December 5, 2022

Amami Oshima: Japan’s UNESCO-listed subtropical island paradise

7 min read

Umami, Japan (CNN) — Forget what you know about Japan: frantic neon cities, speeding bullet trains, silent temples, robot restaurants and gentle geisha.

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

These are mothers. Centered around Oshima (“Big Island”), this subtropical archipelago is part of Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture. It is often called a living fossil, given its unique biodiversity. UNESCO World Heritage status In 2021

Getting there is a quick flight south from Tokyo to Kagoshima, then an adventurous 30-minute ride in a propeller plane. These efforts are rewarded with views of the sparkling coral-strewn waters of the Emami Peninsula, hikes through UNESCO-listed rainforests, visits to the still-small islands scattered around the coast, and days spent dipping your toes in the ocean.

Transcending the limits of the gods

Emami Oshima is one of eight islands in the Emami Archipelago — just a few of the many islands that line the 1,200 km stretch of sea between mainland Japan and Taiwan. Life here is driven by the sea. Its villages are built on the water front against a backdrop of steep mountain slopes.

Like its native wildlife, the island’s culture has been shaped by its isolated location. Emami’s remote location from the mainland has helped preserve the island’s indigenous identity. Even today, two dialects of the Umami language are spoken in Umami Oshima. Even its myths are local.

Tradition holds that there is a heaven above the seas and a land of abundant harvest called Niriyakaya. The sea coral reefs that ring the peninsula are merely boundaries that mark the realm of humans from the realm of the gods outside.

Beyond the coral rings are not only the gods but also the merchants.

The beautiful rugged coast of Emami Oshima.

The beautiful rugged coast of Emami Oshima.

Ippei Naoi/Moment RF/Getty Images

For centuries, the Umami peninsula was integral to trade in the region. Sandwiched between the powerful samurai-ruled Satsuma Domain in Kagoshima and the Ryukyu Kingdom further south in Okinawa, it was a center of trade and travel between China, Taiwan and Japan.

Traders would travel south in search of goods on the Kuroshio Current, stopping at Umami along the way, thus creating a cultural crossroads that enhanced the richness of Umami culture.

Life on the island is rooted between land, sea and moon. To this day, bad weather deprives local people of food and important supplies from the mainland. The abundance of festivals throughout the year is determined by the lunar cycle.

New Year’s festivities are marked by the sacrifice of a pig; In the summer, Arahubana celebrates the first harvest. Many festivals focus on food, from the harvesting of sweet potatoes to the production of black sugar. The worship and guidance of Nauru, divine beings in the form of earth priests, is still observed and respected in the islands.

This legacy of Ryukyu, not Japanese, is tangible. A walk around one of Emami’s villages reveals a handful of Shinto shrines and barely a whiff of Buddhism. In their place are sacred trees, sumo grounds and ashes — ceremonial platforms to welcome local deities who travel down the mountains or across the seas.

Meanwhile, a man is trying to cut the rope. "Sonakiri" Ritual as part of Umami Oshima's Good Harvest Festival.

A man tries to cut the rope during the “Sonakiri” ritual as part of Umami Oshima’s Good Harvest Festival.

Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

The island of Kakirumajima, a five-minute boat ride across Oshima Street southeast of Emami Oshima, preserves a pocket of traditional island life. The piece of land offers comfort and seclusion from modern conveniences even as basic as grocery stores; This shows how remote these islands would have been before the age of fast travel.

Steep tropical roads lined with greenery lead to views of cloud-shrouded peaks and the Big Island floating in the sea’s delicious blue translucence: a shade so distinctive it is locally known as “Kakiruma Blue”.

Down in the compact coastal village of Kaneo, the local school has closed for lack of students. Outside the festivities its open-air wood ash, still at the heart of village life, is a hot spot for local men to take an afternoon nap. Further along the coast in the sleepy village of Suniko, a shack-like kakigori (snow shaving) shop run by a welcoming lady, a chance to sit for a while with a refreshing fruit snack and look out over the sea. provides as the people here have been doing for centuries. .

