Iriomote, Japan

The Small Tropical Japanese Amazon of Iriomote

Fluvial coming and going
Vessel sails up Urauchi River, in the heart of the dense jungle of Iriomote.
Back to the mouth of Urauchi
Japanese hiker progresses along an irregular trail on the bank of the Urauchi River.
Tropical flow
Small waterfall on the way to the main stream of northern Iriomote, the Urauchi River.
Traffic sign alerts drivers to slow down to avoid hitting the increasingly rare Iriomote endemic bobcats.
Unnavigable Bed
Rocky section of the Urauchi River, soon to be substantially more covered with water due to intensified monsoon rains.
Umbrellas on board
Seats of a vessel on the Urauchi River, equipped with umbrellas for passengers to protect themselves from tropical rain.
military shelter
A cave used for hiding and protection by Japanese soldiers during World War II.
gastronomic organization
A typical Iriomote meal carefully arranged in a traditional bento box.
Kampire waterfall, known as the place where the gods sit.
across the tunnel
Japanese sign prohibits entry into an old tunnel excavated by the Japanese imperial army, near the village of Funauki.
A History of Coal
Panel displays images, maps and old documents that explain the importance of the coal mines of Iriomote.
Ida beach
Ida: a sub-tropical beach of Iriomote, usually with a much more appealing sea outside the monsoon period in this part of Asia.
solitary water fall
Falling water flows in the wilderness of Iriomote.
Impenetrable rainforests and mangroves fill Iriomote under a pressure cooker climate. Here, foreign visitors are as rare as the yamaneko, an elusive endemic lynx.

"Good Morning, Marucu and Sara!” It's 8 in the morning.

We remain painfully sleepy when we receive the good morning from the ever-smiling Kaori Kinjo, who uses the usual Japanese gesture of multiplying the “us” in words to better articulate them.

we leave the guest houses rakutenya of Ishigaki and we left, in his company, towards the port of Rito-Sanbashi. Once arrived, we waited for the announcement of the ferry boarding to Uehara – a port village in Iriomote – in a room that doesn't look like a small airport.

As impatient as they were curious, we went out again and again and examined the shops and offices of that infrastructure and the operational bases of one or another local tourist agency. But we don't see a single foreigner.

Not even Japanese vacationers. Instead, port workers and passengers living in Ishigaki and the rest of the Yayeama archipelago look us up and down, as if they have no reason to walk there and don't understand our very different features.

Embarkation to Another Yayeama Island of Iriomote

Nevertheless, Kaori assures us in the most convincing tone possible: “Last week was our Golden Week. Many Japanese from the main islands were on vacation. We had dozens of busloads around Iriomote. Now they've all gone home. However, the monsoons came.”

It's time to board the ferry, a slender and sophisticated looking vessel, both hydro and aerodynamic. Barely set sail, that kind of floating torpedo achieves impressive speed, with its bow high above a very choppy East China Sea. "But look, these are old models." tells us Kaori. “In Honshu, they use really futuristic boats!”.

Half an hour later, we docked at Iriomote. From the port of Uehara, we head straight to the mouth of the Urauchi River, one of several meandering, muddy and remote streams that wind through the island and give it a look of a mini-Amazon of the Asias.


Kampire waterfall, known as the place where the gods sit.

Iriomote is tropical like no other southern Japanese domain. By that time, the Southeast Asian monsoons are already in place. If the heat proved oppressive, so was the humidity, maintained by a persistent covering of clouds, sometimes white and sometimes leaden.

And New Embarkation Rio Urauchi Above

As a colorful and silent barge takes us upstream through the thick jungle, we confirm how permanent humidity and torrential rains fed the Urauchi. And how the river flows from the highlands at great speed and then reaches the plain and gives itself first to the vast mangroves.

Fluvial coming and going

Vessel sails up Urauchi River, in the heart of the dense jungle of Iriomote.

A little later, to a Pacific Ocean that, there and in those days, could not do better justice to the baptism of Fernão Magalhães.

Having reached the point where the navigable bed ends, we disembark. We feel numbed by the heat, the silence and the somewhat sterile beauty of the place. From there, we continue on foot, subsumed in the waterlogged forest of the island and in search of Mariyudo-no-taki, one of its imposing waterfalls.

Falling water flows in the wilderness of Iriomote.

In the several lush and soaked kilometers of the trail, we come across one or another resident of Iriomote who exercises on the same route, keeping an eye on the latent threat of the vipers habu, whose bite requires a short injection of the correct antidote.

