I spent a week in Okinawa in November, and what struck me most is that it's so different from the rest of Japan, it's almost like a different country. I ate food I had never eaten before (pig's feet, anyone?), sampled Okinawa's potent Awamori liquor, and toured architectural treasures unique to Okinawa's ancient Ryukyu kingdom. I was blown away by the white sandy beaches and azure-colored seas full of coral and sea life. In contrast to the frenetic pace of Tokyo, Okinawa marched to the slow beat of island time, in a state of perpetual vacation. Everywhere I went, I was greeted by employees sporting Okinawa's own colorful version of the Aloha shirt.
My most memorable experience was the day I spent on Iriomote, Okinawa's second-largest island but also one of its least developed. Only one road snakes around its coast to serve its some 2,000 residents. There is no hospital, high school nor even a bank. Its mountainous interior is covered with dense primeval forests sliced through with rivers and cascading waterfalls. With a subtropical climate, it boasts the largest mangrove forest in Japan. Most of the island is protected as state land and in the confines of the Iriomote National Park. Its most famous inhabitant is the Iriomote Wildcat, a small nocturnal animal found nowhere else in the world but only rarely seen.
Iriomote is covered with dense forest and punctuated with many waterfalls. Because Iriomote doesn't have its own airport (thank goodness), the only way to reach it is by a 40-minute ferry ride from Ishigaki, which serves as the jumping-off point for several island destinations in the Yaeyama Island chain. Most people join guided tours, but I quickly ruled out any that included wagons drawn by water buffalo (set up purely for tourists) or motor-boat rides through the mangroves (erroneously labeled eco-tours), settling instead on a hiking and kayaking trip offered by Hirata Tourism Company (the only company in Ishigaki offering both tours and information in English).
Kayaking through mangrove forests. To my delight, there were only three of us on the tour, including the guide. Nestled in my own kayak, I glided past a pristine wilderness, spying heron, butterflies and crabs scuttling along the banks. After 30 minutes, we pulled to shore and then continued a half hour on foot, reaching at last the Sangara Waterfalls. There we unpacked lunch, served in a quaint rattan box and consisting of onigiri, Japanese pickles and--I am not making this up--Spam (introduced to Okinawa, apparently, by U.S. military).
The guys on my tour taking a waterfall shower. "Do you have any poisonous spiders here?" I asked the guide on the trek back to the canoe. He laughed at the question, but as a former Florida gal I was impressed that Iriomote, sometimes nicknamed the Galapagos or Amazon of Asia, was free of poisonous spiders, poisonous plants, alligators or piranhas. It does, however, have habu, Okinawa's deadly snake, but like the Iriomote Wildcat, it's nocturnal and retiring. "Iriomote is dangerous at night," the guide said. It was a statement I didn't want to challenge. After the tour ended I headed to Hoshizuna Beach, renowned for its star-shaped sand (actually the skeletons of tiny sea creatures) and snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities. Donning a mask and fins, I raced out to the small islets in the bay to observe colorful fish cavorting around coral.
Hoshizuna Beach is a popular snorkeling and diving destination because of its coral and sea life. To me, this was the perfect kind of day. Where else can you kayak through mangrove forests, rinse off in a waterfall and snorkel among the fish at a picture-perfect beach (especially in November, when folks back home are freezing their butts off)? Obviously, those tourists on buffalo carts don't know what they're missing. And to be honest, I'd just as soon keep it that way. To each his own.