An incubator for wildlife

Emami Oshima is dominated by the 694-meter-tall Yuwondake. This nationally protected peak, recognized by UNESCO for its “high biodiversity value”, is home to many endemic species, most of which have no relatives anywhere else in the world and many is considered a threat.

Although, quite rightly, it is not easy to penetrate the thick depths of Umami’s natural environment, a small, controlled section of the island’s forest has been opened to tourists to reduce the impact of tourism.

An accessible glimpse into the subtropical broadleaf rainforests of Kansakubaru offers a peek into life beneath the light canopy. Strict rules apply for visitors: no more than 10 vehicles can enter the area at a time.

Kakiruma Island is a five-minute boat ride from Umami Oshima.

Kakiruma Island is a five-minute boat ride from Umami Oshima.

ns_photo_magnet/Adobe Stock

Only certified “eco-tour guides” (some English-speaking) can lead groups into this old-growth forest. These eagle-eyed guides can spot hidden wildlife along the forest path, such as the Okinawan tree lizard, Emami woodcock and Emami jay, which live only on the islands of Emami Oshima and Tokunoshima.

But the island is so rich in nature that one need not venture deep into the jungle to spot rare wildlife. A clever move has seen an old mountain road — rendered redundant by tunnel construction — transformed into a nature trail at night. To keep numbers down, only vehicles registered for a specific time slot can ply on this route.

Along this dark, winding mountain pass, the chance to spot the mysterious Umami black rabbit is the main draw. After a successful breeding campaign, the local animal has become something of an island mascot.

Stopping on the way and getting out of the air-conditioned vehicle, the thick humidity of the mountain air surrounds everyone. A festival of rare frogs (one of which has won the title of “the most beautiful frog in Japan”), owls and snakes flutter and leap at night while stars pierce the night sky.

The waters around the peninsula are also teeming with life. Tropical fish can be seen swimming just offshore. Beaches provide nesting grounds for sea turtles. Its channels are a migration route for humpback and North Pacific right whales. A local resident discovered in 2014, the hoshizura-fugo (white-spotted pufferfish), creates beautiful circular patterns in the sand to attract a mate.

Apart from the sapphire seas, Mangrove Park offers a chance to explore a different side of Emami’s marine world. This protected mangrove forest, the second largest in the country, can be explored by kayak. Visitors wade through soft, murky water under the trunks of old mangrove trees while crabs quickly emerge from the tree trunks.

Eating from the ground

The combination of Emami’s rich nature, fertile soil and trading history has produced a bounty of pure creativity. From orange groves to downtown vegetable patches, there’s no shortage of places to sample the island’s produce.

Its most popular and common dish is kaihan (chicken rice): soup-filled rice with shredded chicken, thin strips of egg, and shiitake mushrooms.

Classic Japanese cuisine with a local twist can be sampled at small roadside eateries. Umami Yakuzan Tsumugi is one; Their memorable soba set lunch (¥1,500, or about $10) is an appetizing selection of quality fresh ingredients including melt-in-your-mouth black pork cartilage from the island.

The result is delicious enough to tempt diners to make another trip — a dessert of homemade sherbet with local fruit jam seals the deal.

Kayhan (chicken rice) is a local specialty.

Kayhan (chicken rice) is a local specialty.

Eric’s Library/Adobe Stock

Even on a remote corner of Kakirumajima, an organic eatery hides on a dusty village path.

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

The chatty owner — a non-native islander who moved here in search of a healthier life for his family — makes a lunch of bread and salad from scratch in his small kitchen. Diners sit on rickety chairs and watch the fruit grow for the bushes in the orchards.

Such local institutions prove that rather than being a forgotten backwater, Emami is a community with an identity so strong that it has attracted many people to migrate from other parts of the country.

It may have only recently received UNESCO certification, but life and nature have been ticking away at Emami Island for generations.

It’s the antidote to over-trafficked, over-touristed and over-crowded destinations. Here is a sub-tropical countryside where time and distance slip between the chirping of the ever-present cicadas and the deep slumber of the island’s heat.

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