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Paddling Japan’s Last Frontier

Ocean athlete Tomoko Okazaki discovers the perfect way to explore Okinawa’s last frontier.

I have been around the world in search of waves and wind, but the nature and beauty of Iriomote always fascinates me. When I return to Japan from my home in Maui, I usually visit the pristine island.

In early spring, when snow is still falling on Honshu and Hokkaido, it’s the start of the beach season in the Yaeyama Islands, Japan’s southernmost inhabited islands. Check a map, and you’ll see just how close they are to Taiwan. The peak season for tourists here is July and August, yet it stays warm through November, and even in winter the temperature is pleasant.

Iriomote is the largest of the Yaeyama islands, yet it has the fewest roads. It’s also the rainiest, so the semi-tropical vegetation is dense and largely untouched, making it one of Japan’s last true frontiers.

In fact, nearly 90 percent of the island is wild jungle, home to many unusual plants and animals, including endemic species such as the Iriomote wildcat. The mangrove forests are the largest in Japan and it has the largest coral reef in Japan, stretching 20 km. long and 15 km. wide.

When the tide goes down, groups of older women forage in the ocean. If you call out to them, these friendly oba-san will show you what they are gathering and share how it is used, such as the medicinal value of some plants, even those that look like simple weeds.

Iriomote’s wild interior and beautiful sea are a playground for outdoor lovers. Diving, fishing, sea kayaking, snorkeling, trekking, waterfall climbing…it’s all here. The diving and snorkeling in the spectacular reefs surrounding the island are particularly special. If you swim just 30 meters from the port, you enter the rich underwater world of Ryugu-jo, the legendary Palace of the Dragon King.

Get Up, Stand Up!

Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), has become increasingly popular. If you’ve never tried it, you stand on what looks like a large surfboard using a long paddle to maneuver. I first tried SUP back home in Maui. A bunch of my friends started doing it after watching big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, who really brought it to the sporting world.

The boards still needed a lot of improvement in their designs; they were heavy and hard to move, but they allowed you to escape crowded surf breaks and sneak out and play in more distant waves even in a light wind when the surf was down.

A paddleboard gives you access to inlets you otherwise couldn’t get to. You can even paddle up a river like a salmon returning to its home.

The beauty of SUP is that it’s a sport anyone can enjoy, especially if you find a board that fits you. Hardcore surfers might go out after big waves, while children can enjoy cruising little ones with their parents, maybe even with the family dog on board.

Hollywood celebrities are apparently turning to SUP for exercise, while others have used them on serious adventures from island-to-island paddles, even crossing the Atlantic.

Visitors to Iriomote who try SUP quickly realize it’s a paddleboard paradise. If you have an adventurous spirit, there are many otherwise inaccessible beaches and rivers to explore. You can even go fishing or snorkeling from your SUP.

Mangrove Cruising

Japan’s largest mangrove forest is impressive to see from a boat in the distance, but you get a much different perspective when paddling up close. Gliding up a mangrove-lined river, you’ll find the trees block the wind, making the water surface flat and smooth.

Paddling here in the light of the early morning is also a magical sensation. The scenery is exotic and always changing. It’s also great exercise, using your core abdominals and legs. Paddling up Iriomote’s long, winding Urauchi River is a great way to practice your SUP technique, and it’s a good training ground for athletes.

Fishing & Harvesting Mozuku

Spring is the season for mozuku in the Yaeyama Islands. I love this slightly stringy, crunchy seaweed. I once dove down to gather some from the ocean floor, and I was surprised at how delicious it is compared to what you buy in stores.

It’s common to see older women out gathering mozuku and, if you are on an SUP, you can paddle a little farther out to where sandbars — natural mozuku fields — appear during low tide. There’s usually no one else out there, so you can take your time.

When gathering mozuku, it is important to pull up the plant and leave the roots. Keep your fingers above the roots when you pick mozuku; if the roots remain, there will be a new growth the following year. Locals prefer the slender, more delicate mozuku to larger plants, which are then lightly pickled in salt at room temperature for a few days, before being eaten.

You’ll also find many other kinds of seaweed as well as shellfish. You can also put a fishing rod on your back while paddling and try a bit of trolling. The world-class coral reefs here attract countless fish.

Snorkeling

Snorkeling is easier and more fun when you have an SUP to get to a good spot. The standing position provides a great vantage point for seeing into the water so the colorful corals—like fields of flowers—and fish can easily be seen while paddling along. With snorkeling gear ready, you can jump in anytime and use the SUP as a floating platform and leisurely enjoy a day in the ocean.

Surfing

To be honest, Iriomote is not blessed with great surfing except when a typhoon passes by or a strong north wind blows. This is when local surfers get on boats and head out to the outer reef and find a good spot. The reef protects the area closer to the shore, so the waves don’t break — even if they do, they’re quite small.

The SUP has an advantage here because, although you can’t choose the wave quality, if you look off into the distance and the waves look like fun, you can paddle out to get them. A stand-up board can also be used to tow out a normal surfboard, anchor at a good spot and go surfing.

Sunrise and Sunset Cruises

Iriomote is the westernmost point of Japan, so the sunrise comes later than the rest of the nation. As the sky begins to grow brighter, you slip into the ocean on your SUP and begin paddling out to the open sea; to the east, the giant red ball rises from the horizon, and the ocean begins to reflect a gradation of reds, oranges and yellows. It’s a moment-by-moment, dynamic change and one that, no matter how many times you see it, makes you stop and give thanks.

The winds usually quiet down the moment twilight arrives and, paddling alone on a calm sea, you feel completely at peace. It’s nice to see more locals enjoying these special times of the day on the SUPs, before or after work.

Paddling Downwind

Paddling in strong winds can be difficult as the surface of the water grows rough and the chance of being swept off your board increases. Yet, if you go with the flow, you can head from a leeward island to an island downwind quite easily. It’s a dynamic, open-ocean experience that can take you quite a distance.

The Yaeyama Islands are scattered around at distances from three to 50 kilometers apart, meaning there are many different courses available depending on your skill, experience and the conditions.

Iriomote Island has a particularly simple downwind course and, if there’s a north wind, an easy long-distance course is from the tiny coral-sand island of Barasu to Uehara Island. For a bit more of a challenge, start at Hatoma Island.

If you are looking for a real adventure, wait for the kachiba, a wind from the south, and paddle the 50 kilometers from Hateruma Island to Iriomote, something many ocean athletes try.

TRAVELER TIPS

SUP Guide: To get the most out of standup paddling in the fantastic natural world of Iriomote, particularly in the changing day-to-day conditions, a local guide is the way to go. Motoyuki Tokuoka at Waterman is an experienced guide who can create a fun, safe course depending on the weather and ocean conditions, and the guests’ abilities. Waterman is a comprehensive guide service that can also provide guided diving, stand-up paddling lessons and guided paddling and more. Web: http://i-waterman.com

Laugh La Garden: This restaurant is operated by a surfer couple and is located just across from Uehara Port. Enjoy big, hearty servings of delicious dishes such as miso katsu teishoku and Okinawa favorite champuru. A wide selection of beverages are available and plenty of snacks to enjoy with a post-paddle cocktail.

GETTING THERE: Regular ferries run from Ishigaki Island to Iriomote Island and take 35 to 40 minutes. There are direct flights to Ishigaki from some major cities in Japan or, if you are on a budget, jump on a low-cost carrier to Naha and then changes planes from Naha to Ishigaki.

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