Voyage Log: Through Japan’s Rykyu Islands | Fukuoka to Keelung
Fukuoka to Keelung | 7 October 2023 – 23 October 2023
Auther: Guest Lecturers Reed Knappe & John Mcbride
Day 1: Fukuoka
7 October 2023
The expeditioners began arriving at 1415. After checking through immigration, we boarded the waiting Coral Adventurer. Once aboard we met our purser Sara who helped through the safety briefing and use of the lifejackets at our muster point. We also met Dawn who introduced the Expedition Team before outlining the programme planned for the following day in Nagasaki. We had a chance to meet some of our fellow travellers before we headed off to our rooms to unpack and prepare for our next fifteen days aboard ship. Soon after we were called down to the Dining Room for our first delicious dinner aboard ship.
Day 2: Nagasaki
8 October 2023
Just before breakfast on a wet and overcast Sunday morning we arrived in Nagasaki Harbour. We had pulled along side before the start of breakfast. Soon after breakfast Dawn continued her introductory briefing, outlining the planned expedition through the Ryukyu Islands. Dive instructor Chrissy then gave us a snorkel briefing to prepare us for the planned in-water activities. Guest Lecturer John then gave his first presentation in the Bridge Deck Lounge on an “Introduction to Japanese History”. An 1115 brunch followed, to allow us an early start to the afternoon exploration of Nagasaki.
The rain seemed to have eased by the time the buses picked us up early in the afternoon to take us up to Mount Inasa slope car station for our trip up to the lookout. The Mount Inasa lookout gave us spectacular views of Nagasaki and the wharf where we were birthed. Our next stop was the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Here we could experience the misery which resulted from the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan in 1945. We then walked up to the peace park where we could see the many statues donated by countries around the world in commemoration of the terrible event that had occurred here. The massive Peace Memorial Statue was the centre piece for the display. We then return to ship in time to prepare for the Captain’s Welcome Drinks in the Bridge Deck Lounge. We had a chance to meet the captain before we officially welcomed us aboard ship. A delicious dinner followed in the Dining Room.
Day 3: Nakakoshiki
9 October 2023
We dropped anchor before breakfast off Nakakoshiki Island on a wet and misty morning. The steep hills around us were shrouded in mist. Soon after breakfast we headed ashore in the Xplorers and were welcomed by a drum group in the landing area. Some of the expeditioners were asked to joined in on the drums and cymbals. The rain was easing off as we headed through tunnels and across bridges to a beautiful waterfall, called Sebi Kannon Mitaki Falls. The trip took us through some spectacular scenery which we could see as the mist lifted. We also stopped at a dinosaur museum with some of the fossils found on the island group. We finally headed back to ship for a well-earned lunch.
Soon after lunch we were once again taken by the busses to see some more of the spectacular scenery on the island. The rain and mist had now left us, so we were more easily able to see the sights. Our first stop was Torinosuyama Observation Deck, a lookout over the rugged coastline and a very new bridge connecting the islands. Our next stop was Nagame no hama, lookout to view a string of coastal lagoons separated from the ocean by a bank of sand and small rocks extending for about four kilometres along the coastline. We finally returned to ship well satisfied with our explorations of this quite deserted but spectacular set of islands.
Back on ship Mike gave a recap on the geology of the island and Dawn then outlined the planned program for the following two days. A delicious dinner followed down in the Dining Room.
Day 4: Kagoshima
10 October 2023
A beautiful morning greeted us as we cruised into Kagoshima Harbour. Breakfast was enjoyed with views of a busy city awakening around us. By 0800 we were aboard buses heading towards the ferry to Sakurajima. Our first stop was Arimura lookout where some took a longer 800m loop track while others chose the shorter 450m track to get great views of the still active volcano puffing out smoke. We then headed over to the Sakurajima Visitor Centre. Some then took the 3km Nagisa Boardwalk while others watched a video of the volcano at the visitor centre, before enjoying a traditional Foot Bath Experience. We all then headed back to the ferry for our return to ship for lunch.
