I have been thinking about Ishigaki and Iriomote almost since I’ve gotten to this island. Actually, even before. You see, most of the pictures that you look at, if you look at images of Okinawa, are from Iriomotejima. Pictures of scuba and snorkeling…check, pictures of water buffalo pulling carts across a shallow sea to a lush island…check, check…
So, in that spirit and with a three day weekend coming up, I decided it was time to go see what I’ve been missing for more than three years. There were a few complications though. I’m normally quite healthy, but I got really sick this past week and the cold went into my chest, making my asthma almost unmanageable. However, I am a cheapskate and I had already bought the tickets, so I was going, come hell or high water. I really wanted to do some hiking but that was out of the question. with my asthma. A car rental it would have to be.
Another little peccadillo is that you can’t fly into Iriomote, you have to take a ferry. So planning becomes a little onerous when you take in the language barrier. To give you an idea, first fly into Ishigaki, no problem there, then a bus to the ferry, then a ferry to Iriomote, then a car rental once on Iriomote as it is a small population island, but kind of big in circumference. I tried to get a car rental online, but it ended up canceling it. I still don’t know what happened, but I accepted it and figured once I get there, I can try to get a rental, this is the off-season after all.
I did manage to make all my connections and get on Iriomote with no difficulty, but if you’re going to visit a small island, you have to know some Japanese, do not count on Google Translate, it will only get you so far. Also, bring cash, these people do not do credit cards. I noticed when I travel in Korea they use credit cards for everything, like to buy a pack of gum…like Americans. Japanese and Uchinanchu do not, they are a cash society, especially in the little out of the way places I tend to go. I got to Iriomotejima and managed to get someone to come down to the terminal and take me to a muddy little car lot. I gave him 5,000 yen cash and a promise not to exceed 40 kph, he gave me the keys to a little Honda Life and I was on my way.
The island was shrouded in clouds and was a little rainy, maybe 65 degrees F, but the soft gray of the sky contrasted beautifully with the lush emeralds and forest green flora. I was in a jungle paradise. This truly looked like somewhere I have seen in National Geographic Magazine.
I drove up and out of the Ohara port on the only main road the island has, 215. I saw a side road and decided to take it and see what secrets lay there. I have been taking side roads for years and frequently see things I never would have if I stay on the main roads. In this case, I pulled over to look at a field of pineapples. It still blows my mind that I live in a place where you pull up alongside a field and there are pineapples or sugar cane growing there. I heard a song of some sort and came upon a pair of frogs in a rather private moment, so of course, I took a picture.
What I also noticed almost as soon as I came to the first bend in the road was a goat, just sitting there in the road. And it looked at me like I was the strange one. I was laughing to myself as I was driving and listening to an Okinawan music cd someone left in my rental, and I drove up around another corner, and there was another goat tied to the guardrail. All over the island, goats…tied to guardrails…in the road…by the end of the first day I thought this is pretty normal.
I saw a sign for the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center and decided to go see what was there. It was an informative little center that had stuffed Yamaneko (the Iriomote Mountain Cat) that is endangered. It had information about this cat that is very famous in Japan. It is very reclusive and shy and there are very few of them left on the island. I wanted very badly to find one and photograph it. They also had information on all the different kinds of wildlife that inhabit the island including habu (venomous snakes -we have them here too), different kinds of eagles, turtles and boars.
I left there a little more informed and began to drive up the coast since my hotel was about half way up the island. I saw the sign for Yubu Island. This is the place that you see if you look up Okinawa online. Before I came, I kept seeing all these water buffalo pictures. When I got here I thought I have not seen one damned water buffalo since I’ve gotten here, what’s the deal? Then I visited a little park in Ishikawa – Bios on the Hill and saw a couple of them tied up. I mentioned this to a local person, and they said, oh, you’re thinking of Iriomote. Aha! So this must be the place… it was the off season, the end of the day and the water buffalo were ready to go get some shelter. This one below showed me how she picked up the front of the cart by hooking her horns underneath and pulling it up. I was impressed.
I thought maybe I’ll be back tomorrow and walk over but maybe not, it was a bit touristy for me. According to everything I read, there are only about 2,000 inhabitants on the island. It was lovely to be in a place where there was just nature and few people. Driving was wonderful because I was able to just stop the car in the road and photograph anything I wanted to. There was a lot to shoot.
Along the way there were Yamaneko everywhere, statuary at least. This one below guarded the bridges the way the Shisa guard them on the main island. Below that is a depiction of a mother and her two kittens.
I booked a room at this resort in the middle of the jungle. As I was pulling in, I saw a white breasted water hen by the side of the dirt road, but it ran away before I had my camera out. I was thrilled to stay at this resort because although it was expensive as all get out it featured a mixed onsen rotenburo….for the uninitiated, that means a hot spring outdoor bath for men and women. This one required a swimsuit, that was okay. I was so excited to go to because I was wiped out from my asthma, sore throat and all the traveling I had done. I got in there and asked the young man where the onsen was and he said, oh, no onsen it’s broken. I said what? (Nani?) I was crestfallen to say the least. I had been so looking forward to that, I had to settle for a bath in my room later on.
