While the second-largest of all Okinawa islands, Iriomote's population is barely over 2,000 and visitors, at over 150,000 a year, outnumber residents by almost 100:1. 90% of the island is covered in dense jungles and swampy mangroves, most of which are either part of the Iriomote National Park or protected state land, and the island is unquestionably one of the few remaining great wildernesses of Japan.
Pretty much all of the island's population lives along the coast. Clockwise from the west, the major settlements are Shirahama (白浜), Uehara (上原), Funaura (船浦) and Ōhara (大原). The southern stretch between Ohara and Shirahama is effectively untouched coastline, with no roads and only a few isolated fishing villages near the western end.
Despite its size Iriomote does not even have a landing strip, so all visitors must arrive by boat. The nearest airport is in neighboring Ishigaki.
Two ports on the island have services from Ishigaki, operated by Anei Kankō and Yaeyama Kankō Ferry (which share tickets offices and boat schedules), and by Ishigaki Dream Kankō Ferry. Almost all visitors use the rapid services listed below, but dedicated penny-pinchers may opt for Yaeyama's thrice-weekly slow cargo boats to Ohara (2 hours, ¥1,070) and Uehara via Hatoma (3 hours, ¥1,380) instead. Round-trip tickets are generally available at about 10% discount.
Ohara, in the south-east coast, is the busiest port on the island and accessible in all but the very worst weather. Anei, Yaeyama and Ishigaki Dream operate boats roughly hourly for a fixed ¥1,540 and take about 35 minutes.
Anei and Yaeyama boats both service to Uehara in the north of the island. Both services cost ¥2,000 and take about 40 minutes. Some of them also stop in Hatoma, which makes the trip 15 minutes longer. Ishigaki Dream also offers this route, but its two daily ferries stop in Hatoma and the whole trip takes around 70-80 minutes (¥1,420).
Note that northwest coast services are subject to cancellation (欠航 kekkō) if there is a strong north wind, which happens particularly frequently in the winter (in autumn-winter 2016, on average half the time). In this case your ¥2,000 will get you to Ohara by boat and then a free bus transfer to anywhere between Ohara and Shirahama. In case of cancellation for the return to Ishigaki, allow one hour to go by bus from Uehara to Ohara where you will be able to take a ferry (which follows Ohara schedule); relevant timetables for buses and ferries available at the bottom of this page.
The port Uehara is probably your preferred place to start exploring the island. Most sights are relatively easy to reach from here. Bike, scooter, and car rental are found near the harbor. Public transport on Iriomote is rather limited, but most lodges on the island offer free transfers to/from the nearest port, and both Anei and Yaeyama operate free shuttle services timed to meet ferry departures.
Iriomote Kōtsū runs 5 services per day in each direction from Shirahama to Funaura (30 min, ¥390), 3 of which continue across the north coast to Ohara on the east (from Funaura 50 min, ¥670). Tell the driver where you're going when getting on and pay when you get off. A three-day bus pass costs ¥1,000.
The 20 km-long and demanding "Iriomote-jima Island Nature Trail" crosses the island. The southern terminus is over 1 km from the Ohara port, and not labeled well, so a north-to-south passage, beginning with the Urauchi River cruise, is the recommended route. The jungle is home to habu vipers, which though rare, are venomous. After a Japanese hiker went missing in 2003, signs now ask hikers attempting the cross-island hike to submit a proposal to the local police department.
You can rent a scooter or car at several locations on the island. Depending on the rental shop, an international driving permit alone may not suffice, and an official Japanese translation may be required.
- 1 Minato Rent-a-car (みなとレンタカー) (just west of Uehara Harbor), ☏ . Daily 09:00-17:00.
If all else fails or you like the idea, you can rent a bike. Locks are usually not necessary and as a result you won't get one with your rental. Bikes are cheap (as low as ¥500), but make sure you get a bike that fits your needs. The Uehara Service Station rents bicycles with several gears and an integrated lock. They are comfortable for taller people, and multi-day rental is possible.
