Eco-tour in Yanbaru


Shuzo Ishimori

Professor, National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan. Professor, National Graduate University for Advanced Studies. Former Member of the National Tourism Policy Council.


Dr. Ishimori specializes in the anthropology of tourism. Undertaken researches in Micronesia, Southeast Asia, Europe, Central America, and the Caribbean area, he has been promoting a project to make a comprehensive study of the tourism phenomena from a global viewpoint in recent years. Also he has carried out investigations on the regional vitality of each of the regions of Japan. He is an author and editor of many books including the book entitled, Tourism in the 20th Century.

Throughout the world today much attention has been focused on eco-tourism. Eco-tourism is a system that offers visitors to an area a chance to experience the blessings of nature, history and culture within an order and framework that protects the natural environment and the creatures that live within the ecological system. It also enriches the lives of the people that live within that region. This is also referred to as "sustainable tourism" and is the most appropriate model for 21st century tourism. It has been tried around the world since the 1980's. For example, it is being practiced in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Yellowstone National Park in the U.S., and in the Canadian Rockies National Park in Canada. Some of the registered World Heritage Sites have eco-tours for people to enjoy those areas within a certain type of framework.

In the 1990's, various places in Japan, including Okinawa Prefecture, began to experiment with eco-tourism. In particular, promotion of eco-tourism is being tried on Iriomote-jima Island, where the Eco-Tourism Association was established in 1998.

Iriomote-jima is a place where one can enjoy Japan's largest mangrove forest, vast coral reefs, as well as animals such as the Iriomote wildcat, Crown eagle, and many other rare and beautiful creatures that inhabit the island. The guides that offer their services are enthusiastic and they have set up courses that offer visitors the chance to fully experience the wildlife and natural environment of Iriomote-jima Island.

In recent years on the main island of Okinawa, around the Yanbaru area up north, eco-tourism has caught on. There visitors will find a vast expanse of forest where animals such as the Yanbaru kuina (Okinawan Rail), the Noguchi-gera (Okinawan woodpecker) and the Yanbaru-tenaga-kogane (a variety of beetle) that inhabit the area. You can certainly get an idea of the diversity of life found there.

In Okinawa, well represented by areas such as Yanbaru and Iriomote, there are seas of vital coral reefs where there are a variety of frogfish, customs such as firewood collecting in the mountains, wild boar hunting, and catching river prawn in the rivers. The village nearby manages farms. If you go over the village, there are rows of exquisite Fukugi trees (a Garcinia); walls made from coral and the village guardian, an utaki or sacred grove. Visitors can experience the old folk wisdom of people who have grown to know how to live within nature.

The gods still inhabit the natural forests of the Okinawa Islands. The Setsumatsuri Harvest Festival on Iriomote-jima Island, and the Unjami Ocean Festival and Shinugu Fertility Festival of Yanbaru are examples of Okinawan ceremonial festivals. These ceremonies and festivals are performed so that there is unity in nature from the mountains to the seas. The islanders offer their acknowledgement and awe at being so blessed with the bounty of nature by the gods.

In ages past, the Okinawa Islands were at times attached then separated to both Japan and to the Asian continent. Through the ages, cycles of upheaval and sedimentation were repeated, leading to the complex shape of the mountainous areas and the flat coral reefs we see today. At present the islands of Okinawa, while mostly in the subtropics, show a variety of climate from the temperate to the tropics with the natural environment on each island being a little different from the others.

Okinawa has always been an intersection for people passing through Southeast Asia, the Chinese continent and Japan. The islands have performed the role of an important cultural crossroads since ancient times. For this reason each of the islands have cultivated their own unique culture. Because they are quite a distance from the mainland of Japan and the continent of China, they have been able to maintain a strong flavor of distinctiveness of their cultures.

The attraction of eco-tourism in Okinawa is the wealth of change from island to island, the relationship of the people with the natural world around them, and the chance to have contact with the history and culture that emerged out of this. There is a certain charisma as well to the people there, the Islander hearts that are open and accepting of everyone. Coming into contact with this spirit, visitors might well find themselves reconsidering the way in which they live their lives.

Locals had lived together with the nature in Yonaha-dake mountain. Charcoal kiln from eighty years ago was found.

Supporters from Kunigami and Yomitan Village unite to expand the eco-tour network.

This black sword-tailed newt with its orange belly feels content with the fresh spring water flowing from the mountains.

A trail to explore and observe three types of mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza, Kandelia candel, Rhizophora mucronata)

Taking a canoe up the stream will display the wonders of nature, creating an unforgettable moment of unity and awe.

By Shuzo Ishimori National Museum of Ethnology

To get to the start of the Yanbaru Eco-tour I took a flight from Osaka to Naha City. The bright new Naha airport has just opened and I found it to be a most suitable airport to greet travelers to the gateway to Japan's southern regions.

I went straight away by car to the northern section of the main island of Okinawa, to the forested area of Yanbaru. I first came across the name Yanbaru in 1981. That was when the flightless bird, the Yanbaru Kuina (Rallus okinawae), was discovered, it was the top news story in the papers as I remember. The Yanbaru Kuina is in the same line as the Kiwi, the flightless bird of New Zealand, looking at it gave me a very familiar feeling as I had gone to New Zealand some thirty years ago as a student and I remember the Kiwis there very fondly.

