“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.” ~ Lao Tzu
“McQeen,” I said as I smiled broadly to the Okinawan rental car agent as I followed him to our rental vehicle. He was a much older gentleman who spoke no English, and was wearing a shirt which on its back had a cartoonish car and largely printed letters spelling out “McQueen.”
He turned and returned my smile. I continued, this time with a more inquisitive inflection: “Steve McQueen?”
Hai! MAC-keen!” came his replied, his grin widening.
Steve McQueen? Really?? What the hell was the connection to rental cars, especially in Japan, particularly on one of the most remote and least populated Japanese island?! Could it be tied to McQueen’s movie Bullitt? Sure, that movie starred a really kick-ass car, but still…. Could it be tied to McQueen’s movie Papillion? I certainly hoped not; repeatedly failed escapes from an island prison was not a way I wanted to characterize our tropical vacation.
Not being a huge animated Disney fan (hey Dana, I really didn’t need to watch Frozen), and with kids long past that phase of childhood, I had no idea of the connection with their movie, Cars. But the Japanese absolutely adore all-things Disney, and thus, a rental car company is born, probably out of a miscarriage of copyright infringement.
It was, however, the ding-dang easiest car rental process, EVER. Reserving a rental car from the non-English-speaking hotel staff for 4,000 Yennies (about $40), we met Mr. McQueen the next morning, and after staring at my military Japanese “SOFA” driver’s license (no doubt he had no idea what it said; it’s in English!), he gave me the key and motioned for me to follow. No paperwork. No signatures. No legal bullshit, no endless printouts of paper and checkouts of the car. He passed me a hand-drawn map of the island, pointed out the one of two gas stations depicted there, and motioned where to leave the car the next morning. And with that, Jody and I were turned loosed on Iriomote…and its ONE major road! We drove the entire thing. In one afternoon. In a couple of hours.
It’s that time of year for, yes, you guessed it: Summer Vacations. The wife and I departed back on the 24th of May (2014) for a 4-day retreat in the southern most reaches of the Ryukyu Islands, which Okinawa anchors. We stayed on Iriomote–jima (jima means “island” in Japanese), at the rather remote resort “Hoshino Resort Nirakanai Iriomote,” which from what we can tell is only one a just a handful of full-service, 3-star+ hotels located there. Although Iriomote is the 2nd largest island in the Ryukyu chain and in the Yaeyama island grouping, there live only about 2,000 permanent residents. But with over 150,000 visitors every year, eco-tourism there rocks! The island promised kayaking, waterfall trekking, eco-tours, and ox cart taxis to name just a few…along with some serious R&R from the military culture back on Okinawa.
The vast majority (90%+) of the island is covered by dense jungle, low mountains and mangroves, and the vast majority of that is protected as government-owned or administered lands. A full third of the island serves as the Japanese Iriomote National Park. The island’s Urauchi River is the largest river in Okinawa Prefecture, and it is home to Pinaisara Falls, the largest waterfall in Okinawa Prefecture. Although mighty close to the Tropic of Cancer, the island doesn’t quite cross that magical latitude. However, the island’s climate is considered tropical rainforest, and for very good reason. In other words, it’s hot and humid there, exactly what one would expect from a tropical Pacific isle.
We ended up doing a combined boat-safari/rain-forest-nature-walk/waterfall-bento-box-picnic along the Urauchi River, which we both highly recommend. For such a densely wooded and wet area, we encounter little if any biting insets or bugs…even though our quasi English-speaking Japanese guide caught every creepy-crawly he could find, proclaiming them proudly as “my friend!” It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a Daddy Long-Legs or a Walking Stick!!