Soon after lunch we headed off in the buses again to visit the beautiful Sengan-en Garden. We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon here exploring this amazing garden. Our final stop for the day was the shopping centre in Tenmonkan, where we had an hour to have some free time browsing through this arcade. We returned to ship in time for a relaxing BBQ on the Vista Deck. This was a great way to view the city around us as the sun set on a beautiful day in Kagoshima.
Day 5: Yakushima
11 October 2023
During the night, the wind picked up a bit, but the sun was out and we could enjoy great views of Yakushima as we came into the harbour. We pulled along side the dock during breakfast, with a welcoming group of locals waving flags and hands. We enjoyed a warm reception as we moved ashore to our waiting buses. Our morning exploration included a long walk for the hardier members of the expedition team and shorter hiking option followed by a visit to the local museum for the remainer of the team. The bus rides provided spectacular views of this very precipitous landscape and we began to see the magnificent Yakushima Cedar trees as we travelled higher up the mountain slopes. Some of the trees were aged well into several thousand years, magnificent trees in a spectacular wet rainforest setting.
We returned to ship for a well-earned lunch. After lunch Mike briefed us on the geology, before Dawn briefed us on the planned activities for the coming days activities before we boarded the buses again for further exploration of this island dominated by a massive granite plug, which was continuing to force the high country higher. We then boarded the buses for a trip to Shiratani Unsuikyo nature park. Another iconic rain forest for the longer walkers to explore. The rest of the explorers enjoyed a visit to the Yakusugi Craft Centre to experience the making of chopsticks.
When all had returned to ship, we enjoyed a lovely dance performance including the flying fish dance put on for our farewell from the island. Soon after Dawn outlined the program planned for the following day before Reed gave a stimulating talk on Yakushima in the Bridge Deck Lounge. We had time for brief pre-dinner drinks before being called down for another delicious dinner.
Day 6: Suwanosejima
12 October 2023
A beautiful sunrise greeted the Coral Adventurer as it pulled alongside the remote, active volcano of Suwanosejima, inhabited by less than fifty islanders. At approximately 615, those guests already up and enjoying their coffee or tea were treated to a brief but spectacular eruption of ash and smoke columns; while the ship circled the lush and vertiginous island over the succeeding hours, several smaller bursts of smoke were released from the crater. Its last serious eruption having occurred in 1949, Suwanosejima presents a classic example of “Strombolian” eruptions, in which nearly continuous but mild releases of pressure make for a very active, but relatively harmless form of volcanic activity.
At 9:45, as the ship pulled away from the volcano, guest lecturer Mike regaled guests with a lively talk on Sharks and Rays of the Pacific, a subject to which he has devoted many years of study and colourful experience. Our spirits quickened by Mike’s tales of underwater adventure, the talk was followed at 1100 by distribution of snorkeling gear in anticipation of the coming days’ aquatic activities. Before and again after lunch, many guests enjoyed engine room tours guided by the dedicated and seasoned engineers who keep things running smoothly below the waterline. Even for passengers intimately familiar with the nuts and bolts of nautical technology, the cutting-edge technology of the Coral Adventurer’s electric engines and plumbing systems were deeply impressive.
In the afternoon following the bridge and engine rooms, guests had the unusual pleasure of a second full-length talk, as guest lecturer Reed presented a detailed historical narrative entitled “An Introduction to the History of Japan’s Southern Islands: Barbarians, Rebels and Samurai.” Sweeping briskly from Japan’s ancient to modern history, with a focus on the lands and cultures we would be encountering in the coming weeks, his talk outlined some of the complex historical relationships between the Okinawan People, Japan’s home islands, and the neighbouring continental societies, including China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Expedition leader Dawn then presented briefly on the activities to be offered in the coming days, upon which chief purser Sara and head chef Dylan presented guests with a delicious and informative wine tasting, paired with exquisite canapes; this got everyone nicely in the mood for another splendid dinner service and a memorable sunset.
