IRIOMOTE ISLAND, OKINAWA

A place apart from you

by Joseph Badtke-Berkow

Where are the wildernesses of lore?

The late scholar of curios, W.G. Sebald, wrote wistfully of the high forests of the Dalmatian Coast, the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa where fir trees rose like the spires of cathedrals to heights of over 50 meters. They were all gone by Christ’s day.

Elsewhere in Europe the old-growth deciduous forests and sprawling wetlands of Germany and Gaul took longer to tame. But tamed they were, to such an extent that a modern traveler going back in time would find the Rhineland landscape of the 16th Century unrecognizable, overrun by flora and fauna best seen now in those little Flemish oil paintings where peasants perched on donkeys pick their way through the riffled darkness of gargantuan primeval wealds.

In Japan the transformation of ancient natural scenery has been similarly stark. Manic industrial expansion in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and the postwar policy of single-species reforestation have resulted in the near-complete destruction of the ancient pine, cedar and cypress forests that could once be found everywhere on these islands. Today, while almost two-thirds of Japan remains forested, nearly all of that is slender new-growth vegetation, and 20 percent is cedar, a state of affairs responsible for the dastardly allergy season experienced here early each spring when a heavy cloud of cedar pollen blankets the land.

For those interested in visiting wilderness in the virgin state that not so long ago could have been found throughout the country, there are only a handful of destinations left. Perhaps the most spectacular of these is the island of Iriomote at the southern end of the Okinawan chain, lying just 200 km from the coast of Taiwan in the East China Sea.

Part of the Yaeyama Island group, Iriomote is about as far as you can get from the rampant overdevelopment of the mainland, and for those who can do without flashy resorts and good shopping it is a veritable garden of delights.

Though it is the second largest island of Okinawa, Iriomote boasts a permanent population of little more than 2,000 people spread out along the few flat coastal plains on the island’s eastern flank between the ports of Ohara in the south and Shirahama in the north. Its only road clings to the coastline connecting a few meager settlements, and just beyond the handful of scraggly sugar-cane fields mountains invariably rise up like sentinels, guarding a lush, uninhabited interior.

More than 98 percent of Iriomote is covered in a thick blanket of broadleaf subtropical forest. Enormous mangrove forests occupy the wetlands found in the estuaries of the three major rivers that reach down from the island’s belly to the sea. Iriomote National Park, the southernmost of Japan’s national parks, covers a good third of the island, and 80 percent of the rest is protected state land.

Each year, thousands of tourists arrive at the island’s two commercial ports — Ohara in the South and Uehara in the North. The vast majority are day-trippers taking advantage of the fast ferries that connect Ishigaki to Iriomote and get you there in just 40 minutes.

Those visitors usually take one of the 2-to-3 hour boat cruises up Urauchi or Nakama rivers before heading back to their tour buses for the trip back. While such cruises offer a fleeting glimpse of the impressive forests and wetlands, the best way to soak up Iriomote’s rugged charms is to stay overnight.

In recent years several comfortable and modern hotels have opened to serve the growing demand for accommodation on the island, and there are many companies operating land tours and waterborne excursions, especially kayaking and diving.

A handful of hiking trails lead into the island’s interior, including easy routes taking just a few hours and a full-day cross-island trek that can only be done with a local guide. On the rivers, there are also half- and full-day kayak tours available, which let you explore the mangrove forests that are one of Iriomote’s most famous draws. It’s a place where you can spot some of the local wildlife, including sea turtles, a great number of birds and snakes and most famous of all, the endangered Iriomote Wildcat.

Visitors arriving on Iriomote generally fly from Naha, the prefecture’s capital on the main island of Okinawa, to the Yaeyama Islands’ only major airport on Ishigaki. From Ishigaki Port, several companies operate fast ferries to the other islands. While none can beat Iriomote when it comes to the sheer beauty of its natural habitat, there are numerous other splendid destinations of note. In particular, Taketomi, a flat oval-shaped island just 10 minutes by ferry from Ishigaki Port, is famous for its pristine beaches and the village’s (population: 350) sandy streets, stone walls and traditional Ryukyu architecture.

Ishigaki itself, though by far the most developed island in the Yaeyama chain, is well worth a visit. Bucolic landscapes occupy the island’s interior, and around its coast can be found many white-sand beaches and spectacular coral reefs. A new airport that will service direct jumbo-jet flights from the mainland is scheduled for completion in 2013, a development that will no doubt bring many more tourists to Japan’s last stop in the South Pacific. While land prices on Ishigaki are sure to rise accordingly, given the protected status of the vast majority of Iriomote it seems set to remain much as it is: a rare jewel of untouched natural splendor, evidence of what was once a bounty common everywhere.