Exploring Iriomote’s vibrant subtropical jungle

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kayaking on the Hinaigawa river in the midst of a subtropical jungle.

By Hiroshi Nishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterI boarded a kayak on the banks of the Maregawa river amid a dense forest in the northeastern district of Funaura on Iriomotejima island, Okinawa Prefecture. It felt like I was setting off on a little adventure.

After paddling slowly for about 15 minutes, my companions and I reached the larger Hinaigawa river and our field of view opened up. Both banks were covered with mangrove trees and mountains rose up gently before us.

“All seven of the mangrove species that grow in Japan can be found on Iriomote. And three of them grow in this basin,” said our guide, Yasuko Yamamichi, 30.

She taught us how to distinguish between ohirugi black mangrove, which has roots that look like bent knees, mehirugi, which has plate-like roots, and Yaeyamahirugi, which has long roots that look like the legs of an octopus.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    The large, wavy, plate-like roots of a Sakishimasuonoki tree

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

Next we disembarked from our kayaks and started up a trail into virgin forest.

The almost supernatural creativity of nature was on full display. We saw Sakishimasuonoki trees with large, wavy, plate-like roots, akagi Java bishopwood trees with blood-red sap running down their trunks, and giant Takasago termite nests growing like knobs on the trunks of trees.

Walking for about 20 minutes brought us to the sheer, 55-meter drop of the Pinaisara Falls.

The volume of water coming over the falls is not large, but when the wind blows it has a curious effect on the flow of the water.

“Iriomote’s nature has different faces depending on the season or weather. The feeling of spaciousness you get on clear days like today is nice, but on rainy days the forest has a dreamlike atmosphere,” Yamamichi said.

Evolution in isolation

Wanting to know more about the island’s nature, I visited the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center.

The center has programs and exhibits on rare animal species such as the Iriomote wild cat and crested serpent eagle, which are designated as special natural monuments by the government; on the island’s plant life, and on environmental protection.

Road building, increased traffic and other developments have led to more rare species being killed by vehicles. Addressing this is part of the center’s mission.

“Most places at this latitude are deserts or dry grasslands, but our moist climate has created a globally significant subtropical jungle,” said Shota Sugimoto, 31, a conservation ranger at the center.

The Ryukyu Islands, which include Iriomotejima island, were once part of Eurasia, but movements of the Earth’s crust took them away from the continent at least as far back as 10 million years ago. After that, species that originated from the continent developed in unique ways, according to the center.

Among the Ryukyu Islands, “Iriomote has large rivers and plenty of water, which has created rich lives. The lack of development has protected this,” Sugimoto said.

Thinking I would like to see the jungle at night, I joined a walking tour of the forest in the Funaura district.

With a flashlight to guide the way, I heard the “hoo-hoo” of the elegant scops owl and the “kyu-kyu” of the Eiffinger’s tree frog. I was even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the pale glow of the Yaeyama firefly.

At one point, I turned off the light. The forest, which blocked out even the starlight, was literally as black as ink. This is another thing I could never experience in the city.

Beautiful beaches

This article has been about inland areas, but Iriomotejima offers beautiful white-sand beaches as well, including Hoshizuna and Tsukigahama beaches, which are great for swimming and snorkeling.

Swimming through coral reefs surrounded by colorful tropical fish is the epitome of summertime on a southern island.

Whether inland or on the coast, Iriomotejima offers an abundance of untouched nature.


Flights from Haneda Airport to Ishigaki Airport take about three hours. The bus ride from the airport to the Ishigakiko Rito Terminal takes about 30 minutes. Ferries to Ohara Port and Uehara Port on Iriomotejima island take about 35-40 minutes and 40-45 minutes, respectively.

For inquires, please call the Taketomi Town Tourist Association at (0980) 82-5445.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit

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