The entrance to the annex of Rakutenya 楽天屋 (www3.big.or.jp/~erm8p3gi/english/english.html), my home-away-from-home for five nights on Ishigaki Island 石垣島.
Welcome to the jungle...Japanese-style.
OK, so Japan doesn't really have jungles. But it does have the island of Iriomote 西表島. Though it's the second-largest island in the prefecture of Okinawa 沖縄県, there are only about 2000 people living there in a few scattered settlements. More than 90% of Iriomote is covered by dense forest, much of it unexplored, which makes it understandable why one of the world's rarest (and critically endangered) species, the Iriomote cat イリオモテヤマネコ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iriomote_Cat) was only discovered in 1965. Though it's only 45 minutes by ferry from Ishigaki to the port of Uehara 上原, it feels like a different world from Ishigaki.
Buses are infrequent on Iriomote, but thanks to the tourist information counter inside the Ishigaki Port 石垣港 terminal, I was able to pick up detailed ferry and bus timetables (are you listening Taiwanese tourist authorities?) and plot the best time to go. Which in my case turned out to be the 8:30am ferry to Uehara, which pulled in at 9:15, leaving me with just enough time to catch the 9:20 bus to my final destination, the Urauchi River 浦内川. The most popular thing to do on Iriomote is to take a boat up the river, and then walk through the forest to see a couple of picturesque waterfalls. Which is what I did. We traveled upriver for about half-an-hour, passing groves of mangrove trees en route. I've never been to the Amazon, but I imagine the Urauchi-gawa bears more than a passing resemblance.
From the boat landing, it was a 45-minute walk through rainforest to the first of the two waterfalls, Mariudo-no-taki マリウドの滝. The access path leading down to the falls was roped off, but they could still be seen from an observation post:
In all, we were given about 2½ hours to walk to the waterfalls and back to the boat landing. I didn't see any native wildcats while walking along the trail, of course (they're mostly nocturnal, anyway), but other life forms were out and about.
On the return trip downriver, the boat traveled quickly in spots where the Urauchi River was deep, but in places where the bottom came up quickly, it had to move slowly.
Back at the starting point, I had about 50 minutes to wait for the return bus to Uehara, so I killed time by walking over to a nearby lookout point that provided a good view over an extensive area of mangrove forest. At Uehara, it was only a short wait for the next ferry back to Ishigaki, where I found myself again shortly before 3:30 in the afternoon.
And that, unfortunately, was the whole of my experience on Iriomote. I say "unfortunately", because this is an island that deserves an extended stay and not a mere day trip. Iriomote has other river trekking options, along with kayaking, swimming, snorkeling and diving. If you continue on the trail past the Kampirē-no-taki waterfall, you can embark on a 15-kilometer (9.3 miles)-long hike through the center of Iriomote, eventually reaching the southern port of Ōhara 大原, from where it's also possible to take a ferry back to Ishigaki. I wish I'd had the time on this trip to spend a night or two on Iriomote Island and see more of this special place, but I'm glad I was able to at least scratch the surface.
Meanwhile, back in civilization, I was starving and in the mood for some Okinawan cuisine, so I headed straight for...A&W. Yes, as in the root beer maker (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A%26W_Restaurants). Another by-product of the U.S. influence on the Ryūkyū Islands 琉球諸島 (for those of you who don't know your post-war history, Okinawa 沖縄 was under American administration from the end of the war in 1945 until its reversion to Japanese control in 1972), I saw more A&W Restaurants in Okinawa than McDonald's. In addition to bringing back childhood memories (and childhood was the last time I'd been to one), the root beer hit the spot after the humid morning and afternoon on Iriomote.
Refreshing though the root beer was, I was still thirsty. From a vending machine came proof that it's not all Orion Beer オリオンビール (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orion_Beer) and awamori 泡盛 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Awamori) when it comes to drinks in Okinawa. Ryūkyū Cola 琉球コーラ tasted a lot like RC Cola, and like it says on the can, it was "so cool!" and "so refreshing!"
For the remainder of the afternoon, I visited a couple of sights in the town of Ishigaki, not far from the Rakuten guesthouse. First, I walked over to Tōrin-ji 桃林時, a Zen 禅 temple dating from 1614 (the car parked in front is a later model).
Next door to the temple is Gongen-dō 権現堂, a small shrine which was originally constructed in 1614, but rebuilt in 1771 after the original structure was destroyed by a tsunami 津波.
Finally, it was dinner time. Based on a recommendation in my Lonely Planet guide, I decided to check out Eifuku Shokudō 栄福食堂, and its owner, Tony Soba トニーそば.
...but the real highlight of Eifuku Shokudō was Tony himself. One of Ishigaki's true characters, Tony is a very entertaining host. A former tuna 鮪 fisherman whose work took him all over the world (he has the postcards to prove it), Tony named himself after Keiichirō Akagi 赤木圭一郎, a Japanese actor/singer nicknamed "Tony", who died at the age of 22 in 1961. The walls of Eifuku Shokudō are plastered with his album covers and movie stills.
Tony is also proud that his restaurant has been mentioned in the last four Lonely Planet Japan guides. It's people like him who help make Ishigaki such a great place to visit. If you ever make it there, be sure to drop in at Tony's and sign his guestbook.