Day 7: Amami Oshima
13 October 2023
The following morning found Coral Adventurer at Amami-Oshima, one of the most unique and historically significant of the Ryukyuan Islands. After an early breakfast and a charming and participatory musical greeting on the dock, guests departed by bus for the thrilling destination of Amami Park, a beautifully landscaped tourism complex which featured native plant gardens, a soaring lookout tower offering 360 degree views of the rugged Amami coastline, exhibitions on the island’s endemic flora and fauna, and most famously, an art museum. Remarkably, this museum houses most of the life’s work of Amami-Oshima’s most beloved artist, Isson Tanaka, a household name among art enthusiasts in Japan. Although not originally a native of Amami, Tanaka spent his most productive years here, from middle-age onward, lovingly bringing to life Amami’s wild and beautiful organisms and landscapes. Although Tanaka went unrecognized during his lifetime, the artist has become deservedly famous in posthumous decades; his paintings feature stunning compositions of lifelike, exquisitely detailed birds and fish fronting backgrounds of luscious vegetation, highlighting the utterly unique and rich biodiversity of these islands.
After enjoying Amami Park and Tanaka Museum, guests were whisked onwards to Oshima Tsumugi Village, a longstanding centre of traditional crafts production situated within a beautiful and lush botanical garden landscape. Here, in a painstaking process, silk garments are dyed with a suite of different organic materials, including mud and various botanicals. Just outside the old-fashioned factory in which these silk threads were given their unique hues, many guests were able to catch sight of the spectacular Lidth’s Jay, an endemic corvid boasting gorgeous deep blue and rusty plumage. The muted and elegant tones and patterns seen on kimonos and other garments produced from these fabrics contrasted sharply, and intriguingly, with the more garish cloth familiar from mainland Japan; likewise, the prices commanded by the gorgeous finished products took our breath away.
After returning to the ship for a refreshing lunch hour, guests again boarded buses, this time bound for the Amami Mangrove Park, where they enjoyed either a scenic walk alongside a small section of the river, or a kayaking trip into the rich mangrove ecosystem, accompanied by local guides and featuring views of kingfishers and egrets among the diverse flora. The guides seemed pleasantly surprised by our guests’ faculty with the small watercraft, and everyone acquitted themselves splendidly. After the mangrove excursion wrapped up, we all returned to the boat for evening drinks, a recap of the day’s activities, and a splendid dinner onboard.
Day 8: Okinoerabujima
14 October 2023
The following morning found Coral Adventurer at Okinoerabujima, a charming and peaceful but less-visited island midway between Amami and the Okinawan mainland. After breakfast, guests broke into two groups, the first heading to the famous and daunting Rimstone Cave system. There, accompanied by local Japanese guides and donning safety jumpsuits, helmets and headlamps, guests made their way from the jungle entrance deep into the earth, dodging innumerable stalactites, wading through mesmerizing illuminated pools, and generally enjoying a thrilling subterranean adventure.
Those not participating in the caving expedition were treated to a less physically demanding but equally unique and still more varied shore excursion. Embarking on buses for a scenic coastal tour, these guests encountered a great deal of the island’s unique cultural and geographical heritage. First stop was a historic elementary school, where in addition to adorable children we were shown what was ostensibly Japan’s largest banyan tree, lovingly tended by locals for over a century. Following that charming location, the buses continued to Sea Spray Cave, a series of plunging chasms atop high limestone cliffs lashed by turbulent swells. Also visible from the cliffs were half a dozen or so green sea turtles, presumably feasting on whatever sea life was battered against the rocky buttresses. Last stop on our tour was the Yononushi Tomb, a nearly six-hundred-year-old monument to the beloved final king of Okinoerabujima, who had sacrificed his own life upon being conquered by the founders of the Ryukyuan Kingdom in the 15th century.
