Iriomotejima is one of the 19 Yaeyama islands of Okinawa. Like all the islands in the chain, it is surrounded by coral reefs.
Also known as the "Galapagos of the East," the island is famous for its abundant and unique wildlife. Tourists come from all over to visit the dense and mysterious--some say frightening--mangrove forests and, if they are lucky, to catch a glimpse of the very rare Iriomote wildcat, a government-protected species.
Iriomotejima, with a circumference of 130 kilometers, is home to 2,200 people and is located about 430 kilometers from Naha.
While it is part of Okinawa Prefecture, the island is closer to Taiwan than Japan, at about 200 kilometers from the Taiwanese coast.
Iriomotejima is mostly mountains and hills, with its highest peak, Komidake, reaching 470 meters. In a subtropical climate zone, it's hot most of the time, and humidity averages 82 percent year-round. Annual rainfall exceeds 2,300 millimeters, accounting for the island's many rivers and waterfalls and contributing to the growth of its primitive forests rich in fauna and flora.
Visitors will find eco-tours quite an attraction. Guides, well-versed in the natural delights of the island, will take you trekking in the forests or canoeing down the Urauchigawa river. You can paddle to the source of the river to visit a huge mangrove forest on the western part of the island.
Before you reach the forest, you will pass an abandoned coal mine, in operation until the end of World War II and now overgrown with tropical foliage. A tour down the Urauchigawa river is available, including a guide, lunch, insurance and, of course, a canoe.
Now that you've come so far, a stop at tiny Taketomijima, an island with a circumference of only 9.2 kilometers, is a must. Located between Ishigakijima and Iriomotejima, the island--once a coral reef--is flat and has a population of only about 300. Small, yes, but it offers a panoramic view of other islands and is worth a visit just to see its traditional houses with their red tiled roofs. Like the Iriomote wildcat, these houses are rare and protected by law from demolition.
If you time your visit well, you can take in one of the little island's festivals featuring traditional song and dance.
Visitors are advised to take precautions against the sun and bring insect repellent on hikes.
Staying overnight is recommended if you are taking an eco-tour on Iriomotejima. At night, the view of the stars is unmatched, and local fish and wild boar dishes are spectacular.
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To get to Iriomotejima island, take a flight from Haneda airport to Ishigakijima island, which takes about 3 hours and 10 minutes.
From Kansai airport, it is about 2 hours and 30 minutes.
From Ishigakijima, take a ferry to either Uehara or Ohara ports. Both take about 40 minutes. Only a few buses and taxis are available on the island. Rental cars are advised.
To reach Taketomijima island, take a 10-minute ferry ride from Ishigakijima.
Check out (www.ocvb.or.jp).
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