I got to my room and looked out on my balcony, it was a stunning jungle view at least and as I’m standing there a very large crow lands on the balcony railing about three feet away from me. I thought this is unusual….then it hops over closer to me, like six inches and it is looking at me. I thought, are these things trained? We were regarding each other for a few minutes but I started to feel a little bit strange, like this might not be a friendly interaction going on here. I turned to go back into the room and it flew up at me and tagged me with her feet. It flew back and stood on the railing looking at me. I thought what the hell? Maybe it was territorial and warning me off. There was no damage done but wow…then as I got back inside I noticed a smaller crow land and I understood, it was her fledgling, she was protecting her baby. I left them alone on the balcony for a little while but she allowed me to take a few pictures.
I went out for a short drive after dropped off some of my stuff in my room and listened to the Okinawa cd while looking for the mountain cat.
I didn’t see any cats, but I did see two Crested Serpent Eagles. One, sitting on a wire overlooking the road and one, the next day just standing there in a driveway like it was waiting for a ride somewhere.
I headed back to the resort and feasted on wild boar with a small salad and vegetables. In the morning I planned on getting up early, checking out of the resort and spending most of the morning exploring before getting back to the port to drop off the Honda and catch a ferry to Ishigaki.
First on the agenda was Hoshinozuna Beach. Hoshinozuna means star-sand, and that’s what it is. The beach is made up of sand that is actually tiny sea creatures whose skeletons are star shaped. I honestly could not see them for the longest time while I was on this beach and I was all angry saying to myself, are you kidding me? I took a whole bunch of pictures anyway, just in case. I was leaving and looked on a little rock and then I noticed…wow…they are all over the place. It was quite incredible actually! If you zoom in on these photos and look closely, you’ll see what I mean.
After I left the beach I saw a small supermarket and wanted to grab a few things. I saw this sign on the door and wondered just what the heck is going on in this little town!
I drove a little farther north as I wanted to at least walk around a little bit while I was here and make plans for serious hiking on some interior trails next time I come back. I saw a sign for a path which promised mangroves in the jungle. I parked the car and headed into the jungle. Now, it was about 0830 on a Sunday morning, and I am alone on this trail. No one really knows where I am and I have no bars on my phone. I thought, gee, I sure hope nothing too exciting happens here! hahahah…. It was very muddy and that silly meme about quicksand kept running through my head but I wanted to experience a little bit of nature and get out of the car.
I got about 200 meters in and discovered a pretty little water fall, saw a few mushrooms and spent most of the time avoiding mud. I was also a little wary as there was no one else on the trail at all, and this looked like prime habu country. I notice a couple of spots that had some flat spots and a few that looked like perhaps a boar had raked its tusks there. I thought to myself, you have too much imagination. At that very moment, I heard a grunt and about 50 feet in front of me a real live boar took off running up a hill, fast. So fast I couldn’t get my camera up in time. We have them on this island too and I’ve been in the jungle up north looking for them but I have never encountered one. Thank goodness for me, Okinawan boars appear to be like the people, they don’t want confrontation. My heart was pounding so fast it took a minute or two to calm down, then I realized it is the year of the boar (inoshishi) afterall!
I also noticed an area that looked like it could be a den for yamaneko. I looked at the drawings and pictures at the Wildlife Conservation Center and this below looked like it would be a good spot for a cat to den up for the night, something was definitely using it as a shelter.
At the end of the trail were three or four magnificent Gajumaru trees – the tree that walks where a holy spirit lives…they looked like guardians of a sacred place, grandmothers. I had the place to myself and spent a little while there just being present and creating a mental picture to recall for times in the future.
I took my time walking out of the jungle, with a big stick (I have been doing bo training lately) and made a lot of noise – I was not speaking or walking softly this time.
I took my time just driving down roads, stopping shooting photos and just taking it all in. I had to have the car back by 1300 and onto the ferry back to Ishigaki. There were just too many places to see. I think next year maybe about this time of year I will plan three or four days for this island alone.
Onto the ferry, I stayed on the back outside as I don’t enjoy being pent up and watched the water and the sky and the varying colors become one…
At the Ishigaki Port I was greeted by the Okinawan Eagle, or a statue at any rate. Ishigaki is the home of WBA Junior Lightweight World Champion Gushiken Yoko. For about 7 years he was champion and he is in the Boxing Hall of Fame. Here’s a little information about him: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Yoko-Gushiken
He is a very big celebrity around here and quite awesome.
I had some time to kill before checking into my hotel, just in case you don’t know, they don’t check you in before 3:00 pm, no matter what. So I explored the downtown area, walked around the small public market and texted with people at home sitting in a park while curious little girls did everything they could to get my attention.
It is spring training for the baseball teams and Ishigaki is also hosting the Chiba Lotte Marines, so there are signs up all over town and people wearing Marines jerseys and hats.
I just got back tonight and I’m still a little fatigued but home and happy from another adventure. I have no idea where the next trip is but I do want to see the Sakura at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo this year….