Amami Oshima: Japan’s subtropical island paradise listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Amami, Japan (CNN) — Forget what you thought you knew about Japan: frantic neon cities, high-speed trains, silent temples, robot restaurants and sweet geishas.

There is another side to this island nation where life moves at a slower pace, white sand beaches are lapped by waters filled with colorful fish, and locally grown produce has created a distinct culinary scene.

It’s Amami. Centered around Oshima (“Big Island”), this subtropical archipelago is part of the Japanese prefecture of Kagoshima. It is often referred to as a living fossil, its unique biodiversity earning it UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2021.

Getting there requires a quick flight south from Tokyo to Kagoshima, then an adventurous 30-minute ride in a propeller-driven plane. These efforts are rewarded with views of the luminous coral-studded waters of the Amami Archipelago, hikes through the UNESCO-listed rainforest, visits to even smaller islands scattered around the coast and days spent dipping their toes in the ocean.

Crossing the Boundary of the Gods

Amami Oshima is one of eight islands in the Amami Archipelago – just a few of the many islands that dot the 1,200 kilometer stretch of sea between mainland Japan and Taiwan. Life here is ruled by the ocean; its villages are built facing the water against a backdrop of steep mountain slopes.

Much like its native wildlife, the culture of the archipelago has been shaped by its isolated location. Amami’s remote position away from the mainland has helped preserve the island’s endemic identity. Today, two dialects of the Amami language are still spoken in Amami Oshima. Even its myths are endemic.

Tradition has it that a land of paradise and bountiful harvest called Neriyakanaya lies above the seas. The iridescent coral reefs that surround the archipelago are only borders delimiting the realm of humans from the realm of the gods beyond.

Not only the gods lay beyond the coral rings, but also the traders.

The beautiful rugged coastline of Amami Oshima.

The beautiful rugged coastline of Amami Oshima.

Ippei Naoi/Moment RF/Getty Images

For centuries, the Amami Archipelago has been an integral part of trade in the region. Sandwiched between the mighty samurai-ruled Satsuma domain in Kagoshima and the southern Ryukyu kingdom in Okinawa, it was a focal point for trade and travel between China, Taiwan and Japan.

Traders traveled south in search of goods on the Kuroshio Stream, stopping at Amami on the way, creating a cultural crossroads that increased the richness of the Amami culture.

Life on the island remains deeply rooted in the connection between land, sea and the moon. To this day, bad weather cuts off locals from food and important deliveries from the mainland. The multitude of festivals that take place throughout the year are scheduled according to the lunar cycle.

The New Year festivities are marked by the sacrificial slaughter of a pig; in summer, Arahobana celebrates the first harvest; many other festivals focus on food, from harvesting sweet potatoes to producing black sugar. The worship and guidance of Noro, divine beings in the form of earthly priestesses, are still observed and respected across the islands.

This non-Japanese legacy of Ryukyu is tangible. Walking through one of Amami’s villages reveals few Shinto shrines and barely a breath of Buddhism. In their place are sacred trees, sumo grounds and ashes – ceremonial platforms to welcome the native deities who descend from the mountains or from across the seas.

A man attempts to cut the rope during the “Tsunakiri” ritual as part of Amami Oshima’s Good Harvest Festival.

The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Kakeromajima Island, a five-minute boat ride southeast of Amami Oshima across the Oshima Strait, is home to a pocket of traditional island life. The slice of land offers solace and seclusion from modern conveniences, even as basic as grocery stores; with that comes an understanding of just how remote these islands would have been before the era of high-speed travel.

Steep, overgrown tropical roads lead to cloud-topped peaks and views of the Big Island floating in the delightful blue translucency of the sea: a hue so distinctive it’s described locally as “Kakeroma Blue” .

Below, in the small coastal village of Kanyu, the local school has closed for lack of students. Outside the holidays, its open-air wooden ash tree, still at the heart of village life, is the meeting place for locals lulled by the heat for an afternoon siesta. Further along the coast, in the sleepy village of Saneku, a shack-shaped kakigori (shaved ice) shop run by a welcoming woman offers the opportunity to sit down for a while with a refreshing fruity snack and gaze at the ocean as people have done here for centuries. .