After staying one night in a Kunigami-son area hotel, I met up with Kazumasa Ueno, a forest instructor at the Yanbaru Shizen-kan (Nature Hall). He was to guide me to the top of the highest elevation on the Okinawa mainland, Yonaha-dake. We began our ascent up the mountain roads of the forest along paths that were once used to haul lumber from the area. The Yanbaru region gets around 3,000 ml of rainfall annually and the roads get very muddy. Gratefully, the people of the village had brought up stones laid cobblestones to make the road passable. Walking it made me thankful of the effort of the villagers in cobbling the road.

When two helicopters from a U.S. military base flew over I suddenly heard a "Ki-Ki-Ki�c." sound, it was the high pitched call of a Yanbaru Kuina. The Yanbaru Kuina is a nocturnal bird and I thought we would not have the chance to see one, even hearing one by chance was a great bit of luck.

The Yanbaru forest is a treasure house of birds. When we reached the vicinity of a nest of the Noguchi-gera (Sapheopipo noguchi), a member of the woodpecker family, we also heard the calls of Yamagara titmouse (Parus varus), the Hiyodori bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis), and the Karasubato Japanese wood pigeon (Columba janthina).

At one point in the tour we came within one meter of a bird called the "Akahige" (Erithacus komadori) who came out as if to greet us. Or at least that was what I thought, actually we had gotten too close to her nest and it had come out to warn us off.

In the Yanbaru forests there are a broad swaths of beeches (Shiia Siebolii) and Okinawan oaks (Quercus miyagii Koidz). Because of the subtropical climate and the heavy rainfall there are many kinds of ferns to be seen. Both vegetation from the temperate zones of Japan and that from tropical climates like in the Philippines and Malaysia can be see all together in these forests. The Kanhizakura (Prunus campanulata) were in full bloom during our visit. The flower-viewing festivals are held in February around here, it was a first for myself this early in the year. The Sakura-tsutsugi (cherry rhododendron) were blooming as well.

The Yanbaru forest is also a forest of the arts. The symphony of the calls of small birds, the picturesque beauty of the flowers, the forms created by the branches and roots of the trees appear like living modern art, full of artistic elements. In the Yanbaru Eco-tour there is a program called "Let's be Artists" that shows visitors how to use the flowers and grasses to make works of art. It has gotten a warm response from travelers on the tour.

This time on the tour I also visited a place that Sho Hashi, unifier of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, hid away at for a night in Izena-jima island some 500 years ago. I also got a chance to see charred ruins of dwellings where people lived up until about eighty years ago.

As we were ascending on the mountain road up the 503 meter elevation of Yonaha-dake, I was warned several times to be aware of the Habu, (Trimeresurus flavorviridis) a poisonous snake that is found around these parts. Taking care not to step on that kind of Habu or the other poisonous snakes, the Himehabu (Trimeresurus okinawensis) and Akamata (Dinodon rufozontus), I walked carefully up the mountain. After all the worry we did not see one Habu but it did heighten the atmosphere and my awareness during the eco-tour.

The view from the top of Yonaha-dake made the Yanbaru forest below look like vast bunches of green broccoli. Before participating in the tour, I had some ideas of what it would be like to get away to a place that was remote from civilization, and go into a virgin forest. However, despite the unexpected ease with which we were able to get into the forest, the incredible diversity of flora and fauna around me was really astounding. I really felt that this region, where humans have long lived together with the forest, where the biodiversity has been preserved, that this Yanbaru forest is of value as a natural world heritage for us all.

After our trip up the mountain, we visited Higashi-son village. In Higashi-son the Eco-tourism Association's Nakane met with us and showed us around Gesashi-shuraku village. At the entrance to the village is the Mura-shisa, a guardian statue of a Chinese lion. It is there to protect the villagers from evil spirits and is the village's protector god. The Gesashi-gawa River that flows through the village opens out into a gulf and there you will find the largest expanse of mangrove forest in Okinawa spreading out before you. The mangrove here was designated as a national sanctuary in 1972.

We boarded canoes and started upstream. As we went up we saw the change in the varieties of mangrove on the riverbank, from Me-hirugi (Kandelia candel) it changed to Yaeyama-hirugi (Rhizophora mucronata) and finally on to O-hirugi (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza). In the tidelands of the river mouth we had a chance to observe the gobies (periophalmus argentiliineatus) and the Shionemaki (Uca arcuata).

A vast variety of life is supported by the mangroves in the river mouth. According to Nakane, the villagers harvest fish, crabs, and shrimp from the river mouth and use the trunks of the mangroves as frames for raising Goya (bitter melon) and Hechima (edible loofah) vines.

Living as I do in Kobe, I had no knowledge of mangrove at all, but through this tour I came to know of all the creatures that are supported by the mangrove swamps and that the mangrove is the source of many blessings to the people who live there. The eco-tour of Gesashi performs an important role from the viewpoint of environmental education.