Iriomote Island: Japan’s wildest island

Updated in July 2021

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The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has inscribed Iriomote Island on the World Natural Heritage list. In 2021, the jungle island in the southernmost part of Japan was selected along with some other regions of the Ryukyu Archipelago. All newly protected areas are uninhabited and home to numerous endemic plants and animals. Iriomote with its Iriomote wildcat, is “the world’s smallest island where wildcats live”.

Driving a car on Iriomote Island is a weird experience. It takes nearly two hours to follow the one and only road from one end to the other around half the circumference of the island. There are two traffic lights, one at the strategic crossing to the island’s main harbour, the other one, push-button style, in front of a school. The universal speed limit of 40 km per hour overland, and 30 km per hour in settlements, allows you to observe the landscape while driving.

The Iriomote cat

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Occasionally we see some goats or birds – once even the rare Kanmuri-washi (Crested Serpent Eagle) – but the most consistent sight is the image of a kind of spotted cat. The cat is depicted on signboards and traffic signs. Sometimes we also see cat statues guarding bridges, sitting in public rest areas or in people’s gardens. Are the inhabitants of Iriomote fanatic cat lovers?

No, the traffic signs warn to watch out for the Iriomote Yamaneko. This small endemic wildcat has only been discovered in 1965.

The endangered wildcat has the size of a normal house cat and lives in the wild interior of Iriomote, but goes hunting for small animals in the fields near the coast. There, it has to cross the island street and cars are the No 1 enemy of the remaining 100 Yamaneko cats. A “Yamaneko Emergency Service” operates 24 hours to provide a veterinarian immediately to any injured wildcat…

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As the Iriomote Yamaneko is very shy and hunts mostly at night, it is very unlikely that you will see one during your visit. In fact, the chances of meeting an Iriomote native seems only slightly higher; almost every person we ask is originally from Tokyo, Osaka or Kobe.

An malaria-infested island

No wonder: Until WWII, Iriomote was a Malaria-infested wilderness where nobody wanted to live. Iriomote island is the biggest island of the Yaeyama group in the South of Japan, but still only 2300 people live there permanently. 90% of Iriomote are covered with dense rainforest and mangroves. Over the last years, tourism has much increased, although the visitors are still predominantly Japanese. They come to the wild Southern island for trekking, kayaking and diving, and quite recently, canyoning.

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Masses of water thunder down next to us, adding to the intermittent rain. But never mind, we have come here by kayak and a short hike and are wet anyway. With a height of more than 50 m the Pinai-sâra is the highest waterfall of Okinawa prefecture. We had seen photos of the waterfall in summer, a thin white thread in the green jungle mountains, but now at the end of February and after heavy rainfalls, the name, which means “beard waterfall” in the local language, seems more appropriate – it looks like a thick Santa Claus beard.

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Waterfalls of Iriomote Island

The Pinai-sâra kayaking and trekking tour is the most popular option for outdoor fans on Iriomote. In addition, there are several other trekking tours and shorter hikes.

One of these shorter hikes is the 45 minute trek to the scenic Mariudo waterfall. You get to the starting point by boat on the Urauchi river, which is lined with mangroves.

More to the South, water buffalo carts bring visitors to the small island of Yubujima. On the island they can relax in a butterfly garden or with a coffee in the cafeteria.

Water buffalo drawing a cart through the sea on Iriomote Island

But one of the best things to do on Iriomote, as on all the Okinawan Islands, is relaxing at one of the dream beaches. The most famous one is Hoshisuna Beach with excellent snorkelling right from the beach. During our most recent visit we discovered the charming small Mimikri Beach on the Cape Unarizaki.

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But whatever your plans for Iriomote – bring a little time!

Transport to Iriomote Island

The speed boat from Ishigaki to Iriomote takes 40 minutes. To get around the island you can take the public bus four times a day or rent a car.

Accommodation on Iriomote Island

Accommodation is usually paid per person. Costs start at around 3000 Yen per person, while the posher hotels cost 10 000 Yen and more. Camping is considerably cheaper.

There are three campsites on the island. Only one of them, the Haimida camp site, operates year round.

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We visited Iriomote Island as part of our work writing German-language travel guide books for Japan, namely the Stefan Loose Japan and the Baedeker Japan. For our book research we have been on Iriomote several times since 2009.

For the tour to the Pinai-sâra Waterfall and our ferry ticket in 2017 we received sponsoring by Hirata Kanko.

This post is part of a series about the Okinawan Islands. We personally think it is one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of the world and not high enough on most peoples wish list (yet?).

Would you like to go to Iriomote?

15 Comments

  1. very appealing, extremely attractive and surprisingly (at least for me) moderate prices, except the speed boat. Nature looks to be natural: no wonder people from big cities visiting these places. would love to go there ….

  2. Japan has always been a fascination for me because I love watching anime a lot. They have some cool sites and their culture is amazing. Would love to come here one day.

  3. With these photos, this place is indeed a treasure trove of nature. I’ve never gone on an adventure like this when I visited Japan sometime ago. It looks like I will need a lot of stamina! I’d love to be on that buffalo cart.

    1. The Okinawa prefecture is quite different from the rest of Japan. They were independent until the 19th century and are influenced by a lot of different cultures.Also the climate is really subtropical.

  4. We would certainly be intrigued to visit Iriomote Island and see the smallest island where wildcats live! Those road signs are so fun! Such big and fierce statues for something that is only the size of a house cat! I would like to see the waterfalls but might want to avoid the wildcats.

    1. Don’t worry – the wildcats are rarely seen. They are very, very shy. There are some areas where they might wander on the road. To avoid accidents, a special road surface makes an unpleasant (for the cat!) noise.

  5. This is my first time hearing about this island and it’s interesting.

    But for now, will just take your word that it’s kind of weird and settle reading your post.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Learned something new today.

  6. We want to see that waterfall that looks like santa’s beard, lol. Oh, and what do they call that cart that is pulled by the Ox? I was thinking about that the other day, and couldn’t think of it.

  7. I’ve heard about Iriomote Island before but didn’t know much about it. So glad I stumbled upon your post and get more information. Definitely a place I’d love to visit some day. The island seems to have everything I love: waterfalls, secluded beaches, rivers and forests! Those buffalo carts look so exotic!

  8. Wow I learned something new about Iriomote Yamaneko. That is amazing and I would love to visit this island someday and really see a wild cat if possible even though they are shy creatures. I have been to Japan only once and I would like to go back and definitely will add this island to my list.

    1. Until a few years ago there was one cat, that had been injured at an accident, living at a conservation center. There was a camera installed and people could watch the cat. But it died.

  9. It’s always so awesome when a place that you visited long back gets recognition like from UNESCO years later. I was equally exhilarated when Dholavira was made its way into the list this year which I visited years ago. World’s smallest island where wild cats live? Wow!!! Your trip looks fascinating. Kayaking and hiking when it is raining? Wow… Love that! Thanks for all that information about Iriomote wild cats.

    1. There is a lot of rain on Iriomote – it is almost like jungle. So, unless you are very lucky, you will very likely hike and kayak in the rain. But it is quite warm year round.

  10. I know so little about Japan and had no idea there are jungle islands. I would travel to Iriomote Island just to see this spotted cat, sad that there are only 100 remaining.

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