RYUKYU ISLANDS NORTH AND SOUTH OF OKINAWA

RYUKYU ISLANDS

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RYUKYU ISLANDS (south of Kyushu) extend for around 1,000 kilometers from 40 kilometers south of Kyushu to 100 kilometers east of Taiwan. Some of the 200 or so islands are volcanic. Most are made from coral. The islands in northern half of the island chain, including the Osumi Islands, are part of Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu. The four island groups in the southern half are part of Okinawa prefecture. The climate is considerable warmer than the main islands. The area is often struck by typhoons in the summer. During the winter months the temperatures are cool but the water visibility is at its best.

The towns and villages feature old buildings made of wood and tiles and new buildings made of stucco, glass and poured concrete. The soil is generally thin and poor and is used to grow sugar cane and rice. Along the coasts are beaches, rocks and mangroves. Inland are patches of jungle. The main attractions of this area are beaches, diving and watersports. Most people get to the islands by ferry. Not many of the islands have airports..

Most of the 1.3 million people in the Ryukyu Islands live on the main island (Okinawa island) and rely on the U.S. military, the Japanese government and tourism for money. They are among the poorest people in Japan. Even so they live the longest and are regarded by many as the happiest. Website: Wikipedia

Rare Animals on Small Islands in the Ryukyu Islands

The Ryukyu Islands and the Satsuna Islands in the Osumi Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture are especially rich in unique plants and animals. The number of plant species per unit area is 45 times greater than the rest of Japan due to the way species can evolve independently---separated from other species---on islands. There are two large gaps in the Ryukyu Island chain: 1) the northern gap between Yakushima and Amami islands; and 2) a southern gap between the islands of Miyako and Okinawa. The plants and animals in either side of theses gaps tend to be very different form those on the other side. On the northen side of the northen gap, located in the Tokara Strait---and called the Watase Line after early 20th century biologist Shozaburo Watase---the plants and animals are virtually the same as those found in Kyushu and the other main islands of Japan while those south of the gap are markedly different. Similarly the islands south of Okinawa near Taiwan have many animals and plants similar to those in Taiwan because when sea levels dropped during ice ages many were connected to Taiwan and the Asian mainland.

Amami-Oshima Island, Tokunoshima Island, the northern part of Okinawa Island and Iriomote Island were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016 largely on the part of their rare animals.According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “ In particular, on Amami-Oshima Island, Tokunoshima Island and the northern part of Okinawa Island, a number of terrestrial organisms with limited ability to disperse across the sea, such as non-volant tetrapods, have been isolated from their continental relatives since no later than the Early Pleistocene (between 2 and 1.7 million years ago).. This, along with the subsequent extinction of the relatives in surrounding areas, despite the survival of many of the insular representatives to the present because they have been protected from recently emerging predators and competitors, has made the region the centre of relict endemism. Such relict species are generally characterized by prominent geographical and genetic gaps from extant sister populations in other areas. [Source: Permanent Delegation of Japan to UNESCO]

“Because these four islands are located between the tropical and warm–temperate zones, their current fauna and flora include not only representatives of long-standing subtropical lineages but also those of East Asian temperate lineages and South East Asian and Oceanian tropical lineages. Moreover, the high proportion of endemic and threatened species in this area indicates that they deserve a major conservation focus. The proposed property encompasses a set of important, essential habitats for these species.

”The proposed property contains important habitats for a large number of internationally recognized threatened species that are listed on the IUCN Red List. Furthermore, the islands provide diverse instances of neo-and relict endemism that are most explicitly represented by non-volant, inland-water-dependent taxa such as amphibians, the dispersal ability of which across the ocean is very limited by physiological constraint. From the global point of view, therefore, this property can obviously be regarded as among the most important areas for biodiversity conservation.

”Prominent faunal representatives of such relict endemisms on Amami-Oshima Island, Tokunoshima Island and the northern part of Okinawa Island include the Amami rabbit Pentalagus furnessi; the Long-tailed giant rat Diplothrix legata; three spiny rat species of the genus Tokudaia; the Amami jay Garrulus lidthi; the Black-breasted leaf turtle Geoemyda japonica; Kuroiwa’s ground gecko Goniurosaurus kuroiwae; Anderson’s crocodile newt Echinotriton andersoni; and Namiye’s frog Limnonectes namiyei. Floral representatives include Arisaema heterocephalum (Araceae), Viola amamiana (Violaceae), Polystichum obae (Dryopteridaceae), Platanthera sonoharae (Orchidaceae) and Solenogyne mikadoi (Asteraceae.. The Amami rabbit is estimated to have diverged from the other extant members of the family Leporidae in the Middle Miocene (about 10 million years ago).. Since then, it seems to have evolved a suite of distinctive ecological traits while maintaining its largely primitive morphological features. There are no other extant congeners at all, thus making the rabbit endemic to Amami-Oshima Island and Tokunoshima Island at the generic level.