Around a third of the island is designated as the Iriomote National Park (西表国立公園 Iriomote-kokuritsukōen), the only national park in all of Okinawa. The park's most famous denizen is the Iriomote wildcat (イリオモテヤマネコ Iriomote yamaneko), an endangered creature found only on this island. Alas, the critter is nocturnal and very rarely seen. Other more readily viewable flora and fauna include the giant mangrove trees known as sakishimasuo-no-ki, a range of water birds, and lizards, including Japan's largest lizard, a skink, reaching up to 2 feet in length.
There are boat trips available on the Urauchi River, on the west side of the island, and the Nakama River, on the east side. A 70-minute cruise up the Nakama River ends at a giant mangrove tree said to be the largest and oldest in Japan. For jungle rivers minus the tour groups, head for Maira (前良), Shiira (後良) on the east coast or Yutsun (ユツン) on the north coast. All are suitable for canoeing.
- 1 Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center (西表野生生物保護センター) (on the east side of the island), ☏ . Tu-F 10:00-16:00; Sa Su 10:00-12:00, 13:00-16:00. This center provides information on Iriomote wildlife, including the Yamaneko wild cat.
- 2 Pinaisala Falls (ピナイサーラの滝) (inland from the inlet east of Funaura, spanned by the bridge). 24 hr. Pinaisala Falls is the largest waterfall in Okinawa prefecture, with a height of about 55 m. Pinai means a beard and sala means a waterfall, based on the dialect in Yaeyama islands. You can see this fall like a beard man from a long distance. There are several ways to get close to the waterfall.
- The most popular option is offered by many local tour operators and hotels who offer tours where you kayak up the river and then hike (~30 minutes) to get to the bottom of the falls. This requires a decent fitness level and is the easiest way to reach the falls. From the bottom there is a rather demanding path to hike up to the top. This is usually not part of the Kayak tour. Make sure to inquire ahead if this is on your list. One of the companies that have English speaking guides is GreenRiver.
- Hire a guide or take a tour to go to the top and basin of this fall, it will take about 6-7 hours in round trip.
- It is possible to hike from a parking lot close to the kayaks to the top of the waterfall by foot on your own. This requires walking through deep jungle, crossing through rivers by foot, walking muddy paths, using the occasional hand to get up some steep passages (some ropes are present), as well as a very good level of fitness. Proper shoes and plenty of water are recommended. If you are unsure you should not attempt this by yourself but hire a guide. The entrance to the path is tricky to find (a video guide and some GPS coordinates can be found on this page [German]). The hike takes 2-3 hours round trip. The views from the top are stunning. There is a steep path down to the base of the waterfall. However, you will need to hike it back up to get out, so factor in that extra time.
- 3 Star Sand Beach (星砂の浜, Hoshizuna-no-hama) (3.5 km NW of Uehara, accessible by bus and by bicycle). One of two beaches in Japan — the other is on Taketomi — where, for some reason, deposits of tiny white star-shaped shells regularly wash up. These days most of it ends up in bottles in souvenir shops. This area is also well suited for snorkeling. At low tide the corals form ponds that can be quite deep and semi secluded from others, so you may have to walk to get to the next pond. Coral life is limited but still worth taking a dive. The views from the terrace of the visitor center and restaurant just above the beach are beyond beautiful. If you can stand the heat and sun, make sure to sit here for a drink or some food. Free; hot shower ¥300, ask the shop.
- 4 Yubu Island (由布島 Yubujima). 09:15-16:15. This tiny island is just offshore from Iriomote's east coast, accessible on carts pulled through the shallow waters by water buffalo (as featured on many a postcard). There is a tropical fruit orchard and restaurant on the island. Either walk across in ankle-deep water during low tide or take a buffalo ride, which departs every thirty minutes. Walking ¥500; buffalo rides ¥1,300 for adults, ¥650 for children.
