Exploring the Wilds of Iriomote Island

Lily Crossley-Baxter

An untamed area with mangroves, waterfalls and wildcats, Iriomote Island is a sub-tropical haven waiting to be explored.

Largely undeveloped, Iriomote Island is slightly larger than Ishigaki but covered in dense mangrove forests and jungles—making it a nature lover’s dream getaway. Whether you enjoy trekking, kayaking or diving, there are infinite ways to explore the abundant natural resources of the island—and an onsen to relax in afterwards. The majority of the island is part of the Iriomote National Park and therefore protected, so you can enjoy it knowing it’s not being damaged in the process, as all tours and services are regulated carefully. Whether you travel over for the day (a 50-minute ferry ride from Ishigaki) or stay on the island, there’s plenty to see and do on your own or with a guide.

Due to the wild nature of the island, arranging tours is a great way to see the best sights safely, as well as supporting the local residents. Guides are not shipped in, they are locals who know the island like the back of their hand, and respect it too. These can be booked through hotels, at the ferry terminal or with the guides themselves, but prices do not differ greatly. Check for tours that include things like ferry tickets and transport in the price, as these are usually the only real difference, rather than the tour itinerary itself. With most tours offering a combination of kayaking, hiking and snorkeling depending on the season, you can see the different elements of the island. With 3 large waterfalls to choose from, we opted for a Pinaisara waterfall day trip, so here’s a taste of what Iriomote has to offer:

Pinaisara hiking trip

Depending on your preferred combination you can choose from multiple waterfall and kayaking locations, including Mariyudo Falls and Kampire Falls, as well as the tallest in all of Okinawa: Pinaisara. With views spanning the bays from the top, and a sparkling blue pool to swim in at the bottom, it was an easy choice. The tour begins with a relaxed kayak through mangroves, where you move from the mostly freshwater river into open saltwater and back again, learning about the different types of mangrove trees and their inhabitants.

With group size and the number of tours limited each day, you won’t be overrun and can enjoy the river as your own, greeting occasional passersby with an oar and trying not to overturn if you’re a little overzealous. When you round a corner and see the falls in the distance, the idea of reaching the top might seem a little daunting, but it’s easy to imagine the expanse of the views you’ll be rewarded with.

Once you reach the jungle, you’ll start with a relatively easy hike to the base of the falls, with a couple of parts requiring clambering and some scrambling, but a lot of fun. The twisted roots and vines surrounding the trail are incredible and feel a world away from the rest of Japan, and there’s plenty to learn about local names, uses and tricks of the jungle.

The base of the falls offers a break, with plenty of photo spots and swimming—definitely needed after a hot hike through the jungle.

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Next is the slightly more challenging hike up to the top, which does need some grappling but is really enjoyable. During the summer it’s usually too hot to do this part of the hike and snorkeling is offered instead—but if you’re visiting in the cooler months you can trek to the top and enjoy lunch on the edge of the waterfall. The lunch is a simple Yaeyama soba, cooked riverside with local ingredients. After a break and plenty of vertigo-inspiring photos you can head back down to your kayaks for a relaxing paddle back to your base.

Transport to and from the ferry port is included, as is full equipment rental and lunch. If you book direct with Naoya, the tour costs 10,000 yen, with alternative tours available including caving, canyoning and snorkeling too.

Sightseeing spots on Iriomote Island

If you’re staying for longer or fancy something different, take your pick from the myriad options available:



 Yubu Island

Photo by Ajari used under CC

With a circumference of just over 2km, Yubu Island is a subtropical garden home to hundreds of varieties of trees and flowers. As you can only reach it by water-buffalo cart or on foot, it’s a pretty idyllic afternoon out, and is incredibly picturesque. The island has a restaurant, souvenir shops, a butterfly house, shellfish museum and a beautiful beach. There are some animals to be seen including boars and goats as well as plenty of birds and insects. More details are available here. By buffalo cart costs 1,400 yen for a return journey and entry, or 600 yen just for entry.

Manta Way

For divers, there is one spot on Iriomote that beats them all: the strait between Iriomote and Kohama is known as Manta Way and attracts plenty of the smooth swimmers in April and June. With one of the highest encounter rates in the world for mantas, you aren’t guaranteed a manta but you’re taking the best bet. There are multiple diving services available on the island, as well as options for booking with tour companies from Ishigaki.

River cruises

Photo by Kzaral

If you want to enjoy the river views but without the hard work of kayaking up them, river cruises are a good alternative. Cruises along the Urauchi River include a light hike to see the Maryudo and Kanpire Waterfalls and some tours pair this with a kayaking trip as well. You can also enjoy cruises on the Nakama River with walks in the mangroves often included. Fees range from 1,500 yen per person to 2,000 yen and run throughout the year.

Iriomote Onsen

The only natural onsen on the island, Iriomote Onsen has the traditional gender-separated indoor and outdoor baths plus a large mixed outdoor bath too. The covered baths are pretty hot, at around 42°C, but there are some located nearer the river which are cooler at about 32°C. You can relax with views of mangroves and jungles which is pretty unusual, but perfect for ensuring your hiking and kayaking adventures don’t leave you sore for days. Entry is 1,500 yen, but free if you are staying at the Painu Maya Resort.



Hoshinozura and Ida-no-hama beaches

Photo by Travel Picture used under CC

The most popular beach on island, Hoshinozura is great for finding star-shaped sand as well as having some of the top snorkeling and diving spots. Funauki is a village only accessible by boat and is home to Ida Beach, considered the island’s most beautiful. Beaches on the island do not have public facilities.

Iriomote Wildlife Center

A small museum focused on the animals of Iriomote, the center also houses a rehabilitation area for injured wildcats, which you can watch through live cams. The cats are difficult to see in nature, as there are only around 100 of the nocturnal animals, so unless you’re very lucky, it’s pretty much your best chance at seeing one. The museum also has taxidermy animals including boars and birds as well as the wildcats. Entry is free and the museum is open from 10am to 4pm, but closed on Mondays and some holidays.  Check here for more details.

Getting to and around Iriomote Island

Ferries operate regularly to the island from Ishigaki and take either 25 or 45 minutes, depending on which port you are traveling to (Ohara or Uehara respectively). During off season, Uehara is sometimes closed but buses are provided between the two. Once on the island, most tours and hotels include pick-up services as standard, but you can also rent a car of you want more freedom. Public transport is available but limited and run by Iriomote Kotsu.






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