Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Travel: Iriomote Island...

Long been fascinated by Okinawa Prefecture. Never been. So take all this with a pinch of salt. Often, the yearning for a place you haven't been far exceeds the reality of going. But of course you won't know until you go. Tricky...

This pristine chain of 100+ islands off the southern tip of Japan is actually a giant system of ancient coral reefs built upon more ancient coral reefs, and so on, which have slowly silted up, solidified, and broken the ocean surface. As rain has trickled through the coral over the millennia, spectacular caves and catacombs have been carved throughout the islands which are grouped into many smaller archipelagoes. Some of the world's most unique flora and fauna live here, not to mention a disproportionate number of happy and healthy human centarians (enough to make those bogus Georgian yogurt-eaters stop dancing in the mountains). The year-round tropical climate, the beautiful beaches, the abundance of seafood and the tiny population have made these rough islands a sort of paradise to a handful of resourceful communities. The famously laid-back and welcoming Okinowan spirit is known as "icharibachode" which means, "once met, we are as brothers." These aren't hippies mind you, this is also the birthplace of karate. Okinawan joy and peacefulness is actually a radical attitude in Japan, one that brings many a visiting "sallaryman" to their knees, weeping with remorse at the thought of their miserable, worker-bee life back on the mainland.

But... it is the island of Iriomote that is most alluring of all. This 100 square mile island is virtually surrounded by a billowing curtain of poisonous jellyfish breeding grounds as well as a host of other nasty stinging and biting sea creatures. The island is often referred to as the "Galapagos of Japan", because of its rich swampy mangrove woods, criss-crossing rivers, and unique animal life (including sea turtles). Many come here in search of the almost impossible to find Hoshisuna or "Star Sand Beach," so beautiful that no dares go swimming in its warm shallow waters filled with tiny star-shaped shells (can you picture that restraint anywhere else?).

But... the greatest draw on remote Iriomote is the Iriomote Cat; aka: Prionailurus iriomotensis; aka: the elusive cat-god of Yameneko Mountain. This small nocturnal wildcat is only found here, and is considered by some to be its own species. There are estimated to be only about 100 Iriomote Cats on the island making it one of the rarest felines in existence. Japanese mythology has it that after a cat dies it goes to Yameneko Mountain. Here, as tiny cat-gods, they watch and protect all the living cats on earth and are known to lure evil masters to the island where they are promptly charmed to sleep and then devoured by special ghost cats. It's a better way to go than getting lost in jellyfish curtains, I guess.

But... if that's note enough for you, there's always nearby Yubu Island, just off of Iriomote's east coast, accessible on carts pulled through the shallow waters by water buffalo up into the hills. Here you will find a tropical fruit orchard and rustic restaurant. You can also walk to Yubu when the tide is low (5 mins through ankle-high water).



Blogger pigatschmo said...

I too am intrigued by Okinawa and this chain of islands which I read about prior to my trip to Kyoto. I believe there is also a poisnous snake found there. I thought perhaps that part of "Memoirs of a Geisha" where they entertain the Americans was set somewhere down there.

8:48 PM  

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