World Natural Heritage in Japan



A subtropical island chain showcasing the mysteries of evolution

Located at the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu (Nansei) Islands have a subtropical climate influenced by the Kuroshio Current. With their warm and humid environments, the islands are home to many endemic species including the Iriomote cat and the Amami jay. The origins of these species can be found about 12 million years ago, when the Earth's climate was warm and sea levels were low. Since the islands were still part of the Eurasian continent, various land-dwelling species made their way over. Islands were formed after a glacial period but continued to undergo a process of repeatedly joining together and separating, causing their ecosystems to follow unique evolutionary paths. Thus, the islands are considered important to the study of evolution. In 2021, Amami Oshima Island, Tokunoshima Island, the northern part of Okinawa Island, and Iriomotejima Island (Amami/Okinawa) were registered as a natural World Heritage site.

Through a Day

Scattered between Kyushu and Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands span about 700 kilometers from Iriomotejima Island at the southern end to Amami Oshima Island at the northern end. All of the islands have unique landscapes and distinctive ecosystems, and they are home to many rare species. Here is some of the dynamic and majestic natural scenery that you can encounter on four of the islands.


Kanamizaki Observation Deck

Cape Kanamizaki is at the northern tip of Tokunoshima Island, and the observation deck jutting from it offers stunning views, with the mountains of Tokunoshima behind you and the Pacific Ocean and East China Sea in front of you. As you watch the morning sun rise above the horizon beyond the shoals and coral reefs, the sky dazzles you with its ever-changing gradients of color.


Amami Nature Observation Forest (Amami Oshima Island)

Hearing screeching bird cries, you notice Amami jays, designated as a natural monument. The bright blue and reddish brown of their feathers creates a beautiful contrast. They peck at acorns, their main food source, and then take flight. This forest is a great place to observe rare birds such as Ryukyu robins and Amami woodpeckers. The observation deck offers panoramic views of Tatsugo Bay, showcasing the natural abundance of Amami Oshima Island.


Ku-Ra Cave

Part of Iriomotejima Island is formed from Ryukyu limestone derived from coral. As you proceed deep into the jungle, you encounter a gaping limestone cave. The space is filled with cool air and the sound of trickling water. Above your head are stalactites that are said to grow only 0.5 millimeters per year. As you look up, you are reminded of the passage of time.


Mangrove of Gesashi-River (Northern part of Okinawa Island)

As you paddle your kayak down the Gesashi River, egrets silently take flight. Mangroves are plants that grow in brackish waters where salt and fresh water mix. Three species can be seen in the Gesashi River: oriental mangroves, kandelia, and loop-root mangroves. Crabs, shrimp, and small fish live around their aerial roots, forming a distinctive ecosystem.


Crested Serpent Eagles

While driving, you spot a crested serpent eagle. Despite being among the smaller birds of prey, these eagles featured in ancient Okinawan folk songs have a wingspan of over 110 centimeters and look magnificent in flight. A nationally designated Special Natural Monument, they are an iconic species of wildlife on Iriomotejima Island. Keeping a watchful eye over your movements, the eagle takes off toward the forest.


Yonama Beach

You'll want to take off your sandals and enjoy the water at this beach. The reason why it is so calm is that it is protected from strong waves by a coral reef, called ino in the local dialect. The beach has some of the clearest waters on Tokunoshima Island and has been developed into a seaside park. It is also known for being the site of a triathlon held every June.


Mt. Yuidake Observation Deck (Amami Oshima Island)

The southward view from the observation deck on the low summit offers vistas of Kakeromajima and the other islands of the archipelago. Amid the natural bounty of Amami Oshima Island, Mount Yuidake is home to an especially large number of natural subtropical broadleaf trees. You can also see forests of evergreen trees such as Itajii, as well as brush pot trees and other massive ferns reminiscent of the tropics.


Ge-Ta Falls (Iriomotejima Island)

After passing twisted tree roots, crossing a river, and walking deep into the jungle, you hear the roar of water rushing through a gorge. Ge-Ta Falls emerge suddenly in the midst of the dense forest. Gazing at the massive, tiered falls up close, you can feel the abundance of water on Iriomotejima Island.


Kanamizaki Cycads (Tokunoshima Island)

This forest of cycads is said to have originally been planted to protect the village of Kanami from the north wind. Cycads are native not only to Tokunoshima but also to the islands of Amami Oshima and Okinawa and have been planted as windbreaks or to mark land boundaries. Their seeds are also used to make a local food called nari-miso. The Cape Kanamizaki cycads, which are now over 300 years old, form a whimsical tunnel about 250 meters long.

奄美群島国立公園ビジターセンター 奄美自然観察の森(奄美大島)

Amamigunto National Park Visitor Center (Amami Oshima Island)

After learning about the natural environment of Amami Oshima Island at the visitor center, wait for nightfall to catch views of the stars. The Milky Way breaks through the clouds that descend from the mountains. Search for shooting stars while listening to birdcalls from deep within the forest. Before you know it, you're surrounded by a pitch-black world without any street lights, and you realize that this is just one corner of the universe.

Photo = Hidetoshi Fukuoka

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