Returning to the Coral Adventurer for a hearty meal followed by a recap-precap briefing presented by Dawn, guests prepared for a less action-packed and more leisurely afternoon. While some availed themselves of a local taxi service, most guests walked the flat 1.2 kilometres from our pier to Wanjo Beach, passing fields where the local sweet potatoes and famous lilies were grown for export, using the island’s visibly rich red soils. Also conspicuous were the ancient caves in which bodies were once exposed to weather and sea life before being collected as bones in funerary urns. Enjoying lovely weather and a mild breeze, the beachgoers snorkelled, frolicked, and sunbathed according to their preferences, before returning to the vessel as early evening settled over the sleepy, verdant island. While most enjoyed a gourmet meal onboard, a few guests were able to secure reservations at a delightful seafood restaurant adjacent the pier, named for celebrated samurai hero Saigo Takamori.
Day 9: Yoronjima
15 October 2023
Arriving early in the morning hours to a pleasant greeting of light cloud cover and a cooling breeze, Coral Adventurer found itself on Yoronjima, famed for its stunning blue waters (for which a Japanese shade, Yoron blue, has been named), coral reefs, and deep reservoirs of Okinawan tradition. Following an 800 breakfast, we divided into four groups and headed out for coastal activities. The first departure headed for a snorkelling tour of Yurigahama, the most famous stretch of reefs on the island, protected by a lengthy sandbar famed for mysteriously shifting its appearance across the course of the tidal change and from day-to-day. On display was the unique piscine diversity of the Okinawan seas, where northerly and southerly biomes collide. Nearby, a second group enjoyed a brisk sea kayaking excursion, taking in much of the same spectacular scenery and enjoying a bracing upper body workout in the process. Yet another, third group, not far away across the vast crescent of Yurigahama lagoon, embarked from the white sand beach into a cosy glass bottom boat tour, which puttered around the reef in search of colourful fish and included several views of sea turtles, large and small. Rounding off this smorgasbord of morning electives were group four, who set off to an undulating coastal walk along the Bedo Hiking Trail, through bizarre native tree cover and volcanic abutments, and offering sightings of delicate white terns and other seabirds.
Returning to the boat for a satisfying lunch and refreshments, guests once again divided into shore parties for a variety of afternoon activities. One bus ferried the keen divers among our passengers away for an exclusive dive with local guides, while others departed for a snorkelling opportunity at a nearby beach. The remaining, third group set out on a historical tour of Yoron Island, first taking in commanding views of the island from the observation tower at the Southern Cross Center. After a brief bus ride to a nearby site, we then observed the curious architectural ruins of Yoron Castle – a “gusuku” fortress built in the unique traditional style of the Ryukyuan Kings. The final stop brought the historical tour to Yoron Folk Village, where guests were able to observe rustic houses with thatched roofs, volcanic stone walls, and charming gardens.
Day 10: Naha
16 October 2023
Day Ten found the ship and its intrepid crew and passengers at Naha port on the Okinawan mainland, the largest landmass in the island chain and for a millennium the centre of its economic and cultural life. Following breakfast at 800, guests departed in buses, divided into two groups, who would mirror each other’s activities in the morning and afternoon expeditions. First up for group one was Shuri Castle, the palace and fortress of the Ryukyuan Kings and their courts for almost five hundred years. This monumental structure has often been the scene of violent upheaval throughout its history, from the struggles surrounding the original unification of the islands around 1420 CE, to the cruel battle fought here during the invasion of Okinawa in the final throes of the Pacific War (which destroyed many of the walls and all the extant structures of the castle.) Most recently, the lovingly reconstructed wooden palace was consumed by an electrical fire in 2019. However, as is often the case in Japan, this disaster was bravely greeted as an occasion for renewal. Thoughtfully, the expensive and elaborate reconstruction process is now on public display, even as it proceeds apace. In addition to admiring the splendid views over Okinawa and the massive, fully restored castle walls, guests were able to watch the skilled artisans, carpenters, and stonemasons in action from walkways and observation windows. A massive windowed structure protected the main hall as it was under reconstruction, and revealed to passers-by the stunningly complex and precise woodworking and joinery used in the process of rebuilding.
