Our Japanese Tour Experience on Iriomote Island

Urachi River Cruise on Iriomote Island

Urachi River Cruise

We’ve always been DIY travelers, but since it was the off-season in Okinawa and Iriomote Island is mostly uninhabited and operating on skeleton schedules, I really did not want to mess something up and get us stuck on this island.  There was also a lot we wanted to see and do.  We thought it might be nice to actually have someone else do all the planning – so we asked the Concierge to book us on a Japanese Tour.  We knew we wouldn’t be able to understand any of the narration – but that didn’t bother us, we live with that every day.  We were just looking forward to relaxing and being like little ducklings for a day.  They were even going to pick us up and return us to the hotel.

Our nearly full tour bus left the hotel at 8:00am.  I had a vague idea what the overall itinerary was, but I never received a detailed schedule.  The bus dropped all of us off at the ferry terminal and we were told to stand in line (along with dozens of other people) and wait for our turn at the counter.  When we got there, the guy said a bunch of stuff in Japanese and handed us some tickets.  The only two things we understood was Gate 6, Boat 1 and return to the counter at the end of tour.  We were hoping for a bit more information than that.  We boarded the completely full ferry, a little nervous.  I think we looked, acted, and sounded as confused as we were.  When we arrived at the island, we headed for another line (that everyone else was in) hoping to get some direction (we didn’t know what else to do).  Fortunately, a gentlemen in a hawaiian shirt approached us directly and said “B Course?  Bus, this way”.  He led us to a bus (we noticed the sign in the bus window had four letters, one of which was B).  Now we were starting to feel a bit more comfortable.   The crowd we were with had finally been narrowed down.  When the bus was ready to go, the hawaiian shirt guy came onboard asking everyone (in Japanese) if anyone knew English (other than us), but no one did OR at least no one admitted they did – in fear they would have to babysit us all day.  That made us start worrying all over again.

River tour in Iriomote

River tour in Iriomote

He said something to the bus driver, and we were off.  The coach ride was actually very nice.  With lots of big windows and seats much higher up than a car – we had a great view of everything.  Right away it became evident that the island is almost completely covered with a thick subtropical primeval forest.  If you are not on a river, a road or some well trod path you won’t be able to go anywhere.  The island’s only main road follows the coast to the other side of the island – and that is where we were headed.  In route, our bus driver did a lot of talking and the passengers did a lot of laughing.  We were able to pick out a few things he talked about (or pointed out): the Iriomote cat (no, we didn’t see one), the kanmuri-washi bird (a crested serpent eagle), the waterfalls, some islands, something about pineapples and mangos, and the hot springs.

The bus did stop once about 1/2 way to our destination and some people got off (happily we knew this was not our stop – unlike one of the other couples).  We arrived at the Urauchi River by 10:00am.  As we exited the bus, we noticed the bus driver had scribbled down on a sheet of paper (just for us):  Bus go 1:00.  Ahhh, I think we can do that!  Maybe this trip wasn’t going to be as difficult as we thought.  We soon boarded a little cruise boat.  Someone handed us a sheet of paper saying 12:40. We figured this must be the time the boat would return.  The boat only had 12-15 people on it, so we had lots of room to move around and get a good view of everything the captain was pointing out.  Aside from the sound of the boat engines when moving, it was ultra quiet going up river.  The further we went, the more tropical and lush the vegetation became.  We passed mangroves, saw some big white birds, a couple kayakers, more waterfalls, inlets, fish, and another kanmuri-washi bird (this one actually dove in and caught a fish).  I was really expecting to see a lot more birds. The other rain forests we’ve been to were full of birds and creature sounds, but here it was so quiet.

River tour in Iriomote

Water Fall seen on River Tour

We docked at the trail head around 11:00.  We confirmed with the captain that the boat would leave at 12:40.  I knew we were suppose to hike to some waterfall 30 minutes away, so we followed the others along the trail.  Off we went, but at a fairly slow pace – Robert’s knee was all of a sudden really bothering him (probably from his swim the night before).  He almost turned around twice, but he stuck with it.  Luckily we didn’t encounter any wild boar or snakes to run away from. 🙂  We made it to the observation tower of Mariyudo Falls and even a bit further, but the path down to the falls had been closed (looked like it was washed away), so we headed back.  We returned to the dock with a few minutes to spare (there was no way WE were going to be late).  The captain almost left a couple of young girls there who were a couple minutes late arriving.  He probably would have left, if it was us instead of them.  The boat trip back was much faster but so relaxing.  It was a beautiful sunny day and we were just soaking up the rays and the scenery.

