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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.

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