Next up on the tour of traditional sights was the lovely and unique Shinkinaen Garden, residence of the Ryukyuan Kings from the 28th century onward. This park, featuring magnificent ponds, trees, bridges and tea houses, evinces a remarkable fusion of Japanese, Chinese, and indigenous island aesthetics. Also noteworthy were the garden’s collection of ornamental topiary and trees, which equally captured the profusion of influences and ecologies to be found on these enchanting islands.
On the flip side of the castle and garden tours, after a splendid lunch back onboard, half the guests departed to an afternoon of cultural activity (which the other group enjoyed in the AM) followed by some free time to explore Okinawa’s largest city. First up was a visit to Tembusa Naha, a centre for traditional Bingata Dyeing practice. This colourful art exemplifies the rich mixture of cultural influences characterizing the Ryukyuan Kingdom at its height as a trading empire, incorporating Indian and Javan colours and geometries within a Japanese-inflected textile tradition. Guests enjoyed the opportunity to paint their own small swatches of bingata cloth to take home with them, and several proved to be naturally gifted in both design and execution. After this charming experience, those who wanted were given the opportunity to spend some time on Naha’s famed Kokusai shopping street, a vibrant and occasionally rowdy hub of commerce, entertainment, and dining (fine and otherwise) dating to the post-war U.S. Occupation. Some guests were even seen to purchase dashing Okinawan-style Hawaiian shirts, a blend of American influence and traditional island styles printed on soft rayon or silk fabrics, and sometimes sporting those same, brilliant bingata designs.
Rounding out another full day of activities was a short pre-dinner talk from guest lecturer Reed on the topic of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s Histor,y from 1400 to 1900. This brief but stimulating overview highlighted how the small island chain and its astute rulers had navigated perilous alliances and trade relations with larger neighbours during centuries of relative independence and prosperity, operating skilfully as the premier trading entrepot for a network of maritime commerce stretching across southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Linking mainland Japan to the distant economies and cultures of the far Orient, the Ryukyuan Kingdom thereby inherited a remarkable melange of cultural influences, still reflected in today’s cuisine, music, literature and dress.
Day 11: Zamami / Kerama N.P.
17 October 2023
Leaving behind the lights of the big city, an overnight passage brought Coral Adventurer to Zamami Island, part of the Kerama Southern Islands National Park. For morning activity, guests boarded the Explorers and were conveyed to Gahi Island, one of Zamami’s smaller satellites. A grassy, lopsided abutment rising from an aquamarine bay, Gahi’s western edge afforded some lovely snorkeling, with Green Sea Turtles, Titan Triggerfish, and Sea Snakes in evidence, among numerous other species. Also present were the characteristic electric blue staghorn corals of the Ryukyu Islands. After a splendid hour on and off the beach, at 1200 guests reboarded the Explorers to return to the ship for a prompt lunch service.
At 1345, following upon a tasty lunch onboard, guests again boarded the Explorers and headed to the main island of Zamami. Upon reaching shore, they split into two walking groups, one headed for Takatsukiyama Observatory, and the other to the slightly more distant Kaminohama Viewpoint. Sightings of Grey-Headed Buzzards, recently arrived from their migration, and Pacific Reef Herons greeted our walkers as they made their way along the scenic, quiet country roads. Each walk ended with a fantastic viewpoint, gazing over the picturesque expanse of the island chain, with its tumbling jungle mounts, slivers of coral reef amidst brilliant blue waters, and craggy limestone cliffs. As we returned to the vessel for an evening departure and a recap by expedition leader Dawn, everyone had seen firsthand why this jumble of sparsely populated islands had been designated a National Park.
Day 12: Kumejima
18 October 2023
Day twelve found the Coral Adventurer far to the west of Okinawa mainland, at Kumejima, historically described as the most beautiful of the Okinawan Islands. After an early breakfast, a busy morning’s activities awaited guests. After being greeted by friendly locals and the island’s mascot (a chubby firefly with flowers for ears) guests boarded buses to the Hiyajo Banta Cliff Observatory, where we were treated to a panoramic view of the island. Our next stop, not far from the observatory, was at Tatamiiwa Rocks, a curious sight consisting of the tops of limestone columns embedded in the shoreline, exposed and flattened in clusters along the beach, each stone like a chiselled hexagon of ancient seabed.
