During a stay with our koi breeder friends in northern Japan (Ojiya/Niigata), I first heard of the two dream islands lying some 2,500 km to the south, one with untouched jungles and the other surrounded by incredible coral reefs. It sounded like the legendary island of King Kong. But they are not imaginary, they actually exist!
Just one year after that I first visited the two islands, located at the height of Taipei/Taiwan. If you ever find yourself in Japan, make sure to add a few days and book a domestic flight to Ishigaki on the Ryukyu Islands! If you're a seawater fan, you can stay there and dive amongst the coral reefs with lots of sea snakes, manta rays and endemic species too. If you are a freshwater fan, take the ferry to the island of Iriomote, which is near enough to see from Ishgaki, and which is completely covered with primary rainforest. They even discovered a previously unknown cat species, the Iriomote cat, there not long ago! There is a ring road on the island and two hotels, of which I would definitely recommend the Painumaya Hotel. It is almost luxurious and surrounded by magnificent nature. It's worth leaving the hotel to go night hunting in the evening, armed with a torch and macro lens. Snakes, colourful frogs, highly interesting insects and, as a highlight, the largest land crab in the world, the palm thief, roam around there.
Aquarium enthusiasts go there for the fish and invertebrates - and it's worth it! All you have to do is take a taxi or a tour booked through the hotel, drive along the road around the island and stop at the first bridge. Equipped with diving goggles and a light wetsuit, you then follow the stream or river upwards into the rainforest. Start at the mouth where the watercourse meets the sea. Here you can see which species seek out the brackish water area and remain behind as the freshwater portion increases, or which species join it. A rapid or a small waterfall form natural barriers and then the animal composition usually changes. First you will notice how clean and untouched the landscapes are. Only in the mangrove areas will you see mountains of plastic waste washed up by the ocean currents from China and Korea (not Japan!). A very sad sight. As soon as you leave the marine part of the mangroves in the stream/river and move upstream, however, all the debris of civilisation is gone. No more plastic bags and cola cans. Places like this are hard to find in Asia!
Crystal-clear water in rivers and ponds
If you want to see silver moonyfish, scats, puffer fish and mudskippers, then the first part of the river is the place to be. In very clear water (only when the water is draining), these fish species swim around you and you can see fish whose natural behaviour has been little reported. When the salinity decreases, the scats (Scatophagus argus) are still there, although they are permanently described as a pure brackish water fish, at least as adults. We could observe them in water with 10 μS/cm and no measurable GH or KH! When I posted this on Facebook, more than a few came forward suspecting a typo in the values. If you follow the water further towards the spring, beautiful goby species appear, most of them from the Rhinogobius and Stiphodon families. Observe how little space these animals take up in their natural habitat. I had to think of the radical animal rights activists who reject aquarium keeping on principle. In the aquarium, the gobies have more space than in nature! If you are persistent and overcome several small rapids, you will always come to new small dream ponds whose water is absolutely crystal clear and in which the size of the fish as well as their number decreases more and more. This is the hour of the shrimps, who no longer have to fear predators. They run around freely on the underwater rocks and curiously eye the big black tree approaching them. The shrimps, a Macrobrachium species with large and long claws, even crawl onto the arm and look for food. A great experience! If a metre-long, snake-like animal approaches you, don't be alarmed: it will be an eel, the biggest predator of these waters, on the prowl.
My travel tips
Only Ishigaki has an airport; the neighbouring island of Iriomote can be reached by ferry. There are flights from many larger airports in Japan and also from Taiwan, which is much closer. Flights to Tokyo cost around €900 and take around eleven hours from Germany. From Tokyo to Ishigaki you fly about three hours and pay about €200.
I recommend the Painumaya Hotel in Iriomote. One night costs around €80.
Most of the rain falls in August.
The ferry from Ishigaki to Iriomote runs almost hourly and can be booked locally or from Germany. The journey time to Iriomote is one and a half hours. No visa is required for Japan and there are no vaccination requirements for the islands. There are very few mosquitoes in the evening.
I promise you one thing: When you come back from Iriomote and look at your aquarium, you will start planning how to convert it to brackish water or a rapids aquarium.
If you want to learn more about Japan, take a look here: Expeditie Japan