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Wildlife Spotting in Yanbaru, Okinawa

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

Explore a national park and world heritage site to see endemic species and stunning coastal scenery.

Okinawa may be best known for white sand beaches and clear blue sea, but there’s a surprising side to the archipelago, too. The northern part of the main island is home to Japan’s largest subtropical laurel forest, which includes some of the last large surviving tracts of subtropical rainforest in Asia.

Known as Yanbaru, the huge swathe of land covers Yambaru National Park and the northern villages of Higashi, Kunigami and Ogimi. Yanbaru is home to more than 4,000 species, including 11 animals and 12 plants, each endemic to the area. Among the endangered ones are the Okinawa rail, Okinawa woodpecker, Ishikawa’s frog, Ryukyu long-tailed giant rat and Yanbaru whiskered bat.

Yanbaru’s unique environment was recognised in July 2021 when, along with Okinawa Prefecture’s Iriomote island to the south and Kagoshima Prefecture’s Amami Oshima and Tokunoshima islands to the north, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mangroves and mudflats

The mangrove forest of Gesashi Bay at Higashi-son Fureai Hirugi Park is the largest on mainland Okinawa, at around 10 hectares. Three types of mangrove thrive in this lush environment, which is teeming with life.

Take a canoe tour to explore the coastal mudflats or stroll the wooden elevated walkways to get a close-up of the wildlife in the trees.

The excellent on-site guides are primed to point out the species hiding expertly nearby, including crabs, insects and birds.

The Okinawa rail

The only flightless bird in Japan, the Okinawa rail is believed to have settled on the island about 23 million to 1.7 million years ago, when Okinawa and its neighbouring islands were repeatedly separated and joined to mainland Japan and Asia.

Found and registered in 1981, the bird has suffered rapid population decline due to non-endemic predators, such as the mongoose, which was brought to Okinawa in 1910 to manage the habu snake and rat populations. It has also suffered from human population spread, including being hit by cars.

As a result, the bird is hard to spot in the wild. For a peak at one close up and to learn more about it, head to the Okinawa Rail Habitat Display Learning Facility in Kunigami village.

Coastal scenery

Another spot worth visiting is Cape Hedo, or Hedomisaki, the northernmost point of mainland Okinawa. The whole area is covered with unusual rock formations and lush vegetation home to lots of wildlife.

Visitors can enjoy beautiful views of the Okinawan coastline as well as the Pacific Ocean to the east and the South China Sea to the west.

On a clear day you can see Yoron in Kagoshima Prefecture, which is 14 miles (23 kilometres) away. There is a monument to celebrate the friendship between the towns closest to each other on the two islands.

Find out more

For details on visiting Yambaru National Park, visit the Ministry of Environment’s related page.

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