Next on our way was an amazing site of historical and cultural interest: the Kumejima Tsumugi Silk factory. As we disembarked the buses, locals were hauling freshly harvested branches of mulberry trees out of tiny white trucks, to be chopped up and fed to the thousands of silkworms arrayed along the cultivation trays just inside. Remarkably, our guests were able to freely explore the inside of this bustling traditional manufacture, viewing both the common, pudgy white variety of silkworm, alongside the much smaller and rarer yellow Okinawan silkworm. After viewing a charming video explaining the history, culture, and techniques of the local silk production and dyeing, some guests visited the weaving rooms upstairs, welcomed by local women busily weaving intricate patterns in cloth on elegant wooden looms. Outside, a beautifully arranged garden highlighted the dozen or so species of native plants used in the botanical dyes that give Kumejima silk its remarkable subtle hues of rust, ochre, purple, jade and indigo. All in all, it was a memorable and touching encounter with the entire process of a beautiful craft, blending art with functionality over centuries of tradition. Rushing back to the ship for an afternoon departure, guests had a few minutes for shopping at the port, before being fondly seen off by the local officials and citizens.
Rounding off the day, as the ship made its way south on the long passage to Miyako Island, guests enjoyed an afternoon tea service at 545, followed closely by a thought-provoking and deeply insightful talk by guest lecturer John McBride, entitled ‘How I Designed a World Class Walk (In the Footsteps of a Haiku Poet)”. John’s many years of intimate experience living in Japan, studying its traditions, and organizing award-winning tours were in full effect, and guests found much to contemplate and digest as they tucked into another delectable meal that evening.
Day 13: Miyakojima
19 Octobre 2023
We all headed off on a clear 23 degree morning in Miyako on a shuttle bus to the customs area of the port. We then divided into two groups travelling to short walk and longer walk options.
Miyako comprises a group of five islands, all joined by elegant bridges. The population is 54,000 of which 35,000 live in Miyako City. There are many fine resorts and holiday homes on the Island serviced by two airports with flights to Tokyo and Osaka. Island water is filtered through the coral limestone and is collected above a clay layer. The water is extremely pure and is the reason why there are six Awamori breweries on the island. Awamori liquor brewing and distilling requires the purest of water.
The short walk group drove over The Irabu Bridge, through Irabu Island and over to Shimojishima where we visited the Tori-ike Pond. This is a sink hole comprising two sections. The two connected pools are crossed by a natural bridge. The SW side pool is about 75 m round and 25 m deep. It is linked to the sea by a cave with a diameter of 10 m, and the water level of both pools varies with the tide. It was formed from limestone caves which admitted the sea over many years. The caves then collapsed in two places leaving a natural bridge. The mysterious landscape of lush greenery and seawater is known as one of Japan’s most unusual scenic spots.
The longer walk group walked about 2 km out to Cape Higashihennazaki. A lighthouse stands at the tip of the cape as well as an ancient tomb called Mamuya’s Tomb. Mamuya was a tragic heroine in folk lore.
We then all enjoyed the visit to the Taragawa Brewery, one of six and the oldest Awamori Brewery on the island. Taragawa Brewery was established in 1948, 75 years ago. Their best Awamori is aged for 10 years and is called “Kuon”. The tasting servings were very generous, including their new gins and rums made from the local sugar cane. A lot of laughter and fun was had trying these new flavours.
Awamori is made from Thai long grain rice and Black Koji Mould (Aspergillus). 33 bags of 30 kg each of Thai rice are emptied into a rotary drum where the dust and bacteria is removed. The rice is not polished (unlike Sake brewing). It is then steamed in another rotating drum and then moved to a tank for one night where the rice is mixed with Black Koji Mould. The following day the rice and black Koji mould are moved to shelves where the rice and Koji are mixed well. The mix is then placed in large tanks with pure local ground water. Yeast is added and the Moromi mash begins to ferment and bubble. This is allowed to continue for 15 days during which time the Moromi is mixed carefully, controlling the temperature. After two weeks the Moromi is distilled. The pure liquor is 120 proof. It is then stored in an underground cave next to the Brewery. The storage period can be up to 10 years.
