Beach bums from our end of the Eurasian landmass seem completely uninterested in visiting the tropical islands of Japan.
We’ll go to Thailand and Malaysia and even Vietnam. But when was the last time you met someone who had swum in Ishigaki or Iriomote? Or, for that matter, Okinawa?
Some of this reluctance can be put down to fiscal terror. Prices for everything in Japan may have dropped dramatically in comparative terms over the 20 years that I’ve been going there, but it is still imagined to be a scarily expensive destination. I guess the language is an issue, too. But none of that seems to stop masses of international gaijins crowding into Tokyo and Kyoto. So, why aren’t they sunning themselves under the palm trees of Okinawa?
Perhaps because they don’t think there are any palm trees in Okinawa. The largest of the 57 tropical islands strung out in a gorgeous nautical necklace that stretches 650 miles, from the mainland’s southern tip to within touching distance of Taiwan, is perhaps the only place in Japan with a sorry reputation. In a country that is as famous for its fabulous new things as it is for its fabulous old things, Okinawa is uniquely perceived to be too new to be interesting. The Americans levelled the island with vengeful completeness in the final months of the second world war, and most of Okinawa had to be rebuilt from scratch. So what ought to be, according to its latitude, the Japanese Hawaii, a picture-book tropical paradise with white sands, leaping dolphins and turquoise waters, is imagined instead as an island-sized concrete new-build bobbing about in the Pacific.
Half of Okinawa does indeed feel like a busy, thrusting, sign-encrusted slab of modern Japan. The island capital, Naha, offers all the urban joys that any large Japanese city offers, but with much better weather. I adore urban Japan. And can’t get enough of it. But it’s not what I demand most from a tropical island. So we hired one of those boxy Japanese automatics that Postman Pat seems also to drive – ours was yellow – and headed north into the bits of Okinawa that the Americans didn’t bomb.
Okinawa is long and skinny. It measures nearly 65 miles from top to toe. So there’s plenty to explore. My kids wanted to see the world’s largest fish tank. But I was after the Okinawa rail, a comic-looking jungle bird with extra-large feet that lives in the island’s northern forests and nowhere else.
I’m glad I listened to the kids. The Churaumi Aquarium turned out to be a heroic example of supersized Japanese engineering. There’s a tank so roomy that three full-size whale sharks, 20ft long, are happy to circle it, then lose themselves in the gloom.
The further north you go, the wilder it gets. The northern half of the island is a mountain range covered with jungle, to which a perilous beach road nervously clings. As you drive along this northern coast, the jungle keeps parting and confronting you with a secret cove with a sandy beach in it. It wasn’t hot enough to swim, but it was perfect for messing about in rock pools and tripping over Pacific conch shells the size of a prize Yorkshire marrow.
You’ll want to know if I saw my rare bird. Actually, I did.
Not, however, in the dense mountain jungle into which we gamely drove, and through which I dutifully skulked for a few luckless hours. The kids got fed up, so we drove back down to the coast, to one of those handy golf courses where you can play all the holes with one club. Suddenly, an Okinawa rail leapt out of the undergrowth behind the 18th tee and jumped the hedge in front of us.
OKINAWA TURNED out to be surprisingly delightful, but I was after something rarer even than the indigenous rail, something so rare in Japan that many will tell you it doesn’t even exist. Real wildness. Proper remoteness. With so many islands to choose from, the thing to do on the Japanese necklace is to hop, Greek-style, from one island to another. You can attempt it on the ferries between the closer destinations. Or you can make bigger leaps on the Pokemon-coloured aircraft operated by that impeccable national carrier ANA.
Our next stop was Ishigaki, 230 miles south of Okinawa, considerably warmer and much less developed. If there is such a thing in the world as a perfect climate, Ishigaki seems to have it. The atmosphere of the place is altogether lazier, sunnier and more nautical than Okinawa. It is ringed with white-sand beaches in the Pacific-postcard style, and if the ones here aren’t deserted enough for you, then jump aboard a ferry and find some that are.
We spent Christmas Day lazing around on Taketomi, an exciting 10 minutes by boat from Ishigaki. Taketomi is renowned for its star-shaped sand, a phenomenon made famous, apparently, by a Japanese hit song in the 1970s. To this day, everybody dreams of having some. And, as you sit there on your secluded beach, the occasional vanload of chattering Japanese tourists turns up to grab handfuls of star sand, then flee. Our Christmas lunch was grilled octopus and green-tea ice cream. Perfect.
But it still wasn’t wild enough for me. I had my eye on Iriomote, the southernmost of the Japanese tropical islands, next stop Taiwan. Ninety per cent of Iriomote is untouched jungle. Which is why it provides the only home in the world to the Iriomote wildcat. Discovered only in the 1950s, the yamaneko is distantly related to the leopard. But, as you know, Japan specialises in miniaturisation, so its leopard is not much bigger than a domestic tabby. It has spotted fur. A very bushy tail. And beautiful eyes, green enough to be Irish.
Japanese travel brochures call Iriomote “the Japanese Amazon”. And as you chug up one of its short but spooky rivers, you could easily be east of Manaus. An impenetrable jungle comes right down to the water’s edge, and tries to go further. You can hear so many things squeaking, growling and tweeting in it. But, like all jungle trips, the boat ride down the Jamazon doesn’t deliver nearly as much in the way of actual sightings. So, no, I didn’t see the Iriomote wildcat. There are only 100 or so left alive. And that’s 100 good reasons to come back.
How to do it: it is possible to visit Japan’s southern islands independently, but the language barrier and cultural differences mean it’s easier to book with a specialist operator. Inside Japan Tours (0870 120 5600, www.insidejapantours.com ) offers an Okinawa add-on to its self-guided tours. A 15-night package, with six nights on Ishigaki and nine on mainland Japan, starts at £2,064pp, with ANA flights from Heathrow to Tokyo, accommodation, some meals, private guiding, local transport and car hire on Ishigaki. Or try Audley Travel (01993 838000, www.audleytravel.com ) or Magical Japan (0161 962 9054, www.magicaljapan.co.uk ). When to visit: the islands are much warmer than the mainland; the weather is good most of the year, except for the typhoon season – July to September.