One thing we didn’t see was the island’s fame carnivorous hunter-killer mammal. The Iriomote Cat, “discovered” only in 1965, is celebrated throughout the entire Yaeyama islands, but is exclusive to Iriomote Island. A critically endangered leopard-cat, they live in the smallest habitat of any wild cat in the world. Numbering only about 100 cats, in Japanese it is called Iriomote-Yamaneko (西表山猫, Iriomote mountain cat), but in local dialects it is known as “the cat in the mountain,” “that which shines on the mountain,” or “that which has flashing eyes,” owing to the cat’s distinctive and highly reflective amber irises. These cats are similar in size to the more familiar domestics, weighing in at up to 10 pounds and reaching lengths of 35 inches. Its coat is dusky brown with fairly long hair, patterned with dark (leopard) spots in rows and bands. Their bodies are elongated but with short legs and tail, while the ears are rounded and adorned with white spots on their reverse sides. Nocturnal and twilight hunters, their prey includes rats, flying foxes, wild boar and a wide range of birds, reptiles and insects. Terrestrial in general, they sometimes swim and dive to catch water birds, fish, and freshwater prawns, rather uncommon behaviors for any cat in the wild. Destruction of habitat, predation by dogs, traffic accidents, and traps set for wild boar all have contributed greatly to their decline. The cat otherwise has no natural predator….
Our rain-forest guide did find us a famed habu snake (Sakishima habu) though during lunch. Excitedly calling us over, I eagerly brought the camera, having never seen one of these pit-vipers in the wild. Sure enough, tucked between layers of eroded rock, was a sleepy snake, much lighter brown and smaller than expected. Our guide was poking near the beast with a long stick, waking the serpent and no doubt pissing it off. As I maneuvered my Cybershot for a good photo, our guide became visibly nervous, and in his most serious tone of the day, he commented flatly, “Please be careful.” Sorry, no photo; they were not worth keeping…and I wasn’t willing to get my hand any closer!
We also found, quite by accident, that one of the most special meridians passes through Iriomote. This line of longitude, at 123 degrees east, 45 minutes, and 6.789 seconds (there are only two of these in the world!) runs through the island at a few points, where some rather cool monuments have been erected. One of them used to project a laser line up in the sky to mark the meridian’s position, but apparently got in trouble for using such high-powered, dangerous lights without the right permission. When we visited all the wiring for the lights was simply cut. In another village, the meridian’s track is marked with a large, operable sun-dial. It seems we also had just missed their local dragon boat races! Dang.
We decided to try night star-gazing kayaking, especially since the same Japanese guide was available during our stay. Given that we were some of the very few non-Asian people staying at the hotel, and probably the only Americans, all the guided tours we booked were, in essence, “private.” Although the skies remained cloudy, the heavens did finally open just as twilight set in.
In the southeast of the island can be found Yubu Island, which, although with its charms, turned out to be the one and only tourist trap we came across during our holiday. The ox-drawn cart ride across the mud-strewn tidal flats is probably one of the most photographed and promoted “things to do” on Iriomote. Yubu Island itself has been turned into an eclectic collection of botanical displays and animal exhibits. A restaurant, one of the few we ever saw, can be found here, along with cold drinks and desserts, perfect after fighting the tour-bus loads of Japanese that you’ll unfortunately encounter here.
The most disappointing thing about the touted highlights of Iriomote was our visit to “Star Sand” (Hoshizuna-no-hama) beach. Marketed as a beach covered in star-shaped grains of sand, the actual stellar forms are hard to find, and much smaller than you might think. The shapes result from abraded calcium-carbonate bodies of foraminifers, akin to plankton and amoeboids, which are deposited upon the beach after their demise. More convenient than searching the shoreline is to hit up the Japanese man at the entrance to the beach who peddles small bottles of purified stars!
And perhaps the funniest thing that happened to us we owe to the island’s large, block crows. During a foray in the water, we watched as a crow flew in and grabbed a half-eaten contained of chips. While this was funny, that very afternoon we were planning to split a freshly baked maple and brown-sugar muffin on our pool-view balcony, and while in the room fixing drinks, we watched in horror was the hooligan bird swept in for yet another snack. Jody, rushing to the door, spooked the feathered interloper, who, just as quickly as it regained its composure, picked up the muffin and flew away…AGAIN. Of course, we both cried, “Fowl!”
PS – BTW, even though the hotel’s paperwork states very clearly that no tattoos are allowed at their outdoor pool, I (and another guy with an arm tat) used the pool without issue. Well, I strategically kept my back away from the pool and hotel staff in large part. The Japanese are very strange about how they view – and treat those with ink. See my blog on that interesting subject here: Tainted by Tats