“These islands contain irreplaceable habitats for more than 30 terrestrial species listed on the IUCN Red List in the Vulnerable (VU), or higher, threatened categories. These include the Iriomote leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis (IUCN Red List 2012: critically endangered, CR), Amami rabbit (endangered, EN), Okinawa spiny rat Tokudaia muenninki (CR), Amami spiny rat Tokudaia osimensis (EN), Tokunoshima spiny rat Tokudaia tokunoshimensis (EN), Long-tailed giant rat (EN), Okinawa rail Gallirallus okinawae (EN), Okinawa woodpecker Dendrocopos noguchii (CR), Amami jay (VU), Black-breasted leaf turtle (EN), Yaeyama yellow-margined box turtle Cuora flavomarginata evelynae (EN), Kuroiwa’s ground gecko (EN), Anderson’s crocodile newt (EN), and Utsunomiya’s frog Odorrana utsunomiyaorum (EN).. They also include two sibling Odorrana species, namely the Okinawa Ishikawa’s frog Odorrana ishikawae and the recently described Amami Ishikawa’s frog Odorrana splendida, which are still listed as one species (Ishikawa’s frog Odorrana ishikawae (EN)) on the IUCN list. Most of the threatened species seen in the four islands are endemic to the area at the generic, specific, or subspecific level. Furthermore, a characteristic mixture of East Asian, South East Asian, and Oceanian floral elements can be seen on the islands, reflecting the climatic conditions and various historical processes of dispersals. The proposed property accounts for less than 1% of the whole land area of Japan, yet it accommodates about 17% of the nation’s endangered vascular plants. This area is therefore of the utmost importance for the conservation of Japan’s endangered plants.

Reasons for Rare Animals on Small Islands in the Ryukyu Islands

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “As the result of the these islands’ long isolation, this property shows a series of speciations in various terrestrial lineages of the islands and the state of relict endemisms. This identified area is currently harbour diverse fauna and flora that are characterized by high proportions of endemic and rare species.The area that offers outstanding examples of speciation and phylogenetic diversification of terrestrial organisms at various stages through varying extents of geographic isolation. Not only have numerous endemic species emerged through relatively recent vicariance events, but also a large number of relict species that have no close relatives on the Japanese mainland or Eurasian Continent occur on this property. [Source: Permanent Delegation of Japan to UNESCO]

“The terrestrial organisms occurring in the proposed property likely had broad continental distributions. In the course of the area’s conversion to islands separated from the continent, the terrestrial organisms isolated on each island, with its distinctive environment, have evolved in various unique directions. This has been enhanced by the effects of population fragmentation.

“Speciations and phyletic divergences are still ongoing at various stages among island populations with close historical affinity. As a result of genetic differentiation in each lineage through geographic isolation caused by insularization of the region, there are numerous cases of between-island in-situ speciation and sub-speciation. Typical example is a group of tip-nosed frogs that has differentiated into four species in this property. Two subspecies of Kuroiwa’s ground geckos are distributed in Tokunoshima Island and the northern part of Okinawa Island. The high frequencies of occurrence of endemic taxa among the amphibians and terrestrial reptiles on the proposed property deserve particular attention. 33 species of endemic terrestrial reptiles and 18 species of endemic amphibians, are found on the four islands. About 121 plant species are endemic to the four islands.

”Speciation and further diversification of a number of evolutionary lineages at these islands have therefore supposedly been enhanced. Indeed, many endemic species occur on these islands, most likely as a result of geohistorical processes in the region that involved the initial isolation of insular populations from their continental relatives and subsequently repeated vicariance and secondary sympatry among the former. Moreover, several islands harbour taxa that represent the stage of relict endemism as a result of long insular isolation from the formidable predators or competitors that started to prevail on the continent after the islands became isolated. This is particularly true for Amami-Oshima Island, Tokunoshima Island and the northern part of Okinawa Island in which relict species are particularly frequent because of the islands’ long isolation. These aspects of the proposed property collectively constitute an outstanding example of the effects of long-standing geohistorical processes on speciation and phylogenetic diversification of terrestrial organisms.

”Fossil evidence indicates that on Amami-Oshima Island, Tokunoshima Island and the northern part of Okinawa Island there have been no, or have long been no endothermic vertebrates such as carnivorous mammals and large-bodied resident birds of prey to occupy the position as the top predators in the indigenous food web. Instead, the biotic community of this region is characterized by a high frequency of relict species (see above) and constitutes a unique food web in which a few large-bodied snakes occupy the top predator position.”