- 5 Ida no Hama beach (イダの浜) (after arriving in Funauki go right and after 20-30 m turn left and follow the path to the end). A remote pristine beach, can only be reached by ferries from Shirahama port at the west end of the island's road. For lunch, there is a nice small restaurant at the north side of the Funauki village. Just walk straight from the port, stay close to the water and don't turn left onto the path to the Ida beach.
Snorkeling and scuba diving are very popular. There is a lot of virgin coral, particularly on the southern coast. Dolphins can frequently be spotted in the summer and Ishigaki's famed mantas also make an occasional appearance here. Dive operations are clustered on the northern shore around Uehara and Funaura. You can get leaflets of some of them at the Uehara Ferry Terminal. Furthermore, canoeing is also very attractive, and you will find and touch magnificent mangrove forest, beautiful waterfalls and plenty of unique plants and creatures.
- 1 Diving Team Unarizaki, Uehara 10-172, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. One of the largest dive operators on Iriomote. Free pickup from Funaura Port, no English spoken. Two dives from ¥13,650, full gear rental ¥5,250.
- 2 Canoe Tours Kazaguruma (西表島カヌーツアー風車), Uehara 870-60, ☏ . Daily 10:00-18:00. This well-famed company provide various kinds of canoeing and trekking tours from approximately ¥7,000, Free pick-up and drop-off in west area of Iriomote. Free shoe rental. Tours in English are available.
- 3 Urauchigawa Kanko (浦内川観光), 上原870 (the departure point is near the Urauchibashi bus stop), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Take a cruise on the Urauchi River (浦内川), the longest river in Okinawa. This river runs deep inland through dense mangroves on the west side of the island and is sometimes likened to a little Amazon. The views can be quite spectacular, especially on a still morning. On your way back, pop into the little museum on the second floor of the cruise pier building, featuring a selection of stuffed and mounted big bugs and crabs including the scary-looking yashigani. Cruises ¥1,800, canoe rental ¥800/hour, guided eco tour ¥8,400.
- At the end of the 8-km cruise you can disembark at Gunkan-iwa Rock and trek for half an hour through the jungle down a well-trod path to a viewing pavilion (展望台 tenbōdai) with views of the Mariyudu Waterfalls (マリユドゥの滝 Mariyudu-no-taki). The paths can be quite muddy so boots can be useful (they will lend you some if you come back by canoe).
- Another 10 minutes from here the trail descends to the upper level of the falls. As of 2016, this section of the path is roped off due to a fallen tree.
- 5 more minutes down the main trail will take you to the Kanbirē Waterfalls (カンビレーの滝 Kanbirē-no-taki). The cross-island trail starts from here.
The Yamaneko wildcat may be elusive in real life, but it's difficult to avoid in souvenir shops, which plaster the poor creature on every surface imaginable. Many Yamaneko souvenirs are also sold on Ishigaki.
Eat and drink
Iriomote has a scattering of places to eat, most of which double up as izakaya watering holes in the evening. But be aware that it's easy to find yourself wanting to eat lunch with no lunch in the vicinity. Though Uehara offers more tourist-targeted food options, Ohara is the larger settlement on the island, with a number of bars and restaurants.
Local specialties include pineapple and the smaller, sweeter local variety, the peach-pineapple (ピーチパイン), available only in the summer, as well as coconut crab (ヤシガニ, yashigani), the ferocious-looking armor-plated main battle tank of the crab world (from ¥3000 per critter). If you stroll along the island's trails, you will probably see traces of wild boar, and perhaps some caught in a trap. Its meat is available in izakaya (even as sashimi!). Fruits and vegetables are often available at unmanned roadside stalls.
- 1 Iriomote Caffe (西表カフェ), Uehara 868 (near the Urauchi River bridge. Take bus Urauchibashi.), ☏ . Light snacks and cold drinks. Outdoor terrace with river views. 6 windmills will lead your way to the cafe. Before it was named Court Chalet Plaza but now it is called iriomote cafe. This European-bar styled cafe located near the Urauchigawa cruise pier offers a fair selection of local souvenirs, and has a café-restaurant and rental eco-car. 10:30-sunset daily.
