Okinawa’s Wild Side
With its tropical climate, white beaches and lush mangrove swamps, the Yaeyama Islands are one of the nation’s best-kept beach secrets. But as I learn during my visit, if you want to be a part of the secret you’ll need to move fast; while this region is still relatively unknown to international visitors, part from the people of Taiwan, word is spreading fast.
I begin my few days exploring Yaeyama by arriving at Iriomote, the largest of its islands and the second largest in Okinawa. While it’s long been a popular destination with domestic travellers looking to escape the rigidity of mainland Japanese life without having to acquire a passport, the island still bears a level of laidback unrefined charm more typical of other tropical destinations like Bali or Fiji.
A large portion of Iriomote has managed to avoid the impacts of commercial tourism with more than 90 per cent of its 290 square kilometres still covered in rugged jungle and mangrove forests. Within those untamed grounds lives the elusive Iriomote yamaneko, the island’s famous mountain cat.
While it’s no secret Japan has an affinity for the feline – think maneki-neko (waving cats) and Hello Kitty! – Iriomote only has eyes for its own. At the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center, a compact, but informative natural-history museum dedicated to the non-human inhabitants of this diverse island, visitors can learn more about this enigmatic figure.
The display features taxidermy figures of the yamaneko, which looks surprisingly like a large domestic moggy. With their round ears and distinctive markings, the yamaneko is the island’s pride and joy, even though the locals didn’t realise the cat was special until the mid-1960s. Before the late Tokyo-based journalist turned ecologist and novelist Yukio Togawa visited the island in 1965, they didn’t know this graceful and furious figure was unique to the island.
One of the guides tells me the cat is so critically endangered its population numbers sit somewhere in the very low hundreds. While the evolution of the island, including the development of major roads and the introduction of a growing number of cars, poses the biggest threat to the nocturnal beast, local organisations are campaigning to protect the cat.
While it’s incredibly rare to catch sight of a yamaneko, another of Iriomote’s animal residents is far more conspicuous. At Mihara Village, water buffalos dragging carts take visitors across the shallow water to Yubu Island.
Located approximately half a kilometre off the coast of Iriomote, Yubu Island is a microcosm of Okinawa’s subtropical perfection. Part of the island is covered in sparkling white sand, while the rest is carpeted in green and home to rainbow-coloured flora. While it’s only 1.5 metres above sea level and formed from accrued sediment flowing out of Iriomote’s Yonara River, the island has an almost amusement park-like ambience. That could be in large part thanks to the butterfly house, the quaint cafe, subtropical botanical garden and buffalo adorned in novel headwear, but it’s also helped along by the fantastic journey to the site.
The primary mode of transport to Yubu is aboard the water buffalo cart. When the water is shallow, slapping the shins of our hairy, leisurely paced oversized chaperones, it still takes around about 20 minutes to make the crossing, although the length of the journey is rather dependent on how the buffalo feels. I hop onto the car of Sota-kun, just behind the driver, who tells me Sota is the only buffalo he directs – buffalos and drivers are paired for their entire careers and, over time, build a bond. If one is having an off day, the driver tells me, the other knows how to help.
Upon arriving on the Yubu shore, I hop out and make a circuit across the island to see it all before my ride – the last one of the day – back to Iriomote. The journey back, at about 4.45pm, takes much longer than the one to get there. I wonder whether it’s the tide or if the buffalo is tired after a long day transporting guests. The driver laughs and explains his buffalo companion knows it’s the end of the day – he’s being sulky because he has to take the last of the passengers back to Iriomote even though Yubu is his home. Seems the end-of-day work struggle transcends species.
The rest of the day is reserved for the beach – specifically Hoshizuna Beach. Known in English as Star Sand Beach, Hoshizuna is stunning – the norm for Okinawa’s numerous stretches of sand – but it also has something a little more unique that’s right under my feet. I zoom in on the small granules of sand that dust the shoreline to find tiny star-shaped grains. They’re not even sand at all, but the dead microscopic, unicellular protists known as foraminifera. These organisms live in sea grass. When they die, their exoskeleton washes up on the shore and mixes with the grains of regular sand. It’s the perfect camouflage to the unsuspecting eye.
As the dipping sun starts to paint the skyline a vibrant blend of purple and orange, Star Sand Beach is the perfect place to finish the day. It’s also the perfect analogy for visiting Okinawa and, on a broader level, travelling Japan. While we think we may know a place, until we take the time to look a little deeper we won’t discover it for what it genuinely is.
This story is sponsored by JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization).
ANA operates daily flights between Tokyo Haneda Airport and New Ishigaki Airport. From there, high-speed ferries run to two ports on Iriomote: Ohara Port in the island’s south and Uehara Port in the north. Bookings can be made on the Direct Ferries website.
Words Lucy Dayman
Photos Lucy Dayman