Amami, Japan (CNN) — Forget what you thought you knew about Japan: the frenetic neon cities, express trains, silent temples, robot restaurants and gentle geishas.
There’s another side to this island, where life slows down, white sand beaches are lapped by waters teeming with colorful fish, and locally grown produce has created a distinct culinary scene.
To get there, it’s a short flight south from Tokyo to Kagoshima, and then an adventurous 30-minute ride in a propeller plane. These efforts are rewarded with views over the clear, coral-studded waters of the Amami Archipelago, hikes in the UNESCO-listed rainforest, visits to even smaller islands dotted around the coast, and days spent with toes in the ocean.
Crossing the border 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; the villages are built overlooking the water against the backdrop of steep mountain slopes.
Like the native flora and fauna, the archipelago’s culture has been shaped by its isolation. Amami’s remoteness, far from the mainland, has helped maintain the island’s endemic identity. Today, two dialects of the Amami language are still spoken in Amami Oshima. Even his myths are endemic.
According to tradition, above the seas is a land of paradise and bountiful harvest called Neriyakanaya. The iridescent coral reefs that surround the archipelago are but boundaries separating the realm of man from the realm of the gods beyond.
Behind the coral rings were not only gods, but also merchants.
The beautiful rugged coastline of Amami Oshima.
Ippei Naoi/Moment RF/Getty Images
For centuries, the Amami Archipelago was an integral part of the region’s trade. Sandwiched between the mighty samurai-run Satsuma Domain in Kagoshima and the Ryukyu Kingdom further south in Okinawa, it was a hub for trade and travel between China, Taiwan and Japan.
Traders traveled south in search of goods on the Kuroshio Stream, stopping at Amami along the way, creating a cultural crossroads that enhanced the wealth of Amami culture.
Life on the island remains deeply rooted in the connection between the land, the sea and the moon. To this day, the bad weather cuts off locals from food and important supplies from the mainland. The many festivals that take place throughout the year are scheduled according to the lunar cycle.
New Year’s celebrations are marked by the sacrificial slaughter of a pig; in summer, Arahobana celebrates the first harvest; many more festivals focus on food, from the harvest of sweet potatoes to the production of black sugar. The worship and guidance of Noro, divine beings in the form of earthly priestesses, are still observed and respected in the islands.
This legacy of Ryukyu, not Japanese, is tangible. Walking through any of Amami’s villages, you’ll see few Shinto shrines and barely a hint of Buddhism. In their place are sacred trees, sumo grounds and ashage – ceremonial platforms to welcome native deities who come down from the mountains or from across the sea.
A man tries to cut the rope during the “Tsunakiri” ritual as part of Amami Oshima’s Good Harvest Festival.
The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images
Kakeromajima Island, five minutes by boat southeast of Amami Oshima on the Oshima Straight, is home to a slice of traditional island life. The stretch of land offers comfort and seclusion from modern conveniences, even as basic as supermarkets; this helps to understand how remote these islands would have been before the era of high speed travel.
Steep tropical roads overgrown with vegetation lead to cloud-capped peaks and views of the large island floating in the delightful blue translucency of the sea: a hue so specific it is locally described as “Kakeroma Blue”.
Down in the compact coastal town of Kanyu, the local school is closed due to a lack of students. Outside of the festivals, the open-air wooden asage, still the heart of village life, is the venue for local men lulled by the heat for an afternoon nap. Further up the coast, in the sleepy village of Saneku, a kakigori-esque kakigori (shaved ice) shop run by a hospitable woman offers the chance to sit for a while with a refreshing fruity snack and gaze out over the ocean, as people have been doing here for centuries.
A breeding ground for wildlife
Amami Oshima is dominated by the 694 meter high Yuwandake. This nationally protected peak, praised by UNESCO for its “high biodiversity value”, is home to a large number of endemic species, most of which have relatives nowhere else in the world and many are considered endangered.
While it is, rightly so, not easy to get into the thick depths of Amami’s natural environment, a small, controlled portion of the island’s forests has been opened up to visitors, mitigating the menacing impact of tourism.
Kinsakubaru’s subtropical broadleaf rainforest is an accessible glimpse into life beneath the shimmering canopy. There are strict rules for visitors: no more than 10 vehicles are allowed to enter the area at a time.
Kakeroma Island is a five-minute boat ride from Amami Oshima.
Only certified “Eco Tour Guides” (some English speaking) can take groups into this primeval forest. These eagle-eyed guides can spot the camouflaged wildlife hiding along the forest route, such as the Okinawa tree lizard, the Amami woodcock, and the Amami jay, which lives only 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 the rare wildlife. A smart initiative has turned an old mountain road, made redundant by the construction of a tunnel, into a nighttime nature trail. The route can only be driven by vehicles registered for a specific time slot to keep numbers down.
Along this dark, winding mountain pass, the chance to see the elusive black rabbit Amami is the main draw. The endemic animal has become something of an island mascot after a successful campaign to increase its numbers.
As we stop along the route and exit the air-conditioned car, the thick humidity of the mountain air is all-encompassing. A festival of rare frogs (one of which has won the title of “most beautiful frog in Japan”), owls and snakes prowl and flash in the night as the stars poke the night sky above.
An abundance of life also lives in the waters around the archipelago. Just off the coast you can see tropical fish swimming; beaches provide breeding grounds for sea turtles; the channels are a migration route for humpback and North Pacific right whales. A native resident discovered in 2014, the hoshizora fugu (white-spotted puffer fish), creates beautiful circular patterns in the sand to attract a mate.
In addition to the sapphire seas, Mangrove Park offers the chance to discover another side of the Amami marine world. This protected mangrove forest, the second largest in the country, can be explored by kayak; visitors paddle their way through the soft, salty water under the branches of old mangrove trees, while crabs make a hasty escape up tree trunks.
Food of the country
Amami’s combination of abundant nature, fertile soil and trading history has resulted in an abundance of culinary creativity. From orange groves halfway up a mountain to vegetable gardens in the middle of the city, there’s no shortage of places to sample the island’s harvests.
The most celebrated and ubiquitous dish is keihan (chicken rice): soup-infused rice topped with shredded chicken, thin egg slivers, and shiitake mushrooms.
Classic Japanese meals with a local touch can be sampled at small roadside eateries. Amami Yakuzen Tsumugi-an is one; their memorable soba lunch (¥1,500, or about $10) is a hunger-inducing selection of high-quality fresh ingredients, including the island’s melt-in-your-mouth black pork cartilage.
The result is delicious enough to lure diners back for a second trip — a dessert of homemade sorbet topped with local fruit jam seals the deal.
Keihan (chicken rice) is a local specialty.
Eric’s Library/Adobe Stock
Even in the remote corner of Kakeromajima, organic dining hides along a dusty village path.
Tucked away in an old house is the unmistakably and unwittingly 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, makes lunches of bread and salads from scratch in her tiny kitchen. Diners sit on shabby chairs and stare at the orchard where fruit grows for the jam.
Local establishments like this one prove that Amami is not a forgotten backwater, but a community with an identity so strong it has enticed many from other parts of the country to relocate.
It may have only recently been certified by UNESCO, but life and wildlife have been ticking away in the Amami Archipelago for generations.
It’s the antidote to over-crowded, over-visited and over-hyped must-see destinations. Here is a subtropical landscape where time and distance slip between the chirping of the ever-present cicadas and the heavy drowsiness of the pervasive island heat.