Iriomote Island’s land-based treasures include waterfalls, gardens and scrumptious snacks
By AYA ICHIHASHI | Stars and Stripes | Published: October 11, 2019
Imagine kayaking serenely through a mangrove forest as tropical birds sing all around you.
If you’re lucky, you might spot a crested serpent eagle perched on a branch.
If you are into trekking, kayaking and outdoor adventures, Iriomote is your paradise.
Ninety percent of this island in Okinawa prefecture is covered with untamed evergreen and mangrove forests, mountains and rivers. I’ve gone there four times and every visit makes the island more special.
Iriomote is only 45 minutes by ferry from the neighboring island of Ishigaki and 50 minutes by air from Naha on Okinawa.
In the first part of my travelogue on Iriomote, I talked about the things to see and do in the waters around the island. Now, let’s talk about the wonders on land.
There are many waterfalls on Iriomote, and you can pick one or two or even more to visit, depending on how hard you’d like to work to see them.
At 165 feet high, Pinaisaara Falls is the tallest waterfall on Okinawa. In the Okinawan dialect, “pinai” means beard and “saara” means waterfall.
The trek to this waterfall requires a kayaking expedition through forests of mangrove, also known by their genus name, Rhizophoraceae.
The journey, which is recommended for ages 10-59, takes about 40 minutes of kayaking and about 50 minutes of jungle trekking.
Pinaisaara was my first kayaking and trekking experience, and I had the most amazing time. It became my best memory of Iriomote.
On this trip, I picked as my destination Naara Falls, which requires two hours of serious kayaking (one way) and some trekking. The tour guide and I were on a tandem boat and we could not pause our paddling because the wind kept pushing us back.
We laughed and complained about the wind, but it was fun. We reached a point upstream to disembark and trek another 30 minutes through the jungle. The guide kept pointing at cute, exotic lizards or other animals found only in the Yaeyama archipelago.
Inhaling the thick evergreen forest air, listening to the tropical birds singing, I felt Mother Nature so close to me.
It was so rewarding to not only see the majestic falls but to jump in after serious hours of paddling and trekking. The water, falling in cascades made stronger by heavy rain, was chilly and soothing.
The guide made me a bowl of delicious Okinawa soba for lunch, and eating it next to the fall was a priceless moment. This tour is recommended for ages 20-49 years old.
After returning from the jungle journey, it was time to relax.
I took a stroll at Hoshizuna Beach, which is famous for its star sand, the leftover microscopic shells of foraminifera.
I buried my feet in the silky, warm sand, feeling the salty breeze on my face and admiring the sky as it turned to orange. What more could I ask for?
I listened to the waves and watched as a hermit crab made its way back to his home. I could have stayed to see the Milky Way rise, but I was too tired.
I decided instead to get some fried fish (10 pieces for 300 yen, about $2.80) from the local fish market and a couple of cans of whiskey highballs for dinner.
A sweet woman in her 80s handed me the freshly fried fish, super crispy outside and fluffy and tender inside. I ate most of it on my way back to the lodge. I didn’t forget to grab a frozen, ready-to-eat peach pineapple on a skewer (100 yen) from a self-service pineapple stand.
Two other destinations, Mariyudu Falls and Kanpirei Falls, do not require kayaking; you can go upstream on a cruise boat with Urauchi River Tourist (1,800 yen for adults, about $16.80). That trip is about 30 minutes, followed by a 45-minute trek to the Mariyudu Falls and then another 45 minutes to the Kanpirei Falls.
My companion and I took the last boat and had only 75 minutes to complete the 90-minute trek back to the boat. We ran the whole way. Take an earlier boat upriver to get the most out of the day; I do not recommend taking the last boat!
If you wake up in the morning sore from the day before, Yubu Island’s garden will be your best choice. It is only a quarter-mile off the shore of Iriomote, and visitors can either walk in shallow water to the island or hop on a water buffalo-drawn cart. Yubu Island is a tourist attraction offering a beautiful subtropical garden to stroll around.
Admission is 1,700 yen, about $15.90, for adults including the cart rides. At the park, you can spot water buffalo relaxing in a pond, tree nymph butterflies flying around the butterfly garden and tour a shell museum.
Iriomote Island is a fantastic gateway for adventurous travelers. Once you connect with the island, the tie will last a lifetime.
DIRECTIONS: A flight from Naha to Ishigaki is about 50 minutes; from Ishikagi port, a ferry ride to Uehara or Iriomote takes about 45 minutes.
TIMES: The island is accessible all year round.
COSTS: Tickets to Ishigaki from Naha can be about $60 one way with an early purchase discount. The ferry from Ishigaki to Uehara port on Iriomote is 4,510 yen (about $43) for an adult’s round trip and 2,260 yen ($20) for children 6-11.
FOOD: Must-tries include Iriomote’s locally grown frozen pineapple from a self-service stand and Yaeyama soba from several restaurants. Reservations are recommended.
INFORMATION: Online: painusima.com/english
Bring lots of yen since most of the tour companies, restaurants, grocery stores and lodges are cash only. An all-day snorkel tour is about $120 or more depending on the types of activities you pick.