Both groups also visited an Observatory and souvenir store looking over The Irabu Bridge. We then returned to the Ship for lunch. At 2 pm we departed for Shigira Beach. Some of us snorkelled and relaxed on the beach while others visited the Shigira Golden Onsen. Many of us were looking very relaxed after a soak in these natural mineral waters which are 41 degrees celcius.
Day 14: Iriomote
20 October 2023
After a calm night of sailing we awoke to a golden sunrise and breakfast at 7am. Many guests were proudly showing their photos of the sunrise at breakfast. We didn’t anchor as our position at Iriomote was in deep water and so the ship was constantly adjusting it’s position through the day. This is called manual “DP” or Dynamic Positioning. There is no port large enough for our ship to berth on Iriomote. Our ship’s position was sheltered by nearby Sotobanari Island which has sandstone cliffs which plunge into the sea. The whole island of Iriomote is uplifted sedimentary rock and sandstone and is the largest island in the Okinawan Prefecture after the main island. The bay we were sheltering in is an International Emergency Maritime Port. It is 50 metres deep and has large red buoys which are used by ships sheltering from typhoons. The island has 14 villages, one of which is accessible only by ferry. The population is just 2,400.
The first group departed at 8am for the small harbour of Shirahama (White Sand Bay) on Explorer One for a river cruise and two hour hike further up the Urauchi River. Both of our groups were skippered and guided on the river by the owner of the river cruise company, Mr Taira. Mr Taira grew up in the remote rice farming village of Inaba on the river. The rice paddies encouraged the insects and frogs which the Iriomote Wild Cat eats. There were 15 homes in the village but electricity could not be drawn to the village and the last household left the village in 1969. This was Mr Taira’s family and he was 14 years of age. He had grown up walking 12km a day commuting to school. Mr Taira set up the river cruising business 50 years ago. He said he has seen Iriomote Wild Cats swimming across the river in the middle of the day, particularly when the cats are on heat and are in search of a partner. He wants to redevelop the rice paddies so that the cats’ food sources are drawn to the protected area again. At the moment all the island’s rice paddies are adjacent to the only road on the island and this results in the cats being run over by cars. There are only about 100 cats remaining.
The Urauchi River has over 400 species of fish and this incredible biodiversity has led to its heritage listing. The lower reaches have excellent specimens of Loop-Root Mangrove (Yaeyama Hirugi). The upper reaches have tree ferns and some remnant pine and Quercus forests. Both of our groups saw an Osprey. However, unfortunately we failed to see the beautiful Crested Serpent Eagle (photo here from Wikipedia). The island also has a miniaturised wild boar (adults weigh 40 kg) and during hunting season (Dec-Jan) about 700 are shot each year. The locals eat the boar as raw sashimi (not approved by Health Authorities) but they have done so since they were kids and seem to have iron stomachs allowing them to eat the raw boar meat without getting ill.
In the afternoon we joined the locals on the little ferry from Shirahama to the tiny enclave of Fukuuki. The Village cultures pearls and we were able to see the tanks where the oysters are seeded, and the banks of cultured pearl oysters in the sheltered bay. The group walked through dense sub-tropical rain forest across to the beautiful Ina Beach. We returned to the ship just as it started to rain, with storm clouds on the horizon.
Day 15: Ishigaki
21 October 2023
We sailed into the protected shipping lanes off Ishigaki Island at 10pm the previous evening, avoiding most of the inclement strong winds. We then docked at 6am at the new Cruise Terminal on a large area of reclaimed land. This reclamation project was very controversial and met with strong opposition from locals. But sometimes nothing gets in the way of progress in Japan, and the new terminal has encouraged more ships to drop by Ishigaki.
