5 Tips on how to Travel to Japan's Most Remote Island: Iriomote
Updated: Jul 28
If you're considering traveling to Iriomote, I'm telling you now: GO.
Our experience was quite unique. It was about a month into the height of the initial Corona Virus outbreak at the end of February 2020 and Japan had stopped all tourism from China/via cruise ship about 3 weeks before. Things were quiet, very quiet. As North American tourists who didn't know a lick of Japanese, it actually felt isolating/refreshing sometimes. We clung to google translate and bought extra camera batteries to ensure we we're never traveling without it because English and English-speaking tourists we're incredibly rare. A couple surface level items you're probably wondering:
- Dates: February 24-27
- Weather: It was very rainy and daytime highs hovered around 60-70 degrees F
- Ferry from Ishigaki (the closest island you can fly into) to northern Iriomote cost us $45 USD pp and takes about an hour
- We were visiting the area during low season AND during a pandemic so we can't speak to the popular summer months
1. Book at least 2 nights on the Island
Learn from our beautiful mistake: We stayed four nights on Ishigaki Island and took a ferry across to Iriomote for a day trip hiking. I had a hard time finding information online that would have told me to do otherwise. Actually, when we showed up to the ferry to buy a ferry ticket for a day trip, the cashier was shocked and nervous for us! I was so taken-aback that I almost ditched the whole thing - it was pretty apparent that nobody takes the ferry for a day trip but at that time we didn't know why. We trusted our gut, spent the $45 USD per person, and went anyways (terribly afraid for what we were about to get ourselves into).
Sidenote: when you buy a ticket for the northern town on Iriomote, the ferry offers a free service to drop you off at "your hotel" on the island.
What we discovered is that the island is so rich with dense forest and activities, that it's almost impossible to experience it's grandeur without spending a few days. We are pretty experienced hikers who spent two years living in Belize for the Peace Corps so we felt really comfortable taking on a challenge - this island is a beautiful beast though. By taking it on by ourselves, we walked away feeling like we missed out on opportunities. Of course, if we we're able to find information online that guided us to understanding this, we might have reconsidered our decisions.
There are options on hotels.com for hotels up north! Even if they don't look too appealing online, they're probably better in person (there are high-end options as well but it wasn't an option for us).
2. Get an international drivers license OR book activities through your hotel (We didn't do either^)
We read a lot online about how necessary an international drivers license was and we literally did not have enough time to apply (it was a surprise trip partially for work). We are also people who try to avoid tours and crowds, so we ignored those recommendations. Keep in mind as you continue reading, this island is a beautiful beast - think Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones (so damn cool). When we arrived on Iriomote, we requested to be dropped off at a hotel I found online that listed 'bike rentals' as an amenity. Quite easily, we rented bikes from the friendly front desk and biked towards a hike that sounded difficult yet fun. The bike from the town was a beautiful downhill ride to a long bridge with a gorgeous view. It was so spectacular that I imagined our entire day feeling as leisurely - in the best way positive, it was not haha!
The road was very hilly, very windy, and very beautiful. The beautifully paved road hugs the side of the mountains as you weave through jungle, around the coastline, and over bridges. The deeper we got into the route, the more nervous we felt (Hmm... how many more massive hills will we pass, what is scurrying through dense jungle on either side of the road, etc.) until we finally reached the discrete entryway to our hike. The only cars we passed on our way out were commercial vans carrying small groups of tours (kayakers, cave trekkers, hikers). A little bit tired and a little bit nervous about our water supply for the day, we ventured into the jungle. It wasn't like our Peace Corps jungles, it was DENSE [Read #4 to learn more about the hike].
The most important point to take away is that you'll have more energy and time to trek deeper into the jungle if you take a car or tour out to get there. We love exercise and constantly think on the bright-side so we loved every moment of our adventure but we wished we knew in advance how crucial it was to stay with a hotel and have more time to explore.
3. Bring snacks!
7/11 doesn't exist and stores are limited. Things might have been extra quiet because of the pandemic but do not rely on the town to supply much more than roadside pineapples (which were awesome but out of season at the time). We got so used to mainland Japan and Ishigaki that we expected to see more options, but we did not.
4. The island is incredibly wild, pack accordingly.
While many people thrive on a ski mountain in Hokkaido, I'm someone who thrives in the hot, wet jungle. Take seriously the need for water-shoes (something like a Chaco) and
waterproof clothing if you're traveling here during the wet season like we were in February. The forest is dense - full of low hanging vines, enormous ferns, and flag-marked trails. Trails are consistently marked with pink flags but losing them is easy when you're constantly river crossing. Pay strong attention to the trail because when we mentally side-tracked with engaging conversation, we felt the eerie sense of survivor come forth when we couldn't see an immediate marker. Also note, we saw a guide from across a river crossing in flip flops walking with an older couple! This hike would have probably felt differently with an experienced guide.
Sidenote: We only brought hiking shoes and never reached the waterfall at the end of our hike because we constantly kept having to take our shoes off and on at the creek crossings (common on most hikes). I discovered a new phobia: LEECHES (no fear, they're not poisonous).
5. Go Kayaking
Hiking only gets you so far! One of the first things you see when heading south from town is the dramatic waterfall accessible by kayak. If we had time (or an extra day) we would have absolutely gone further interior by boat. Booking these adventures are best by hotels since most guides seem to only know Japanese.
I hope this guide gives you some quality insight into what to expect as a North American English-speaking traveler during low season. We found the challenge fun and suspenseful - if you're up for a challenge and love the dense jungle, we highly recommend. Play it safe though!