations are provided throughout the museum.
Getting there and around
Ferry companies operate high speed ferries, as well as an infrequent car ferry, between Iriomote and Ishigaki Island.
High speed ferries depart Ishigaki for Ohara Port (35-40 minutes, 1830 yen, departures every 1-2hours) on the south end of the island and Uehara Port (2390 yen, 40-50 minutes, departures every 1-2 hours) in the north. Additionally, slower car ferries operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays to Ohara (80 minutes, 1350 yen one way), on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays to Uehara Port (110-130 minutes, 1750 yen one way). Online reservations can be made through Direct Ferries.
There is only one main road on Iriomote, running along the coast from Shirahama to Ohara. A public bus runs between Shirahama and Ohara five times per day. The complete journey takes about 90 minutes and costs 1410 yen. A one day bus pass is available for 1050 yen while a three day pass costs 1570 yen.
Besides the public buses, there are shuttle buses, operated by ferry companies and by the various diving and sightseeing companies on the island. Lastly, it is also possible to rent a car from one of several outlets near the ferry terminals.