- 2 Hook, Uehara 99-1 (near Unarizaki), ☏ . Th-Tu 12:00-22:00. Pleasant beachside café offering views out into the bay and a selection of daily set lunches with drink for ¥1000.
- 3 Shinhachi Shokudo (新八食堂), Uehara 570 (1 min west of the harbor), ☏ . Tu-Sa 11:00-14:00, 17:30-20:30. Good soki soba and other wholesome meals, and packed with locals.
- 4 Densa Shokudo (デンサー食堂), Uehara 558 (directly across from the harbor). Th-Tu 11:30-16:00, 18:00-21:00. Soba and teishoku meals, lunch only. ¥550-950.
Accommodation in Iriomote is typically either very expensive or very cheap in old houses.
- 1 Iriomote Shizen Gakkō (西表自然学校), Uehara 984 (2 min west of Uehara Harbor), ☏ . Dormitory beds are no longer available, private rooms are. The facilities are basic, and if it rains there is a leak in the roof. The bathroom and toilet is one room with no dividers. ¥3,000 per person, or ¥3500 if solo.
- 2 Minshuku Yamaneko (民宿やまねこ), Haimi 201-216 (3 min west of Ohara Harbor), ☏ . Check-in: 12:00, check-out: 10:00. The facilities are basic, and the bathroom and toilet are two rooms with dividers. Private room ¥2,000.
- 3 Villa Unarizaki (ヴィラうなりざき), Uehara 10-172 (2 min from Sumiyoshi bus stop), ☏ . Japanese-style lodge operated by Diving Team Unarizaki and populated mostly by divers. Basic tatami room without bathroom ¥5,250, with bathroom ¥6,825, fancy rooms ¥9,450, peak season surcharge ¥500.
- 4 Pine-Kan (民宿パイン館), Uehara 10-171, ☏ . A B&B shaped like a pineapple. Free pickup, free air-con, and in the summer, free all-you-can-eat pineapple. The owner's specialty is the smaller, sweeter peach-pineapple. Japanese-style room without bathroom or meals ¥4,700, solo traveler surcharge ¥1,000.
- 5 Iriomote Monsoon (西表島モンスーン), Uehara 984-50 (About 2 km south of Uehara), ☏ . Overlooking the bay south of Uehara, this tranquil setting offers 6 Japanese-style tatami rooms and tours including kayaking and hiking to the Pinaisala Falls, snorkeling, and horse riding. Staff only speak Japanese. ¥3,000.
- 6 Kanpira-sō (カンピラ荘), Uehara 545 (next to Uehara Port, turn right at the main road), ☏ . Check-out: 09:00. A conveniently-placed B&B. Rooms are Japanese-style with a futon instead of a bed. The staff don't speak much English, but are willing to book tours for you. ¥3000 not including meals.
- 7 Irumote-sō (いるもて荘), Uehara 870-95 (turn left after exiting Uehara port; it's a 15-minute walk uphill), ☏ . Check-out: 09:00. A B&B that has been running since 1974. It started off as a Youth Hostel, but as the years went on, new wings and detached units were added. The extensive area has beautiful palm trees, gardens, and even a pond. It also is on the hill clearly overlooking Uehara Port and Hatoma Island. The owner, Seki, built the minshuku with her own hands and also is an authority on Japanese and Okinawan cuisine. YH members low season ¥3100, private room ¥4600, pension suite ¥7300.
- 8 Painu Maya Resort (西表島ジャングルホテル パイヌマヤ), Takana 243 (next to Iriomotejima Onsen), ☏ . A self-proclaimed "nature hotel" associated with the neighboring hot spring. ¥15,500 in low season.
Softbank has 3G and 4G coverage in populated areas and around the coasts, but much of the interior of the island lacks coverage.
Head back to Ishigaki by boat, and from there you can explore the rest of the Yaeyama Islands or Okinawa.