Brooding darkly some 20km west of Ishigaki, Iriomote-jima (西表島) is an extraordinarily wild place for Japan. Rising sharply out of the ocean, some ninety percent of its uncharted, mountainous interior is covered with dense subtropical rainforest, much of it protected as the Iriomote National Park. Yaeyama rumour would have it that Iriomote often – or even perpetually – plays host to disaffected Japanese, living rough in the jungle. A more substantiated inhabitant, though equally elusive, is one of the world’s rarest species, the yamaneko or Iriomote lynx, a nocturnal, cat-like animal. The island and its surrounding waters are also home to a splendid array of flora and coral reefs shimmering with tropical fish. There are also plenty of opportunities for snorkelling, diving, kayaking and hiking through the rainforest.
Although it’s Okinawa’s second-largest island, fewer than two thousand people live here, most of them along barely developed strips on the north and south coasts. Ferries from Ishigaki sail to two ports on the island: ŌHARA (大原) in the south and UEHARA (上原) in the north. The latter is the better place to head for since it’s closer to Iriomote’s main scenic attractions and offers the widest range of accommodation.