Tanegashima

Tanegashima (southeast of Kagoshima) is a low-lying agricultural island with 26,000 people. It is rarely visited by tourists. It is home of the Tanegahsima Island Space Center, where Japan launches its rockets and satellites. You can see real space rockets on a JAXA facility tour. The island also attract surfers. Website: Tanegashima Space Center JAXA

Kagoshima’s Osumi Islands present two differing isles to traverse. One is Tanegashima. Long, flat, narrow, historic, with its space center, surf, and guns. The other is Yakushima. Tall, circular, mountainous, green, with its ancient cedars, wildlife, and unspoiled forests. Visit both, for each will revitalize you in its own special way. One traveler wrote: “After a one-hour boat ride from Kagoshima, I docked at Nishinoomote Port in the northern part of Tane-gashima. My journey began with a drive down the west coast. As I headed south, I admired the oce-anic views, gripped by the heavy swell, along with the shifting colors of the sea and sand.

“I passed through the town of Nakatane and negotiated a narrow road flanked by sugarcane fields on both sides. Tall and full of life, these plants reflected the light of the sun as they shook all at once in the wind. A little while later, sugarcane gave way to pink bougainvil-lea flowers, a timely reminder that I was traveling in one of Japan’s southern regions.

“My destination was the Tanegashima Space Center in Minamitane. First, I visited The Museum of Space Science and Technology to learn more about the latest space developments. This was followed up with a guided tour of the space center. It grants access to areas usually off-limits to the public, including the launch facilities, rocket ware-houses, and control center. Our guide informed us Tanegashima is known as the most beautiful rocket launch site in the world, its launch pad set on the cusp of brilliant blue waters.

“Adjacent to the space center is the Takezaki coast, it hosts a number of Japan’s top surfing competitions and is recognized as one of Japan’s most iconic surf locations. I stopped by to see many surfers riding the evening waves. The sun started to set, turning the sea a vibrant shade of gold as it mirrored the twilight sky. I stood still and listened to the sound of the tide and suddenly felt at peace, opening my eyes just in time to catch the silhouette of a surfer riding a wave in the distance. It made for a fantastic sight.”

”There are plenty of opportunities to get your feet wet on Tane-gashima with the likes of canoeing, sea kayaking, diving, and boat cruises all available. The next day I had the chance to experience canoeing in the world’s northernmost natural mangrove forest at Kunigami in Nishinoomote. Time passed slowly while navigating the verdant mangrove tunnels, emphasizing Tanegashima’s ability to heal the mind and soul through rest and relaxation. Getting There: Ferries depart for the Osumi Islands from Kagoshima Port. Direct flights from Kagoshima Airport are also available. To Tanegashima: 100 mins by high-speed boat, 3 hrs 30 mins by ferry.

Yakushima

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Yakushima (2½ to 5 five hours by boat from Kagoshima) is an island that measures about 17 miles across and is 75 percent mountains, with 40 peaks over 1,000 meters high. The highest mountain, Miyanoradake peak, is 1,935 meters tall and topped by snow in the winter. Otherwise this island is largely tropical or subtropical. The only real road is one that circles the perimeter of the island.

Yakushima Island is one of the wettest places on earth, with annual rainfall reaching 10 meters (394 inches). Describing the weather, one of the island's 14,000 residents told Reuter, "It rained literally non-stop for two months and that was after the rainy season ended. The rain is caused by mountains that trap clouds and force them to release their moisture. The interior is almost always shrouded in mist and rain clouds. The rain provides water for lots of waterfalls. All the electricity needs on the island are supplied by hydro power. The residents of Yakushima had once hopped to sell their abundant water supplies to the Middle East but those plans were scuttled with the development of giant desalinization plants.

Yakushima now hopes to make money through fish farming and tourism, attracting visitors with red-faced monkeys, sea turtles, 3,000-year-old shamanist traditions, abundant waterfalls, tidal pools, hot springs, banyan trees, and hikes through dripping rain forests with giant 1,000-year-old moss-covered cedars. One particularly famous cedar, the Jomon cedar, has a 28-meter circumference and may be 7,200 year old, making it possibly the oldest living thing on the planet. Great efforts have been made to preserve the old tree. In the summer a guard is posted around it.

Visiting and Hiking on Yakushima

Yakushima is an awesome destination for any nature lover. Visit its lush, expansive cedar forest—a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site—and commune with trees that have stood for thousands of years. Hike into its depths, amidst pristine streams and charming forest creatures like monkeys and deer. In the heart of the wood, you’ll come face-to-face with the Jomon Sugi, a majestic cedar that has watched over the Japanese people for millennia. Another popular destination is Okawa Falls, which has the highest drop of any waterfall in Kyushu. English-speaking guides are available to teach you all about your surroundings with a variety of courses catering from a few hours hiking to one day trekking.