We boarded the bus at 1:00 and were quickly dropped off for lunch.  The drivers notepad now said: Bus go 1:50.  A yummy Bento box lunch was waiting for us at a lovely little restaurant (which we would have never found ourselves).  One waitress knew enough English to explain to us everything we were eating.  There was a lot of food, but we ate everything – I guess we were hungrier than we thought.

Yubu Island

Yubu Island Warning Sign

Our first stop after lunch was the other star sand beach.  This time, I decided to look for it.  I figured it would be easier to spot them if I put the sand on the black coral – and sure enough there it was!  I showed it to Robert, and he we was able to find some – pretty cool.

The bus slowly made it’s way back to ferry terminal along the same road.  The bus driver didn’t talk much this time, he just played some Okinawan music playing.  Robert took a nap.  Our last stop was Yubu Island.  I really wasn’t interested in visiting this very small island, but it was included in the price, so we went.  It actually ended up being quite fun and funny.  We even got to see the water buffalo family tree.  Our water buffalo cart driver played us some music on his sanshin and we watched all the carts being pulled back and forth across the shallow sand bar.  The water buffalo are really strong, though not very cute.  The island was full of sandy paths going every which direction.  We walked all of them, entertained by all the silly creatures and features along the way.

Before we knew it, we were headed back across the sandbar and boarding our bus for the last time.  We eventually boarded the ferry back and then returned to our hotel.  That was it.  We did it!   We managed to make it through the day without any problems or mistakes.  It made for a very memorable experience and we would consider doing it again.  I wonder if this now makes us professional Japanese Tourists? 🙂

Taketomi Island and the Traditional Ryukyu Village

A shiza in front of every building...

A shiza in front of every building…

Our first island trip from Ishigaki was Taketomi island.  It is a small, circular, flat island that most people either walk or bike around when they visit.  It also happens to be the most popular day trip from Ishigaki.  The ferry only takes 10-15 minutes to get there, and they come and go every 30-40 minutes, so odds are we weren’t gonna miss the last one and be stuck on the island overnight (unless, of course, it was cancelled due to weather).

It was a good day to test my tolerance for ferry travel. Iriomote would be 35-40 minutes on a ferry, so if I couldn’t handle this one, I knew I’d be in trouble.  It was a fairly windy day, and the captain warned us it would be a bumpy ride (we could tell by the use of his hands, not by what he said), and he was right.  However, the ferry went pretty fast so even though it was bumpy,  it wasn’t a tossy-turvy make-you-sick motion.

We arrived safely at the ferry terminal (which has a great view of Ishigaki Island and the city), and we started walking toward the village.  It only takes about 10 minutes to get to the center of town.  Taketomi is well known as as a well preserved, traditional Ryukyu style village.  There are less than 400 people that live here.  The weathered-wood houses are all one story, with red tile roofs, rock walls, sandy streets and lion-like statues (shiza) at either their entrance or on their rooftop (which they believe will ward off evil spirits).  Preservation efforts are in place to keep this village exactly like this, which is great, because it is so unique and interesting.  By going here first, it helped me notice the traditional houses on the other islands (which were very few and far between).  I really loved this island – especially all of the different shizas, the flowers, and butterflies.

Single Story, Red Tile Roof, Sandy Streets

Taketomi Tradition Ryukyu House

Some of the houses in the village are actually minshuku in which you can stay overnight at (if you know Japanese well enough to make a reservation).  I would have loved to do that.  Other houses in the village contain shops or restaurants, but it’s hard to tell the difference between them, since all the houses look alike.  We wondered around leisurely, admiring the quaintness of the place.  It wasn’t very crowded, and at times, it almost felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.  We saw the school and post office, the Nagaminoto  tower (which we didn’t climb), and the water buffalo cart man who was trying to strum up some business (and he did!).  We also saw lots of cats, including one that got caught drinking out of someone’s noodle bowl – the waiter was not very happy with him.  We had lunch at a pretty big place with a beautiful wood interior (it had lots of customers which is always a good sign). I ordered the Ishigaki Beef burger which was delicious and Robert got the pork cutlet which was also very tasty.  It came with salad, macaroni, and some yummy pickled vegetables.

With a happy tummy, we went off in search of the beaches.  We arrived at the West Pier in about 10 minutes – which had a great view of the other islands.  We walked along the dried black coral shoreline until we got to Kondoi Beach.  The beaches here are white, but they have lots of little dead coral pieces mixed in, so I’m not sure I’d want to walk barefoot on them.  The water is crystal clear and the colors range from light blue to turquoise.  If we had more time, I could have easily spent a couple hours here.  Our next stop was Kaiji Beach which is one of only two beaches that have star-shaped sand.  Several small tour buses were stopped here.  Robert tried to find some star sand but he gave up pretty quickly.  At the little make-shift stall on the beach, we looked through a magnify glass and sure enough it’s true – there is such a thing as star-shaped sand.  They were selling some in a bottle there, so I just had to get me one.

