ISHIGAKI - Untamed, undeveloped and largely undiscovered, Iriomote Island is the largest of Okinawa Prefecture’s Yaeyama Islands. A wildcat haven and covered almost entirely in dense jungle and mangroves, exploring it requires some alternative transport. Thanks to the maze of narrow waterways that crisscross the land, kayaking is a popular choice for anyone wishing to venture deeper into the jungle. And, paddling your way through these dense mangroves offers a chance to see the natural wonders of an island unlike any other in Japan.
Our guide for the day, Naoya Ojima, explains the rules in place to protect the habitats as we drive up to our starting point. Stopping off along the way to see early-blooming cherry blossoms amidst jungle leaves, we ask after the famed Iriomote cat. Shaking his head, we are told it is almost impossible to spot one as there are only 100 left in the wild. Ojima had caught sight of them only a handful of times, and always at night — but our eyes remain glued to the forest’s edges just in case.
As our truck reaches the end of the muddy track, we don our life jackets, arm ourselves with paddles and make our way along a narrow path to the water’s edge. This first taste of the rainforest, with its winding tree roots and unfamiliar bird calls, creates a world further removed from the rest of Japan than we had thought possible. Soon, brightly colored kayaks perched on weather-beaten racks appear between the leaves and we set out onto the river to explore.
Heading upstream on the Mare River with guidance from Ojima on technique, we begin to settle into our own rhythms. Narrow at times, the river allows plenty of opportunities to get close to the mangrove trees and study their unusual formations. Ojima points out the differences in shape that develop in the roots as we move from the mostly freshwater river to the saltwater estuary, picking out prime examples along the way. We hover close to the sandy shore as small crabs scuttle under roots, keen to catch a glimpse of the elusive birds whose calls float down from the treetops.
Eventually, Ojima guides us to a small landing bay and we disembark to head into the forest. Beneath the leafy canopy, we spot lizards and insects as they slink out of our way and we admire the unique and varying shapes of the trees. Forever watching our step as we endeavor not to trip on the snaking ends of buttress roots, we heed Ojima’s calls of when to duck and where to walk.
Hearing the impending rush of Pinaisara Falls through the dense growth, we step out onto its rocky base, enveloped in mist. It is the tallest waterfall in Okinawa and reaching the top seems optimistic at best, so we rest beside its plunge pool for a moment before heading deeper into the jungle. As we make our way up, grappling with ropes, we are once again enveloped in the peaceful quiet of the deep jungle, far from the swimmer’s shrieks below.
Triumphant, we reach the smooth plateau of the waterfall, wading through the shallow flow to perch on the edge and admire the view. There we enjoy a simple lunch of local Yaeyama soba. Looking out across the treetops and to the sea beyond, we trace our route along the ribbon-like rivers below, excited to return to the water for a final glimpse into the mangroves.
To reach Iriomote, catch a ferry from Ishigaki Island (25 or 45 minutes depending on whether you travel to Ohara Port or Uehara Port). During the off season, Uehara is often closed, but buses run between the ports. Kayaking, hiking and snorkeling tours can be arranged through the Iriomote-Sanpo company at english.iriomote-osanpo.com.