Yaeyama Islands

I previously talked about my trip to Naha, the main island in Okinawa, where my boyfriend and I experienced an ‘Azumanga Daioh’ style vacation. We experienced many of the things that I read about in the manga series that I enjoyed when I was younger. However, the main characters didn’t just go to Naha for their senior trip, they also traveled to the Yaeyama Islands (八重山列島) including Ishigaki-jima (石垣島) and Iriomote-jima (西表島). We decided to go too! Onward to adventure!

From an airplane window seat we could see crystal blue waters and atolls.

We first landed in Ishigaki Island which is a quiet, picturesque island with a port that leads to many smaller nearby islands. The most notable neighbouring island is called Iriomote, home to the incredibly rare and endangered Iriomote Wild Cat. These nocturnal cats are infamous due to their rarity and because they are endemic to that one lone island. In the manga, Sakaki, a high school girl who loves cats but is unfortunate enough to always get bit or scratched, was lucky enough to encounter and befriend one. Obviously our first trip was to Iriomote, I couldn’t resist going and seeing the practically pristine island with a large nature reserve. Maybe we’d see a cat too, who knows, right?! Well, real life isn’t that magical, so spoiler alert: we didn’t spot any Iriomote Wild Cats. We ran into a random feral cat though which for a few moments filled us with excitement and then subsequently with disappointment. (At least we didn’t run into any venomous snakes that also inhabit the island.) Regardless of that end result, we still hopped on a ferry that took about 30-40 minutes to arrive at that green, tropical island. Although it was February, the temperature was around 17-19C. The day started off as cloudy when we arrived but eventually the sun broke through so the weather was perfect for both of us, especially since we hiked quite a lot.

Iriomote Island National Park’s welcome sign.

Our day in Iriomote Island started off with a ferry ride along the Urauchi river (浦内川). This is the longest river in Okinawa, and in the manga Sakaki can be seen with her new cat friend enjoying the gentle ride and views. Iriomote Island is almost completely covered in jungle and mangrove swamps, making it a perfect wildlife reserve. On the ferry ride we saw many different mangroves with their iconic roots sticking out of the brackish river. I think the mangroves look like they can uproot and walk around. As well, we saw many birds like herons that like to call these ecosystems their homes. The river was filled with fish as well, and the boat captain even said that in the ten years he’s been there he saw the Iriomote Wild Cat once crossing the river. I enjoyed our cruise, particularly the fresh air from the great outdoors. The river even has a point where you can see the divide between freshwater and where the salinity in the river begins. My eyes adored seeing all the green, untouched landscape because it reminded me that there are still places of true natural beauty on Earth.

Riding along on the Uruachi River.

We docked at the start of a trail and then went on a hike towards Mariyudo Waterfall (マリュウドの滝). This hike took on us up a small mountainside trail surrounded by dense jungle and the sounds of the river flowing. Many birds could be heard as well because it was still the morning, but they were well hidden amongst rain forest foliage. Hiking on the muddy path was quite an adventure, over fallen logs and an uneven route, but after about half an hour we arrived at a lookout point. The view at the top resembled a painting: a large solitary waterfall that was surreal in its crystalline blue colour amidst vast greenery, slowly pouring out into a hidden pool. My boyfriend and I were more than happy with our hike. We stayed at the top to enjoy the sights and sounds for a few minutes and to rest while drinking Pocari Sweat.

I don’t think I know enough words to describe this view.

Our mission however was not finished. The trail continued further towards Kampire Waterfall (カンピレーの滝) and we definitely wanted to see it. Much like how I need to reach the peak when I hike a mountain trail, the urge to see all the waterfalls along the path was overwhelming. So we continued along the path, but it was not as well formed as the previous trail. It descended as we walked, so we ended up hiking a lot closer to the river. Thus the path was much more muddy and slippery. Dexterity was involved in our journey because it required a couple of jumps across puddles and small streams. When we reached the falls we realized why, we were back down to the river’s elevation and the falls were in a small series over protruding rocks. It resembled a small river of white water rapids. So, we happily camped out for a few minutes, jumping and taking pictures before coming to the realization that the ferry leaves in twenty minutes. However, it took us a little over 45min to get to where we were… We raced back on the narrow path and the temperature definitely felt warmer than 18C due to our hurried pace.

Imagine white horses running down the river.

Back on the ferry, the gentle breeze felt wonderful as we sailed along the Urauchi river back to the dock where we first boarded. From there we followed a beaten footpath towards one of the few roads on the island to catch the bus to one of the few restaurants on the island. It’s a tiny isolated island, honestly. Although I don’t remember the name of the restaurant (sorry!), the food was absolutely delicious! It was an Okinawan style bento box full of local vegetables, tempura, pork meat, purple rice, and miso soup. It was a fantastic and filling meal accompanied by comforting green tea. Nothing is better than a hot drink on a winter day, even if the winter is a warm one.

I like it when my food is compartmentalized.

