Feel Iriomote Island-discover the Mayagusuku Waterfall

As our boat heads towards the island, the lush green mountains of Iriomote start to rise majestically out of the blue ocean like a green palace. A subtropical jungle covers the largest island of the Yaeyama region by more than 90%. It is home to roughly 2,500 islanders, who have been co-existing with nature for hundreds of years and hosts a wide biodiversity with various flora and fauna, including the endangered Iriomote Cat that has a population of an estimated 100 individuals. Since July 2021, the unique nature of Iriomote Island gave it a listing as a Natural World Heritage site together with Amami, Tokunoshima and the northern part of the Okinawan main island.

Although day trips from Ishigaki are an option, we decided to spend two nights on the island. This allows us to participate in early and longer tours, and as such, explore the island even more.

The next day, Pumehana Adventures’ private guide Takashi Umezawa meets us at 7:00 am for our eight-hours trekking tour to the Mayagusuku waterfall, located at the heart of Iriomote’s vast jungle. ‘The waterfall was basically unknown until the 1970s,’ explains Takashi. It reflects the remoteness of this natural highlight. In the local language, Mayagusuku means ‘cat’s castle’, referring to its native wild cat. It is not very likely to encounter one, because even for locals, sightings of this feline creature are extremely rare.

We start the tour easy: Takashi has chartered a boat to cruise upstream the Urauchi-gawa River, Okinawa’s longest river. From the upstream drop off, our trekking tour starts as we walk towards the first waterfall, Mariyudo. I am a bit surprised about the pace of Takashi. He walks quite fast. ‘This part of the course is well maintained. We will go a bit faster here. This will give us more time for the rest of the course.’ The path leading to the Mariyudo Waterfall and the Kanpire Waterfall is relatively easy to walk. It is one of the few trails where people can venture into the jungle safely without a guide. It is also not too hard, so excellent to enjoy as a family with kids.

From the Kanpire Waterfall, we now definitely get into real trekking as the course gets more exciting. Even though I have visited several courses on the island, I am happy that Takashi is with us. He knows which parts get a little bit dangerous. Through his network with other tour guides, he is familiar with the latest status of the course, for example after a typhoon, or, as we encountered, the existence of a nest of some wasps that you don’t want to make angry. Moreover, the guide explains the animals and plants that we see on our way, while in the meantime, we chitchat about what life is like on Iriomote. Takashi is also very much interested in what is driving his tour guests. When asked how he feels about the listing of Iriomote as a Natural World Heritage site, he replies: ‘Of course, there will be challenges as the listing is making Iriomote Island more famous and will attract more visitors. Guides and visitors alike need to take their responsibilities so that we can protect the nature and special atmosphere of the island. Still, I am proud to work and live on an island that may call itself Natural World Heritage, and I look forward to exploring the island together with people from all over the world.’

Time passes quickly. after a while, the ‘cat’s castle’ Mayagusuku appears in the middle of the jungle. The sight reminds me of an ancient pyramid. We refresh in the water and climb up the waterfall from where we have an amazing view. In the meantime, Takashi lines up his cooking tools to prepare yummy Okinawan soba noodles with organic, home-grown veggies.

Thanks to Takashi’s time management, we have plenty of time to relax at the waterfall and recharge for our walk back. The temperature has increased by now and it is good that we have plenty of water with us. The way back is as enjoyable as before, although the chitchatting gets a little bit less.

The Mayagusuku tour is very rewarding, and a great way to really feel Iriomote. This tour does require a bit of physical strength. Options for tours are abound on Iriomote and guides will recommend suitable courses for each group or individual travellers: families with kids, parties with older participants, or a group of students. One good way to find local guides is to check with your accommodation. Licensed guides can furthermore be recognized via the Iriomote Nature Guide mark.

And the cat? No, we didn’t see any. Think of it as visiting Buckingham Palace that opens up for tourists who hope to get a glimpse of the Queen. Chances are incredibly low. Yet even without spotting Iriomote’s regal animal, there are so many things to experience here in this green palace wonderland.