About one quarter of the island is protected by the as part of Kirishima-Yaku National Park. Even though much of the island is inaccessible by road, there is a large network of hiking trails. One of the most popular routes is three-day trek through the middle of the island. Popular destinations include the Jomon cedar, 88-meter-high Oko waterfall and 60-meter-high Senbiro waterfall, which tumbles down a massive granite cliff, and Shiranti Unsuikyo, a gorge with many waterfalls and mossy forests. The island offers a great selection of places to stay-from luxury resort hotels to shared budget accommodation.

One traveler wrote: “The passenger boats that connect Tanegashima and Yakushima run several times a day. Upon arriving at Yakushima’s port of Miyanoura, I was immediately drawn towards the tall mountains watching over me as alighted. Part of the island is registered as a World Natural Heritage Site, and it is particularly famous for its ‘yakusugi’ cedar trees. These trees are over 1000 years old and grow naturally 500 meters above sea level. First of all, I went to take a closer look at the impressive Kigen-sugi Cedar. This 20-meter tall natural landmark is actually an amalga-mation of 10 different types of plant wrapped around the huge trunk of a giant 3000-year-old cedar. It is easily accessible and just a short walk from the car park. [Source: JNTO]

“About 600 meters above sea level is the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine, an area dotted with enormous yakusugi trees. It is one of Yakushima’s most popular hiking locations, and rainwear, hiking shoes, and backpacks can all be rented on the island in advance of setting off on your hike. After donating some money towards forest conservation at the information center, I started my walk. Soon I came across a group of large granite rocks; water was flowing gracefully between them to form a waterfall.

“This was one of many alluring waterfalls on Yakushima, which is said to be an ‘island of water.’ Annual precipitation is four to five times that of Tokyo, and the abundance of water has helped the yakusugi trees grow slowly over the years in spite of the poor soil conditions on the island. As a result, the yakusugi growth rings are extremely fine compared to cedars in other parts of Japan, and the trees are much older.

“Back in the forest, a dusky moss-green world was spreading out before my eyes, covering any rocks and stumps in its path. Small shoots were also sprouting to life. As I witnessed the mystery of this microscopic world before me, my heart filled with a pleasant feeling of adventure, the senses of time and direction gradually fading away.

“Finally, I reached Taikoiwa Rock, the goal of my hiking trail, which is supposed to have great views of the island. Unfortunately, on the day of my visit there was a thick fog, and I was engulfed in pure white clouds of water vapor. As I laid back on a large round rock, I started to feel like I’d been transported to a distant extraterrestrial planet. On my way back down through the ravine, a Yaku-shika deer made a surprise appearance, perhaps to wish me luck on my way. These wild deer, along with the Yakushima macaques, are often spotted on the uninhabited western side of the island, but I didn’t expect to see one at Shiratani Unsuikyo.”

Miyanoura is the main town on Yakushima. It has a tourist center with maps and hiking routes in English and a number of restaurants and guesthouses. Websites: Official site yakushima.or.jp/en/ ;Wikitravel Wikitravel ; Go! Yakushima goyakushimatour.com; Yakushima town Yakushima-town Map: Tourist map and hiking routes yakukan.jp UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Getting There: Yakushima is accessible by ferry from Kagoshima and by air from Tokyo and Osaka and other Japanese cities. Yakushima is a short 90-minute flight from Osaka’s Itami Airport. Direct flights from Kagoshima Airport are also available.Ferries depart for the Osumi Islands from Kagoshima Port. To Yakushima: 2 to 3 hrs by high-speed boat, 4 hrs by ferry. Buses are available to take you to the trail route. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Yakushima: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Yakushima was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. According to UNESCO: “Located in the interior of Yaku Island, at the meeting-point of the palaearctic and oriental biotic regions, Yakushima exhibits a rich flora, with some 1,900 species and subspecies, including ancient specimens of the sugi (Japanese cedar).. It also contains a remnant of a warm-temperate ancient forest that is unique in this region. [Source: UNESCO]

“Yakushima is a primeval temperate rainforest extending from the centre of the almost round-shaped, mountainous Yakushima Island. Situated 60 kilometers off the southernmost tip of Kyushu Island in the southwestern end of Japanese archipelago, the island is located at the interface of the palearctic and oriental biotic regions. Mountains reaching almost 2,000 meters high dominate the island, and the property lies in the centre of the island, with arms stretching south, east and west to the coast.

“Yakushima, despite being a small island, boasts several key features including impressive mountains and an outstanding gradient from the high peaks of the central core down to the seacoast. The property is home to a number of extremely large diameter Japanese cedar trees, thousands of years old with the oldest and most spectacular individuals of the species found on Yakushima Island. It contains the last, best example of an ecosystem dominated by the Japanese cedar in a superb scenic setting. Thus, Yakushima is a valuable property having natural areas of biological, scientific and aesthetic significance on a small island.