The day threatened rain but we were very lucky with the weather and for the most part the breeze made for an enjoyable walking day. Only in exposed areas did we feel the full force of the wind at about 20-30 knots. The first group left the ship after breakfast for Taketomi Island. A shuttle bus took us to the busy Ishigaki Port. From here small ferries depart almost every 10 minutes or so for all of the small outlying Yaeyama Islands, including Iriomote Island where we were yesterday.
Mayumi-san, our Japanese local guide led this day’s trip to Taketomi. Taketomi is a small circular island and, alongside Ishigaki, is known geologically as the Fusaki Formation, mainly blocks of chert, mudstone, sandstone and limestone embedded in a muddy matrix. Taketomi is surrounded by a coral reef, and the coral and limestone is used to pave all the streets, and build the garden walls and walls of the homes.
330 people live on the island and the small township is a National Heritage Architecture Preservation district. Many of the local homes provide B&B services (“Minshuku”) and are proud of their village, raking the coral streets every morning before day tourists arrive on the first ferry at 9am. An attractive aspect of the island are the cheeky looking Shisa lion guardians on the roofs of all the homes. One home has an entire band of Shisa on the garden fence.
A second group went snorkelling on Ishigaki Island and a third group went to Ishigaki Island Ibaruma Cave. Cavers were rewarded with a beautiful beach and views of the coastline at the end of their walk through the cave.
In the afternoon we all went on a multi-stop tour of Ishigaki Island, starting with the local Minsa weaving which is responsible for the famous “Itsu-no-yo” 4 and 5 square pattern. “Itsu-no-yo” means “forever”. The long lines on the pattern are a reminder to “please come and visit often”.
We then all dropped by Yaima Village. The village has a collection of National Heritage Listed structures which have been moved here from locations around Ishigaki. All of the homes were built in the early 20th century and included typical residences of merchants, fishermen, and farmers. The structures were historically fascinating with their very open, breezy structures making every attempt to stay cool. Guests commented about how the Shisa on the rooflines are always in a different place and the reason for this is that the Shisa on the roof is always placed directly above the Buddhist Altar inside the house.
However, most tourist visitors seem to be drawn to the unbearably cute Squirrel Monkeys who are not native and are actually from South America.
We then made two additional stops at the Ryukyu Pearl Company which cultures black pearls in Kabira Bay. A short stroll along the bay brought us to a raised lookout over the bay and this exposed area reminded us of the strength of today’s wind. We finished the day with a drive up to Mount Banna. At 165 metres it affords fine views over the main town on Ishigaki, across to Taketomi and Iriomote. The hinterlands of Ishigaki were also visible where the finest Mangoes are grown in Japan.
Returning to the ship we enjoyed a video after our well-deserved delicious dinner. The video explained the woodblock print carving and printing process, ready for John’s lecture tomorrow about woodblock prints of the Tokaido.
Day 16: Ishigaki
22 October 2023
The strong winds meant that we couldn’t get to Yonaguni and we spent another very calm night berthed safely at Ishigaki. In the morning the same tours as yesterday morning were offered to allow most guests to enjoy Taketomi, or snorkelling or the Caving. This morning the weather was fine and this allowed the snorkellers to get out to a ship wreck off to one side of Taketomi Island. The ship was wrecked on 23 January 2023. It was a 15 year old Chinese owned ship carrying a cargo of woodchips bound for Ishigaki. It sank in about 25 metres of water next to Japan’s largest coral reef, and will one day be part of the reef life. The snorkellers were very happy with the day’s sealife.
Other groups visited the Cave and Taketomi Island again, and the strong breeze kept us all cooler today. We returned to the ship by 12:30pm and greeted three immigration officials who stamped all the guests and crews’ passports, and just like that we were no longer officially in Japan. Setting sail at 14:00pm, the Captain made an announcement that the worst of the winds had passed us and he was expecting a reasonably smooth sail across to Keelung Port, the major port of Taipei City, Chinese Taipei.
Our afternoon was full of activities including a Quiz, lectures by Reed (natural history of Okinawa) and John (woodblock prints) and a cooking demonstration before a wonderful slide show of David’s photographs and our final meal together on board.