While the second-largest of all Okinawa islands in size, 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 and 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, ¥1070) and Uehara via Hatoma (3 hours, ¥1380) instead. Round-trip tickets are generally available at about 10% discount.
Apparently (unverified) there is also a 4-trip ticket for ¥5.000 which is an especially good deal when going to Uehara which costs about ¥4.000 round-trip to Ishigaki.
Ohara, on the 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 ¥1540 and take about 35 minutes.
As of summer 2006, Funaura port is no longer used by regular ferry traffic. Anei and Yaeyama boats both service nearby Uehara. Both services cost ¥2000 and take about 40 minutes.
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 this case your ¥2000 will get you to Ohara by boat and then a free bus transfer to anywhere between Ohara and Shirahama.
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 is also offered at ¥1000 per person.
A demanding 20-kilometer 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.
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.
- Iriomote Wildlife Center, on the east side of the island, provides information on Iriomote wildlife including the Yamaneko wild cat. The center is open most days until 4pm.
Urauchi River (浦内川 Urauchigawa). On the west side of the island. The longest river in Okinawa, running deep inland through dense mangroves and often likened to a little Amazon. The views can be quite spectacular, especially on a still morning.
- Cruises up the Urauchi River are probably the most popular activity on the island. ¥1,800 per person, the exact schedule changes daily but departures are frequent (every 30 minutes or so) in the mornings. Cruise commentary is Japanese only, but an English-language summary leaflet is provided. The departure point is near the Urauchibashi bus stop. Tel. 09808-5-6154, .
- 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).
- Another 10 minutes from here the trail descends to the upper level of the falls. As of December 2006, 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.
- You can also canoe your way up the river. Canoe rentals from ¥800/hour, or take a guided "eco tour" with boat transfer upriver for ¥6000.
- 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 (see Eat). Free.
- Nakama River (仲間川 Nakamagawa). On the east side of the island, accessible from Ohara. Much the same as Urauchi, except that instead of waterfalls the trail at the end leads to a giant mangrove tree said to be the largest and oldest in Japan. The 70-minute cruise costs ¥1,500.
- 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.
- Pinaisala Falls (ピナイサーラの滝). Inland from the inlet east of Funaura (spanned by the bridge). Pinaisala Falls is the largest waterfall in Okinawa prefecture, with a height of about 55m. 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. Many local hotels offer tours where you kayak up the river then hike the rest of the way. It's possible, with some guidance, to hike all the way from the mouth of the river (about 2-3 hours round trip). If you want to go to the top and basin of this fall by tours, it will take about 6-7 hours in round trip.
- Star Sand Beach (星砂の浜 Hoshizuna-no-hama). West of Uehara, accessible by bus. One of two beaches in Japan — the other is on Taketomi — where, for some mysterious reason, deposits of tiny white star-shaped shells regularly wash up. These days most of it ends up in bottles in souvenir shops.
Snorkeling and scuba diving are very popular. There is lots 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 Uehara ferry terminal. Furthermore, canoeing is also very attractive. On the canoeing trip, You will find and touch magnificent mangrove forest, beautiful waterfalls and plenty of unique plants and creatures. Many tourists join in one day or half a day canoeing tour operated by local companies. Several companies have their own English website. You can apply for these tours through telephone or E-mail.
- Diving Team Unarizaki, Uehara 10-172, ☎ . One of the largest dive operators on Iriomote. Two dives from ¥13,650, full gear rental ¥5,250. Free pickup from Funaura port, Visa/MC accepted, no English spoken.
- Canoeing and trekking tour “Kazaguruma”, Uehara 870-60, ☎ . 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. Visa/MC/AMEX accepted, free-shoe rental. Tours in English are available.
- Iriomotejima Onsen (西表島温泉). Bus stop Iriomote Onsen. Japan's southernmost and westernmost onsen, with indoor/outdoor baths and steam saunas for men/women and a large common outdoor area with a large unheated shallow pool and a selection of outdoor tubs. Bathing suit required in the common area, so bring your own. Alternatively you can bath the Japanese way (without bathing suit) at the dedicated pools. Entry ¥1500, open 12 AM to 10 PM daily.
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 & 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 (¥3000+ per critter). Fruits and vegetables are often available at unmanned roadside stalls.
- 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. Open 10:30 AM until sunset daily.
- Hook, ☎ . Uehara 99-1 (near Unarizaki). Pleasant beachside café offering views out into the bay and a selection of daily set lunches with drink for ¥1000. Open noon to 10 PM daily, closed Wednesdays.
- Shinhachi Shokudo (新八食堂), Uehara (1 min. west of the harbor). Good soki soba and other wholesome meals, and packed with locals.
- Densa Shokudo (デンサー食堂), Uehara (directly across from the harbor). Soba and teishoku meals, lunch only.
Accommodation in Iriomote is typically either very expensive or very cheap in old houses.
- Iriomote Shizen Gakkō (西表自然学校), Uehara 984 (2 min. west of the harbor), ☎ . As of January 2010, Dormitory beds are no longer available, but there is a private guest room available for ¥3000 a night. 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.
- Minshuku Yamaneko (民宿やまねこ), Haimi 201-216 (3 min. west of the ohara harbor), ☎ . There is a private guest room available for ¥2000 a night. The facilities are basic, and the bathroom and toilet are two room with dividers.
- 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. A night with two meals in a spartan but air-con equipped private tatami room is ¥5,250/6,825 with/without own bathroom; during the summer and vacation high seasons a ¥500 surcharge is applied along with a ¥4,100 "single fee" if you want your own room. Fancier villas are also available from ¥9,450 per person.
- Pine-Kan (民宿パイン館address=), ☎ . This unmistakable pineapple-shaped minshuku offers a night with two very agreeable meals from ¥5000 or without for ¥3000 (high season surcharge ¥1000). 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.
- Iriomote Monsoon (西表島モンスーン) (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. ¥3000.
- Kanpira-sou (カンピラ荘) (Right next to Uehara Port - turn right at the main road.), ☎ . Check-out: 9am. Kanpira-sō is a conveniently-placed minshuku (B&B) right next to Uehara Port. Rooms are Japanese-style with futon, and prices start from ¥3000 a night without meals. The staff don't speak much English, but are willing to book any tours for you. ¥3000.
- Irumote-sō (Turn left after exiting Uehara port. It's uphill about 15 minutes by foot..), ☎ . Check-out: 9am. Irumote-sō is minshuku (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 minshuku covers an extensive area with 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. There are three packages: Youth Hostel Members Low Season: ¥3100, Private Room: ¥4600 (Pairs are cheaper), Pension Suite: ¥7300 (Private toilet room and bathtub or detached unit from main building) ¥3000.
- Painu Maya Resort, Takana 243, ☎ . A self-proclaimed "nature hotel" associated with and located next to Iriomotejima Onsen. Rack rates from ¥15,500/person in the low season.
- Yubu Island (由布島 Yubujima). 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. Entry including buffalo rides (every 30 minutes) costs a steep ¥1300/650 for adults/children. You can also walk across for ¥500 when the tide is low (approx. 5 minutes through ankle-high water). The island can be visited from 9:15 AM to 16:15 PM.