“Yakushima comprises one single intact block of land containing a full representation of the different life-zones as well as the pristine and important forests in the centre of the island. The property spans an area from the western coastline to the 2,000 m summit of the island, retaining continuity of vertical vegetation distribution from coastal vegetation with subtropical elements to cold-temperate bamboo grassland and a high moor near the summit. It is an area of primeval warm-temperate forests that have not suffered from adverse effects of development with the conservation history of the property going back to 1924.

“The boundaries of the property are complex with a number of historical and administrative factors influencing their location. Despite this the property includes all elements necessary to express its value, for example, encompassing a majority of the virgin forests of Japanese cedar, a Tertiary Period relic. The area of the property is 10,747 ha which occupies about 21% of the island, and it is of adequate size to maintain the value of the property for the long term.”

Yakushima Ecosystem

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Jomon tree
According to UNESCO: “The island ecosystem of Yakushima is unique in the Northern Hemisphere’s temperate area with successive vertical plant distributions extending from coastal vegetation with subtropical elements, up through a montane temperate rainforest to a high moor and a cold-temperate bamboo grassland at the central peaks. [Source: UNESCO]

“The montane temperate rainforest of Yakushima is globally distinct, due to its peculiar ecosystem with abundant rheophytes and epiphytes that have adapted to the high rainfall, in excess of 8,000 mm annually, and resulting humid environment. Home to some 1,900 species and subspecies of flora, 16 mammal species and 150 bird species, it exhibits a rich biodiversity including the landscape of the Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), a primeval forest composed of trees called “Yakusugi”, which are over 1,000 years in age.

“Yakushima is an island ecosystem with high mountains––a characteristic rare in the region at around 30 degrees north latitude. It contains a unique remnant of a warm-temperate primeval forest which has been much reduced elsewhere in the region. These forests extend through an altitudinal sequence from the coast up to the central peaks. The property is very important for scientific studies on evolutionary biology, biogeography, vegetation succession, interaction of lowland and upland systems, hydrology, and warm-temperate ecosystem processes.”

Sea Turtles in the Yakushima Area

Maeham and Inakahama (northwest side of Yakushima, north of Nagata) is one of the world's most important nesting sites for loggerhead turtles. The nesting season is from mid-May through the end of July. The sites are often fill with tourists who surround the turtles with flashlight and cameras and can’t suppress their desire to touch the turtles shell and flippers.

Sea Turtles on Yakushima: Yakushima and Tanegashima islands are the two main turtle egg-laying areas in Japan. Yakushima is the largest nesting site for loggerhead turtle so the North Pacific and the northernmost landfall in Japan for green turtles. About 4,000 loggerheads came ashore in 2005.

The primarily egg-laying areas around the town of Kami-Yaku on Yakushima. The loggerhead nest primarily on three beaches---Maehama, Inakahaa and Yotsusehama, which are collectively known as Nagatahama on the northwest part of the island . Some 5,051 turtles came ashore here in 2004. The second main area is around Nakatane on Tanegashima island. A total of 338 turtles came ashore here.

The egg-laying season for the sea turtles from late April to July with hatchlings making their way to the sea from July to September. About 100 people show up every night to observe the females come ashore and lay their eggs. Sometimes they create a disturbance with car lights and noise. There have been cases of turtles coming ashore and not laying any eggs and baby turtles not being able to emerge from their holes because the sand had been disturbed. The Yakushima Umigame Kan is non-profit organization run by volunteers that is dedicated to helping the turtles.

Amami-Shoto Island

Amami-Shoto Island (north of Okinawa) is a group of five main islands that spread about 180 kilometers from north to south and are used primarily to raise bananas, papayas, pineapple and sugar cane. Forty-kilometer-long Amami-Oshima Island is the largest island in the group. It is known for its beaches, tropical vegetation, the Kinsakunbaru Virgin Forest, Tanaka Isson Memorial Museum of Art. The other islands are Kika-shima, Tokuno-shima, Okino-Erabu-jima and Yoron-jima.

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Amami rabbit
Amami rabbits are found only on two small southern islands, Amami Oshima and nearby Tokunoshima between Kyushu and Okinawa. Primarily a nocturnal forest species, it is believed to be an ancestral form of rabbit that evolved before its fast-hopping, long-eared cousins. Measuring 39.7 to 53 centimeters from head to rear end, with a two to three centimeter tail and weighing: two to 2.9 kilograms, it is squat and has a long snout, small ears, tiny eyes that glow red in the dark, and a stout body supported by short legs. The feet are equipped with long, sharp claws used for digging. It feeds on shoots and grasses from spring to autumn and acorns in the short winter.