A wildlife incubator

Amami Oshima is dominated by the 694 meter high Yuwandake. This nationally protected peak, hailed by UNESCO for its “high biodiversity value”, is home to many endemic species, most with no relatives anywhere else in the world and many considered endangered.

Although it is understandably not easy to enter the thick depths of Amami’s natural environment, a small, controlled portion of the island’s forests has been opened to visitors, mitigating the impending impact of the tourism.

The subtropical hardwood forest of Kinsakubaru is an accessible glimpse of life under the sweltering canopy. Strict visitor rules apply: no more than 10 vehicles can enter the area at a time.

Kakeroma Island is a five-minute boat ride from Amami Oshima.

Kakeroma Island is a five-minute boat ride from Amami Oshima.

ns_photo_magnet/Adobe Stock

Only certified “Eco Tour Guides” (some English speaking) can take groups into this ancient forest. These eagle-eyed guides can spot camouflaged wildlife lurking along the forest road, such as the Okinawan tree lizard, Amami woodcock and Amami jay, which only lives on the islands. of Amami Oshima and Tokunoshima.

But the island is so rich in nature that you don’t have to go deep into the forest to spot rare wildlife. A clever move has seen an old mountain road – rendered superfluous due to the construction of a tunnel – transformed into a nocturnal nature trail. The route can only be traveled by vehicles registered for a specific time slot to limit numbers.

Along this dark and winding mountain pass, the chance to spot the elusive black rabbit Amami is the main draw. The endemic animal has become something of a mascot for the island following a successful campaign to increase numbers.

As you stop along the route and leave the car air-conditioned, the thick humidity of the mountain air is enveloping. A festival of rare frogs (one of which won the title of “Japan’s most beautiful frog”), owls and snakes slithering and gliding through the night as the stars sting the night sky above.

An abundance of life also lives in the waters surrounding the archipelago. Tropical fish can be spotted swimming just off the coast; beaches provide nesting grounds for sea turtles; its channels are a migration route for humpback and North Pacific right whales. A native resident discovered in 2014, the hoshizora-fugu (white-spotted pufferfish), creates beautiful circular patterns in the sand to attract a mate.

Besides the sapphire seas, Mangrove Park offers the opportunity to explore another side of Amami’s marine world. This protected mangrove forest, the second largest in the country, can be explored by kayak; visitors weave their way through the soft, silty water under the branches of old mangrove trees as crabs hastily escape from the tree trunks.

earth food

The combination of Amami’s abundant nature, fertile soil and trading history has created an abundance of culinary creativity. From orange groves halfway up a mountain to vegetable gardens in the middle of town, there’s no shortage of places to sample the island’s crops.

Its most famous and ubiquitous dish is keihan (chicken rice): soup-infused rice topped with shredded chicken, thin strips of egg and shiitake mushrooms.

Classic Japanese dishes with a local twist can be enjoyed at small roadside restaurants. Amami Yakuzen Tsumugi-an is one; their memorable soba lunch (¥1,500, or about $10) is a hungry selection of fresh, quality ingredients, including the island’s gooey black pork cartilage.

The result is delicious enough to keep diners coming back for a second trip – a homemade sorbet dessert topped with local fruit jams seals the deal.

Keihan (rice with chicken) is a local specialty.

Keihan (rice with chicken) is a local specialty.

Eric’s Library/Adobe Stock

Even in the remote corner of Kakeromajima, organic restaurants lurk along a dusty village lane.

Tucked away inside an old house is the undeniably and unknowingly chic Marsa, named after the local word for “delicious.”

The talkative owner – a non-native islander who came here in search of a healthier life for her family – creates lunches of breads and salads from scratch in her small kitchen. Diners sit on shabby chairs and watch the orchard grow fruit for jams.

Local establishments like this prove that, rather than being a forgotten backwater, Amami is a community with such a strong identity that it has inspired many people from other parts of the country to relocate.

It may have only recently been certified by UNESCO, but life and nature have been happening in the Amami Archipelago for generations.

It’s the antidote to overcrowded, over-touristy and over-hyped must-see destinations. Here is a subtropical countryside where time and distance escape between the song of the omnipresent cicadas and the heavy drowsiness of the omnipresent island heat.

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