You won’t find Amami Oshima mentioned in Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide, which is reason enough to visit. Once a domain of Okinawa and now firmly within — yet far removed from — Kagoshima Prefecture proper, the island group is easy to dismiss as neither fish nor fowl.
For an island with such a distinct and largely unspoiled eco-system, that would be a mistake. Great clumps of the sub-tropical cycad plant — one of the oldest surviving species in the world, conjuring up images of Jurassic swamps and the dinosaurs said to have chomped on their leaves some 250 million years ago — cover hillsides, valleys and crumbling sea-facing escarpments in a wild and natural profusion.
The road from Amami’s small airport passes through extensive tunnels, some a full 2 kilometers long, before reaching Naze, the main town and a good base from which to explore the island.
The one and only spectacle on Amami is nature, splendid in its unspoiled coastlines and densely forested interior. Latitude-wise, this is where the sugarcane fields start, stretching south through Okinawa. The blue, coral-crusted waters of Amami are an extension of Okinawan marine life. There is superb diving and snorkeling to be had in the clear waters off the island, and many little-used beaches to picnic on. One of the most outstanding coastlines lies along Kasari Bay to the northwest. Sakibara Beach, a glorious stretch of rarely crowded white sand and clear blue water, backs onto sugarcane fields, subtropical trees and plants you may not recognize.
Follow the higher roads of Tatsugi Gulf, an isolated inlet of the bay, to find flower-strewn cliffs, sea-facing southern gardens, and one-story wooden villas reminiscent of a modest French Riviera — minus the casinos, sun worshippers and celebrity egos. Dropping down from the cliffs, I stopped at a cove to watch a family fishing off the end of a large wooden structure. This turned out to be a pearl cultivation raft.
Naturalists will be drawn to Amami’s southern mangroves, the hiking trails of Mt Yuwan and the infinite diversity of the area’s fauna. Though you are unlikely to see the mostly nocturnal Amami black rabbit, you might have more luck with the purple Lidth’s jay, Ryukyu robin, the orange-crowned Akahige, the pastel-colored Ruddy Kingfisher, or the striking red-backed Ryukyu Akashobin, a bird that often appears in the paintings of the artist Isson Tanaka.
A student at the prestigious Tokyo Art University, Tanaka decided, after a brief visit to Amami, to return there in 1958 and make the island his home. Photos of the painter show him working in a humble, single-room studio/home, surrounded by a small garden where he grew his own vegetables. Tanaka’s paintings of the birds, beasts, flowering hibiscus, orchids, palms, tropical fruits and cycads are strongly reminiscent of the work of the painter Rousseau. Unlike the French artist’s depictions of jungle glades and exotic foliage reconstructed in the mind’s eye, however, Tanaka lived inside his canvasses, his life and work a tribute to Amami’s extraordinary flora and foliage.
To support himself and to buy materials, Tanaka worked as a dyer, helping to produce the island’s distinctive textiles. Visitors can watch the process of making tsumugi and kasuri silk-cotton fabrics at the Oshima Tsumugi Village, a craft complex in a beautiful hillside setting among flowers and many of the plants used in dyeing. The preliminary work is tough: the fabric is soaked in a mixture of lime water and dye from the sharinbai plant, then soaked and kneaded countless times in rice-field mud before being boiled in colored water, which turns the rough fabric a rusty color.
In Lost Japan, author Alex Kerr recalled the pre-industrial landscape he first encountered when he came to Japan, its rural areas still smothered with old-growth forest, where “mist boiled up out of the valleys as if by magic; the slender and delicate tree branches quivered like feathers in the wind… Coming along the bend of an unpaved mountain road, I would suddenly have the illusion that I had traveled back hundreds of millions of years. It felt as though at any moment a pterodactyl might come flying out of the mist.” This is an apt description of the unspoiled slopes of Amami’s Kinsakubaru forest.
I rented a scooter in Naze for the climb, a singularly unsuitable mode of transport for the flinty earth roads that snake up the mountain. I saw just one vehicle in the hour-long ride up: a microbus carrying a small group of eco-tourists. As the road levels out, you enter dense forests with wonderfully bright, healthy-looking plants, trees and larger than life species like the “hego” (giant fern), the natural world as it was meant to be. When you can’t identify or give a name to the trees and plants around you, then you know you have strayed into somewhere special.
JAL has daily flights to Amami from Haneda and Osaka. There are also plenty of ferries from Kagoshima. If you can read Japanese, publisher Blue Guide’s Tekuteku Aruki 27 covers all the islands in the chain. The airport has a very decent tourist information office, with English-speaking staff. Taxis run into Naze, but it’s a one-hour ride; the bus is cheaper.
The waterside Hotel Big Marina Amami (0997-53-1321) at the north end of Naze is an immaculate, well-run business hotel with sunny single rooms for about 6,000 yen. The main shopping arcade and the roads parallel to it have the best eating options. Minatoya, a restaurant in the airport, serves the local specialty, kehan: hot rice with chicken, pickled papaya, orange peel, mushrooms and seaweed. Naze is packed with shochu bars. Ask at your hotel about car or scooter rentals. It’s better to have your own transport if possible, though the bus service is good.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).