The Amami rabbit lives in dens they dig themselves. Females give birth to one baby at a time, in separate dens with the entrances sealed by mud. The babies are born blind and helpless and spend the first two months in the den. The rabbits are threatened by loss of habitat and mongooses, brought to Amami Oshima island to eradicate the poisonous habu snake. A few thousand live on Amami Oshima and few hundred live on Tokunoshima.

“The Amami rabbit has some of the most primitive characteristics in living rabbits. Its ears, hind feet and tail are short, while its curved claws are formidably heavy and strong. It is also unusual in its methods of communication, which involves both vocalizations and the beating of the ground with its hind limbs. At dusk, just before becoming active, it appears at the entrance of its burrow and sends its calls ringing throughout the valleys. [Source: Canon, Wildlife as Canon Sees It ad]

The Amami rabbit prefers dense forests, ranging from sea level to mountaintops. There are estimated to be 2,000 to 4,800 Amami rabbits on Amami-oshima Island and 120 to 300 on Tokuno-shima Island. Their numbers have been reduced by severe habitat loss and introduced predators.

Kikaijima Island

Kikaijima Island (about 25 kilometers east from the much larger Amami Oshima) is a coral island roughly equidistant between the southernmost point of Kyushu and Okinawa Island. Yuka Matsumoto, wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The smooth flat island comes into sight about 10 minutes after leaving Amami Oshima island aboard a small plane. The airplane’s shadow glides past coral reefs and sugarcane fields before landing at the tiny airport. While Kikaijima is very small — its circumference is only 50 kilometers — the island’s tallest point, Hyakunodai, has an altitude of 211 meters.. The island is also expanding as it has been rising out of the ocean by a few millimeters annually for the last 100,000 years. [Source: Yuka Matsumoto, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 3, 2011]

“In 2003, the Gusuku Ruin was discovered during the cultivation of a sugarcane field in the center of the island. The remains of about 300 structures and ceramics from Yamato (Japan’s ancient mainland) and China have been unearthed at the site. The discoveries have led archaeologists to believe the area was used by a branch of Dazaifu, an ancient imperial administration in Fukuoka Prefecture that governed Kyushu. They suspect Kikaijima was used as a commercial hub after the ninth century. The Amami island chain was once under the control of regional rulers, including the Ryukyu Kingdom and the Satsuma clan, who reigned supreme in what is now Kagoshima Prefecture. Before that, the tiny island may have been a center of trade in the Nansei Islands.

“Despite uncertainty over the history of Kikaijima, it has always figured prominently in regional folk tales. The island, which was once known as Kikaigashima, also has many historical sites: the grave of the Buddhist monk Shunkan (1143-1179), who was exiled to the island for his role in a failed coup; a fountain made by the powerful archer Minamoto no Tametomo (1139-1170), who fought in the Hogen rebellion of 1156; and the ruins of a castle built by Taira no Sukemori, who committed suicide by drowning himself in 1185 during the Battle of Dannoura, off the coast of what is now Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Another site is the grave of the tragic figure Uratomi. According to legend, the Satsuma clan governor was enchanted by Uratomi’s beauty and asked her parents that she be given to him. When this was refused, the governor levied high taxes on everyone in Uratomi’s village in Amami Oshima. In response, Uratomi’s parents put her in a small boat and sent her out to sea. She eventually drifted to Kikaijima.

“For many years, residents of the Aden community on the east coast of the island have heaped up coral collected from the coast to create walls to better protect themselves from typhoons. Many communities have removed coral walls as more people have become car owners. But this area keeps its coral walls out of respect for our ancestors," said 79-year-old volunteer guide Heishin Masai, who lives in Aden. The walls blend in with the tropical landscape that abounds in Japanese bishopwood and banyan trees. There were massive air raids against Kikaijima during World War II because it held Imperial Japanese Army and Navy facilities, and an airfield operated by a kamikaze contingent, but the Aden community escaped unharmed.

After the war, the island was administered by the United States until 1953. When I visited Kikaijima the seasonal sugarcane harvest was in full swing. I dropped into a brown sugar factory with a guide, Sunao Tonochi, who works at the Asahi Shuzo shochu brewery. During the rule of the Satsuma clan, local farmers were forced to cultivate sugarcane. Later, the crop became Kikaijima’s main product under the Japanese government’s plan between 1965 and 1975 to develop specialized agricultural crops to replace rice farms. Brewing brown-sugar shochu was encouraged to promote the economy of the Amami Islands after they were returned to Japan. However, Kikaijima’s sugarcane is processed mostly into coarse sugar, and the island’s shochu is made from sugarcane grown in Okinawa Prefecture’s remote islands under a system to preserve the regional economy. This incongruous system is a result of a postwar policy created by the central government, which grouped the remote southern islands as "the edge of Japan." Getting There: Reaching Kikaijima island takes between four and five hours from Haneda Airport, with a transfer at either Kagoshima or Amami airport. A ferry also leaves Kagoshima for the island. For more information, contact the Kikai municipal government office (0997) 65-1111.