Star Shaped Sand as soon through Magnify Glass

Star Shaped Sand

We had successfully done everything we wanted to do on this island, but looking at our map, I realized we were now on the opposite side of the island and at the furthest point away from the ferry.  We still had plenty of time, so we took the back roads to the ferry terminal.  Fortunately, the weather continued to cooperate and we made our way safely back to Ishigaki.

That night we had dinner in town at a local place called Hitoshi.  They actually have two locations in town.  I had read about it on the internet and it was # 1 on Tripadvisor.  The menu was entirely in Japanese, but fortunately a wonderful woman working there, spoke some English and helped us order their best dishes.  They specialize in tuna and it was by far the best tuna I’ve had since being in Japan.  They also make this homemade tofu with a sticky peanut sauce that is out of this world.  I think Robert would fly all the way back there just for that.  It ended up being a perfect ending to a perfect day.

Ishigaki: Visiting Some Okinawa Islands

View of Kabira Bay

Kabira Bay

We decided to go to the southern most part of Japan (Okinawa) for our Thanksgiving Break.  We heard it was very different from the rest of Japan and indeed it is.  The islands definitely have their own distinct culture and a very different history than the main islands of Japan.

There are actually more than 100 islands stretching some 600 miles from the southern part of Kyushu down to Taiwan and all of these islands use to be part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom.  Some island groups have their own language – 6 different languages in total (which are slowly being phased out due to the national education system).  Japan started invading and occupying the islands in the early 1600’s, – they weren’t officially annexed by Japan until 1879.  Until then, the Ryuku kings paid tribute to both the Japanese Shogun and the Chinese Emperor.  The islands were deeply effected by WWII and were also influenced by the Americans (due to US military control of the area until 1972).

The subtropical location of the islands make them look like a cross between Florida and Hawaii.  They are completely surrounded by beautiful coral reefs which make them a very popular diving and snorkeling destination.  Driving around the towns and looking at the buildings, it is obvious that this is the poorest prefecture in Japan (I’m sure the weather doesn’t help the appearance of things either).  The locals look different than the Northern Japanese and they have a much more casual and relaxed demeanor.   The local folk music sounds more Hawaiian and their instrument, the sanshin looks a lot like a ukelele.  They also eat more beef and like their food spicier.

Dinner

Sashimi & Peanut Tofu

We stayed at the ANA Intercontinental Hotel (highly recommended) which is about 6 km outside the city of Ishigaki.  We loved their pool and spa, and especially liked the little contraption that would dry our swimsuits out for us.  Their concierge desk was extremely helpful with making dinner reservations and planning our big excursion to Iriomote.  The city of Ishigaki isn’t beautiful, but it has lots of character and wonderful restaurants.   There are even enough shops to easily occupy a full day.  All the meals we ate in Ishigaki were fantastic including their famous soba noodles (which we had downtown at the little Okinawan hut which was full of business men and a big group of local woman planning some event).  The taco rice, seafood salad, ishigaki beef, and sushi/sashimi (especially the tuna) were fantastic too.  Two of our favorite dishes, which we never had before, were peanut tofu and sea grapes.  We also had some of the best Chinese food we ever had one night at our hotel (we had to book it two days in advance to even eat there).  The town really comes alive at night and you MUST make reservations at the restaurants (even in the off-season) or you’ll be turned away.  We really enjoyed their local beer (Orion) and even tried a couple different Amawori (the local distilled liquor made from rice).  We also liked all their speciality desserts we tried (too many to list).

Shopping

An Ishigaki City Shop

One day of our trip was devoted to just exploring Ishigaki island rather than visiting one of the other islands.  As it turns out, there were lots of little hidden gems here too.  We traveled along the west coast of the island to visit both Sukuji beach and Kabira Bay.  Kabira Bay is known for cultivating black pearls.  It was by far the prettiest beach we saw on the island, but unfortunately you can’t swim there. The associated town is not very big.  In fact, the whole area once you leave the city is very sparsely populated, full of lush vegetation, mountains and streams.  It would be very easy to get away from it all if you stayed at one of the hotels out this way.  It really has a lot to do if you are an outdoors/beach person.  In route that day around the island, we also saw Tourinji Temple, Gongendo Shrine, the Toujin Grave, and the Wetland Wild Life Refuge.  If we had more time, we would have liked to see more of the island and it’s beaches, do some snorkeling, and hike up Mt Omoto.

The Okinawan islands are actually very easy to get to from Fukuoka and makes for a nice getaway.  Each island we visited (Ishigaki, Taketomi, and Iriomote) was rewarding and different in it’s own way.  It makes me want to visit all the islands….but that would take quite a long time. 🙂