The Tropical Fund, Japan's Last Frontier

Although it is only 20km west of Ishigaki and a few further east of Taiwan, the most populous island in the Yayeama archipelago, Iriomote has long been considered Japan's last frontier.

With almost 300 km², it proves to be the largest island in this sub-archipelago of Okinawa. It has only 2000 inhabitants and a single road that connects the tiny villages on the north and east coasts.

until the end of the 2nd World War, the dense jungles and swamps of Iriomote remained infested with malaria. Iriomote hardly welcomed inhabitants.

Back to the mouth of Urauchi

Japanese hiker progresses along an irregular trail on the bank of the Urauchi River.

The End of Malaria and the Preservation of the Yamaneko Lynxes

This was one of the problems that the troops of United States they finally managed to resolve it when they introduced a Wheeler Plan on the island.

This plan called for attacking anopheles mosquitoes using DTT instead of annihilating the malaria parasite already in the bodies of patients, as had been done since 1920 by the Taiwan regional government, then a Japanese territorial possession.

As an indirect consequence, the number of inhabitants of Iriomote increased. For this reason, the local fauna and, in particular, the furtive Yamanekos – the native lynx – are now forced to avoid humans. Both those who have moved to its territory and those who arrive, from time to time, from other parts of Japan, excited by the adventure of exploring the wildest of the Japanese islands. 

Only around a hundred specimens of the feline are left. The only place where they can be seen for sure is on the yellow traffic lights that, to protect the species, the authorities spread across the island.

YamanekoWe took advantage of the feline's scarcity to play with the guides that were always contained and disciplined. Every time we see a domestic or stray cat, we take the opportunity to shout “yamaneko”. As you might expect, only the first two of these false alerts get real attention.

We finished the course. We admire Maryudo's waterfall, that of Kampire. And, in the distance, the Mayagusuku waterfall. Afterwards, we return to the starting point of the trail and, in the same boat, again to the mouth of the Urauchi.

Dinner with a Portuguese Soundtrack

From there, they take us to the restaurant-terrace of an almost empty hotel where we are supposed to recover our energy by tasting typical Iriomote food.

The meal is served to us without blemish, geometrically organized in the compartments of a traditional and elegant bento box that occupies most of the table.

gastronomic organization

A typical Iriomote meal carefully arranged in a traditional bento box.

We didn't realize whether the musical choice was intentional or coincidental. What is certain is that, throughout the meal, the restaurant only played themes sung – at least in part – in Portuguese from Brazil. It was the case of the surprising memory of “underwater love” by the English Smoke City.

Until the end of the day, we just got over the tiredness generated by the steep morning walk and the atrocious humidity that only seemed to increase.

Shirahama, Uchibanare-Jima and Funauki: Island Nooks Full of History

Shortly after new dawn, we traveled first to Shirahama, then to Uchibanare-Jima, where we visited one of Iriomote's historic coal mines.

military shelter

A cave used for hiding and protection by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

From 1891 to 1960, 1400 miners managed to extract from the island's subsoil, during the annual period of greatest production, around 130 thousand tons of this fossil fuel.

Like Iriomote, in general, Uchibanare was the target of the American bombings that tried to end this extraction and anticipated the arduous conquest of Okinawa and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A History of Coal

Panel displays images, maps and old documents that explain the importance of the coal mines of Iriomote.

In Funauki – a small port village – we inspect a pearl factory but also preserved military shelters and tunnels.

The guide who had taken Kaori's place was a native of the village. He had emigrated to study Russian in Moscow a year before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He traveled as far as he could through the new nations that emerged from it. “When I heard you speak, I thought I was Russian but since I didn't identify any words afterwards, I saw that I was wrong”.

His wife had chosen to take shelter at the far end of the dying Cold War. She had studied in Michigan and spoke much better English than her husband. The couple produced the Iriomote newspaper. Only many spaces published village news

We soon realized why. There were no more than 41 inhabitants of Funauki. Little or nothing happened there.

At the time, there were only three students at the local school which employed only nine teachers, the president, the vice president, a nurse and two cooks. This, at the whim of the regional government, which insisted on compensating for the isolation of the village.

Ida beach

Ida: a sub-tropical beach of Iriomote, usually with a much more appealing sea outside the monsoon period in this part of Asia.

“We don't complain” assures us the couple, used to their secluded and peaceful life. “For the kids it's the worst. For three, it is even impossible for them to do group activities or games. It's rare for other friends to appear here."

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