Miyako Islands

Miyako Islands (190 miles southwest of Okinawa) contains nice beaches and snorkeling and diving reefs. Hirara is the largest town on the largest island. The islands largely escaped the ravages of World War II and there are remnants of the Ryuku Culture. Websites: Okinawa tourism site visitokinawa.jp ; Wikitravel Wikitravel ; JNTO japan.travel/en ; Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Yaeyama Islands

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Miyako Island
Yaeyama Islands (between the Miyako Islands and Taiwan) are famous for black pearls, star-shaped sand and the Iriomote wildcat. Home to nice beaches and snorkeling and diving reefs and large wilderness areas, they have been described as the Galapagos of Asia because of the high number of unique birds, plants and butterflies found there,

Yaeyama forms the southern and westernmost tip of the Japanese archipelago. Surrounded by beautiful seas, it has a warm subtropical climate.The two main Yaeyama islands are Ishigaki-jim and Iriomote-jima. Ishigakjima Island has a dive site about one kilometer from the west coast of the island where manta rays are regularly seen from July to September. By one count around 230 manta rays live around the Yaeyama Islands. Locals keep alive their traditions and culture and have deep reverence for their local nature.

One traveler wrote: “Head to the southern islands where ancient traditions live on 90-minute drive from the city center of Ishigakijima is the Hirakubosaki Lighthouse. Located at the northern end of the island, many tourists call in to enjoy panoramic views of the neighboring coral reefs. Looking out towards the shallows at the white crashing waves, the alluring shades of blue coral caught my gaze. This was surely the most gorgeous sea-scape in all of Japan. From the lighthouse, the next port of call was Shisa Farm near Yonehara Beach. The site was filled with large shisa statues made from the local Yoneko-yaki pottery. Shisa is a mythical guardian: part lion, part dog. And you’ll often see them placed at the entrance of houses throughout the Okinawa region to ward off evil spirits.

“Pottery certainly has its place on the island. The Ishigaki-yaki pottery, founded more than 20 years ago, is characterized by its ‘Yuteki Tenmoku’ pattern that resembles droplets of oil. These pieces are a combina-tion of glass and ceramics, fusing together striking dark blues and blacks. Impressively all Ishigaki-yaki and Yoneko-yaki pottery is handmade, making it well worth a visit as you make your way around Ishigakijima. At Kabira Bay, I had time to stroll in the shallow sea before taking a ride on a glass-bottomed boat. The boat tour has several viewing points, including the gigantic Komon-shikoro corals, crimson red soft corals, giant clams, and resident fish.”

Later “I tried my hand at Minsa weaving in the Minsa Craft Center. Sat in front of the weav-ing machine, a local woman taught me how to weave the weft. In Yaeyama, woven indigo belts called ‘Minsa-fu’ are made for women to give to their men when they are engaged. The strap is made up of alternating patterns consisting of the numbers four and five. The pattern symbolizes, ‘a wish for eternal harmony,’ representing the love and readiness of the Yaeyama women and their partners who receive the belt.” Ishigaki Island (200 kilometers east of Taiwan) is favorite dive spot and has warm and inviting weather all year round. The best coral reefs in Japan are off Ishigakjima and Iriomotejima near Taiwan. Three-kilometer-long Shiraho reef off Ishigaki Island contains at least two thirds of the number of species found in Australia's Great Barrier Reef and some world's largest, oldest and finest colonies of blue coral. You won't find a better spot to watch l manta rays gliding through calm, crystal-clear waters. There are hotels to suit all budgets. Prime Scuba Ishigaki, Address: 345-9 Maezato, Ishigaki-shi, Okinawa. primescuba-isg.com

Websites: Japan Guide Japan Guide City of Ishigaki site City of Ishigaki site Getting There: The Yaeyama Islands are accessible by air and ferry. Ishigaki is accessible by direct flights daily from Tokyo and Osaka. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Iriomote

Iriomote (115 mile east of Taiwan) is a hilly 113-square-mile island with 130 kilometers of coastline. The home or rarely seen and highly endangered Iriomote cat, it is covered by Japan's only true tropical forests and the northernmost mangrove forests in Asia. Only 2,200 or so people live on the island. There is one main road, two stop light and no high school. A sprawling national park preserves much of the interior. There are boat trips and treks in the jungle to waterfalls. The diving is good and manta rays are often seem at Hatoma-jima Island off Iriomote-jima.