After our lunch we went to Star Sand Beach (星砂の浜). This was one of the most spectacular beaches I’ve ever seen for many reasons. The water was a clear crystalline blue and some areas of the ocean appeared to resemble glass. The rocks were covered in luscious green algae that blooms only around the late winter to early spring season and there were undulating rocks alongside green hills in the background. Otherwise the sea appeared to extend to the horizon as far as the eye could see. The main allure of the beach was the sand; it was a pristine white or light yellow and star-shaped! Little grains would appear like pointed stars, and it’s a mystery to why the sand ends up like that. The beach was fairly secluded too, maybe that was due the fact it was technically the winter season. Regardless, my boyfriend and I decided to comb the beach sand for the star-shaped grains to admire, as well as just walking into the ocean just to get our feet wet. I guess the call of the ocean was too hard to avoid, even in the winter. There is no better paradise, I swear.

Wow, just wow. I love the islands. ❤

The last part of our day trip to Iriomote was actually traveling out of the island, odd eh? We went to a smaller island nearby Iriomote, but not by boat, by water buffalo! Traditionally, water buffalo carts had been used as transportation in the Yaeyama islands. We traversed a narrow part of the sea separating Iriomote with Yubu Island (由布島) on the Eastern coast. It’s an unusual but pleasant journey with the cart driver playing the Ryukyu sanshin guitar with heartwarming tunes that even the buffalo seemed to enjoy. It’s easy to see the buffalo enjoy being serenaded. It felt almost as if we traveled back in time. The island itself had a butterfly house where different species were kept for educational and conservation purposes. We ate salted icecream and had a cup of hot coffee as well. I think it’s okay to mix hot and cold in the winter, or am I just weird? Yubu island was where we saw the feral cat too. And when we returned from exploring Yubu Island, the buffalo were waiting to take us back, along with the driver and his cheerful tunea. This marked the end of our journey, but before we departed on the ferry I bought a cloth (風呂敷) with all of the endemic species found on Iriomote Island as a memento.

They’ve been trained from a young age to pull carts.

Back on Ishigaki we tried a lot of different foods that are famous on that island. We even went to the only A&W on Ishigaki for some odd reason, it wasn’t exceptional. Aside from that, we ate more fitting meals for our location like Goya Champuru ( ゴーヤーチャンプルー), a stir-fry dish with tofu, vegetables, and spam. We ate some amazing Ishigaki Beef Stew (石垣牛そば) because Ishigaki beef is quite well-known among the region. There are many places to eat Ishigaki beef steak, niigiri, stew, and even sukiyaki. We were on too much of a budget to go for a fancy steak meal, but we did have Ishigaki beef sukiyaki once for lunch (yes, we ate sukiyaki twice during our time in Okinawa prefecture), and it was absolutely mouthwatering. Sukiyaki still remains my favourite food. Yaeyama soba was also on our list to eat and did not disappoint. We ate sashimi and sushi one night as well because Okinawa is near the ocean and famous for seafood. As for desserts, chinsuko was still popular as well as blue seal ice cream. Salted ice cream was a well-known local dessert too that we had again in the city. However, in the city I ate it with flavoured salts as toppings, except my boyfriend didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. I guess salt and ice cream is a weird combination for some.

Ishigaki Beef Stew with Sashimi on the side.

The main site to see in the Ishigaki area is Kabira Bay (川平湾). It’s considered the most beautiful spot in the East China Sea. I haven’t seen all of the East China Sea to make my informed decision, but Kabira Bay would definitely be a contender. It is a gorgeous area of natural beauty. Underneath the brilliant blue ocean are fields of coral reefs and tropical fish. It’s surrounded by hills of dense trees and vegetation, and the beaches are filled with white sand. It’s certainly picturesque, and we spent the day enjoying the sights and walking around the paths. We even went on a boat tour where the bottom of the boat was glass in order to view all of the coral and fish. I’m sure it would’ve been even more beautiful a decade ago because a lot of the coral now was dead. It’s a tragic fate that I’m afraid will befall many coral reefs in the upcoming decades.

The water is absolutely stunning and plenty of fish still live in the area.

Although Kabira Bay has protection acts, anything that happens in other places around the world will affect all of the planet. With the planet warming and the oceans acidifying, coral everywhere is being damaged. There were still spots of vivid coral and tropical fish in clear sight, but the areas of dead coral was expansive and depressing. The Great Barrier Reef is dying too, and I’m afraid that one day we’ll tell future generations about their beauty and greatness and they’ll never understand how we let this mass death happen. Especially since coral reefs are so important to every ecosystem on the planet and as their functionality as a carbon sink.

Birds are another animal that is at risk because their habitats are being destroyed. This is a Blue Rock Thrush that I saw on the islands.

Our trip was coming to an end but I knew there was one thing I still had to do while on Ishigaki. In Azumanga Daioh, Kaorin buys a cute shirt with Umin Chu ( 海人) written on it. Unfortunately for her, the pervert high school teacher buys the matching shirt. As soon I saw the store on the island, I knew I needed to buy that shirt and to have it match with my boyfriend. It was totally worth it! We both got different shades of blue, but have actually never wore them together yet…

Okinawa and the Yaeyama Islands were a wonderful trip with the most beautiful tropical sights I’ve ever seen. The beaches were amazing, the food was delicious, and the people were very friendly. Maybe I’ll go there again one day and visit the other islands in the area. Until then, at least my junior high dreams have come true.


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