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Adventure through the jungles of Iriomote Island

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-09-04

Cruising through the East China, I began to imagine the adventures that lay ahead of me. I was on my way to Iriomote, a designated national park reserve located at the southern end of the Ryukyu Archipelago. It is often regarded as one of Japan's last true wildernesses, and I was about to discover its wonders through an eco-tour, which I had booked from Okinawa.

The first thing you notice about the island is its lush, green mountains and sub-tropical vegetation. It is a place of true nature, where time seems to stand still. Our tour group assembled at the mouth of Funaura Bay at about 10 am, where eco-tour guide, Hideyuki Yamashita, and his assistant gave us a lesson in river kayaking. In the distance, we could see our destination, a thin white line of water streaming from a mountain cliff. We were to paddle up the Pina River by kayak, and then hike another thirty minutes to the Pinaisaara Waterfall.

As we left the bay and entered the river, mangrove trees began to surround us on both sides. It was high tide, and the green water flowed slowly as the ocean's salt water pushed its way up the river. Wild birds flew above us, and small fish could be seen darting in and out of the thick roots of the "Yaeyama-hirugi" mangrove tree, which curve down from above the water, into the soft river bottom. Yamashita explained to us how the decaying leaves of the mangrove trees provided food and nutrients for many crabs, shellfish, and other creatures. Clouds rolled past the sky above us, as the hot sun lit up the green mountains that surrounded us. Our kayaks glided through the river, bringing us deeper and deeper into the jungle.

Continuing up the river, the surrounding mangrove forest was stunningly beautiful and tranquil. We stopped our kayaks, and climbed onto the bank of the river, where we began our jungle trek towards the Pinaisaara Waterfall. Yamashita immediately explained to us about the types of plants and trees we could see sprouting up from the jungle floor. As we walked along a marked trail, our path was occasionally blocked by the roots of the "Sakishima-suo" tree. The roots protrude above the surface of the soil, forming a curvy wall, often reaching two to three feet in height. Large ferns and other sub-tropical plants formed a thick wall of jungle on both sides of the trail, with huge vines and roots hanging from all directions. Our guide stopped us along the way, where we could see some of the small inhabitants of the forest. Small geckos slivered beneath fallen leaves, and colorful butterflies floated through the air. We also stopped at a small patch of ground that had been cleared of most its vegetation. We were told by Yamashita that it was the work of the Ryukyu Wild Boar. Everyone was excited over each new find, but most of us were also relieved that we had not yet spotted the potentially deadly "Habu", a very poisonous snake of Okinawa.

Walking at the rear of our trekking group, I could here gasps of excitement coming from the front of the line. I also broke through the overgrowth into a clearing, where a sheer cliff extended across the sky. From the side of the cliff closest to us, about 170 feet from up above, came a long and narrow stream of water spraying onto rocks and boulders about 50 feet away. The sight was breathtaking. Everyone was standing in amazement. At that moment, we all forgot about the heat and our tired arms and legs. Everyone jumped into the cool water of the tide pool in front of us.

I swam across the pool of water, and clambered up to the area where the waterfall met with the ground beneath it. Looking straight up, I became dizzy as I watched the droplets of water break up into a mist from the force of the wind. The spray of water swayed, and danced back and forth as the sunlight produced a rainbow on it. After remaining in the cool mist for a while, I swam back to the others.

Our group packed up and headed back to our kayaks, but our tour was only half over. The next leg of our trip, took us up the Nishida River, where we broke for lunch at the Nishidasaara Waterfall. This waterfall, unlike Pinaisaara, is wide and short. It softly cascades over one huge slab of stone, where it flows gently over the flat surface below, down to waiting tide pools.

It was late afternoon when we reached the bay again. Our group was tired, but everyone kept repeating the same thing. We all talked about how we would never forget this day, and we also agreed that we were going to come back again.

Iriomote can be reached by ferry from Ishigaki island for 2,000. Arimura's "Hiryu" cruise ship departs for Ishigaki from Aja port in Naha every Monday night at 8 pm, and arrives Tuesday morning at 9:40 am. It is a very nice and inexpensive way to travel. The one way fare for second class is 5,350. First class is 10,700. Reservations can be made by calling 860-1980. One way airfare on the Naha to Ishigaki route can be purchased for as little as 8,000 by making reservations one month in advance.

Accommodations range in price for as little as 2,500 per person for a "minshuku" (small Japanese style inn) to over 10,000 at a small resort. A real bargain is the "Wild Far Pension" at 8,000 per person. The price includes breakfast and dinner, and the food is delicious! Owner Makiko Fujita is also very warm and friendly, and so are the cozy rooms. Reservations can be made by calling 09808-5-6653 or faxing 09808-5-6720. English is OK.

The eco-tour written in this article is offered for 9,000 per person by Mayagusuku Resort Eco-Tours, which includes guide, lunch, and all rentals. They can aslo provide accomodations. Reservations can be made by calling 09808-5-6190. "Banana House" also does excellent eco-tours. Their phone number is 09808-5-6175. You should bring a translator if you can not understand Japanese.

Kayak and canoe rentals are also available for touring on your own. Please call 09808-5-6154 for more information.

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