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.
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.
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.
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? 🙂