One traveler wrote: “I took a Yaeyama Kanko ferry from Ishigakijima to Iriomotejima, the largest island in the Yaeyama region. The journey took us past Taketomijima, Kuroshima, and Kohamajima, three more of the islands that make up this far-flung Japanese outpost. After 45 minutes, we arrived at Ohara Port on Iriomotejima. Straight away, I crossed over to the isle of Yubujima in a buffalo pulled cart. This once inhabited island is now a subtropical botanical garden with lots to see and do. The water buffaloes that take you between the islands had been used for agriculture, supporting the lives of the islanders. Nowadays, they have become a tourist attraction in their own right, but they are still working hard alongside the locals. [Source: JNTO]

“As I was driving around the island, I couldn’t help but notice the road signs about the Iriomote cat. These wildcats live at altitudes up to 200 meters and have had to deal with human settlements encroaching onto their territory. To learn more about this subspecies of leopard, visit the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center, which introduces the island’s flora and fauna. A number of businesses in the area also hold events and cam-paigns raising awareness for the conservation of the Iriomote cat, in addition to teaching visitors about the local ecosystem and wildlife.

“In the afternoon, I boarded a sightseeing boat on the Urauchi River, followed by some trekking to see the Mariyudu and Kanbire water-falls. On the way to the falls, I navigated the dense jungle, which covers 90% of Iriomotejima. I felt like I would never get tired due to the vast amounts of oxygen being emitted by the deep green forest. Eventually, I heard the sound of a waterfall. As I listened closely, I could also hear the wind blowing and birds chirping in the distance. The cascading water sent my senses into overdrive. It was a powerful feeling, one that I’ll never forget.”

Websites: Okinawa Tourism Site visitokinawa.jp; Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; City of Ishigaki site City of Ishigaki site ; Japan Guide Japan-Guide Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Iriomote Cats

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Iriomote Wildcat
Iriomote cats have been designated an endangered species. Only about 100 are believed to be left, all of them living on 282-square-mile Iriomote island in Okinawa. They are one of the world's most endangered cats and were only discovered in 1965 and confirmed as a unique species in 1967, making them the last cat species “discovered.” They closely resembles cats that lived three million years ago and is thought have developed from mainland Asia’s leopard cat.

Iriomote cats are solitary, nocturnal animals. About the size of house cats, they are dark, mottled brown in colored and have a rounded club-like tail. They eat lizards, fruit bats, birds, snakes, crabs, fish and insects and are equally comfortable in forests, in the trees or on the beach. They prefer coastal regions and areas around streams and rivers. The make dens and give birth in the hollows of large tree trunks and usually don’t eat like many cats do by holding their prey with their fore paws, an adaption that seems to have come from spending a lot of time in trees.

Iriomote cats typically breed in February and March and again in September and October. Males typically roam a territory of two or three square kilometers while females move in area of one square kilometer. Females typically give birth to four kittens. There dens are typically six feet off the ground.

Iriomote cats look a lot like house cats and were at one time eaten as a delicacy. They are threatened by loss of habitat, accidental trapping in crab traps, stray dogs, and inbreeding with domestic cats and competition and diseases from domestic cats. About one or two cats die every year from being run over by cars. Counting cats is done with photo traps.

In 2007 Iriomote cats were moved from the endangered list to the critically endangered list. To help Iriomote cats survive the Japanese government has made one third of Iriomote island into a national park aimed at protecting the cat. Some would like to see development such as dams and roads banned to protect the cats even further.

Effort to protect Iriomote cats include raising awareness by putting images of the cat on everything from buses to coffee mugs and putting up signs to ask drivers to drive slowly and keep a watch out for the cats. There is a 24 hour hot line for reports of cats hurt in road accident and rehabilitation center for injured cats. Despite the fact that few people have actually ever seen an Iriomote cat, the cat has helped draw 700,000 tourists to island, a 14-fold increase from the 1970s.

Yonaguni Monument

Yonaguni Monument (off tiny Yonagunjima Island in the southernmost part of Okinawa prefecture) is a mysterious sandstone structure that rises from a depth of 25 meters to the surface in water of the shore . Measuring 250 meters long and 100 meter side, the structure is cut into a series of flat, level terraces, connected by steps. The stricture was discovered in 1986 by a local scuba diver. Some have called it an underwater Machu Picchu. Scuba trips to it are available.

Marine geologist Masaki Kimura of Ryukyu University believes the monument is an ancient ceremonial center built on land by an ancient civilization that lived the end of last glacial period about 10,000 year ago and covered by seawater when the glaciers melted and sea levels rose. Other disagree and say the structure has been made by natural forces.

Some of the monuments’ feature---two large monoliths standing side by side, round holes that look like they once held pillars and an orientation towards the stars---seems consistent with something man made. Some say some marks found on the sea floor belong to an ancient pictorial language.

Image Sources: 1) 4) Okinawa Tourism Promotion Office 2) 3) Yakumonkey 5) Japan Animals blog

Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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