Amami Oshima: Take a trip to the cloud forest of the imagination

by Stephen Mansfield

Despite the environmental mistakes of the postwar decades, the violation of a once pristine landscape, a recent trip to Amami Oshima, gave very real cause for hope. Some regions have always, it seems, been in good shape. Flying over the island’s green, volcanic hills, I felt as if I were gazing down upon an eastern Camelot.

Amami Oshima was once part of the Ryukyu, or Okinawan islands, before being absorbed into the distant administrative circle of Kagoshima Prefecture. While distinct from both Okinawa and Kyushu in ways that are not always easy to articulate, Amami, sharing differences and affinities with both regions, succeeds in blending the best of both worlds.

The folklorist Kunio Yanagita was one of the first people to try and situate the islands within some kind of geo-ethnic category. Yanagita took a coal-fueled steamer from Kagoshima and arrived in the port of Naze in 1921. In Yanagita’s descriptions of the customs and local history of the islands, one senses their duality. In visible lines transecting the island, today’s visitor can make out indicators of that conflation of two cultures and topographies. Where the coral, finely grained white sands, palm trees, hibiscus and bougainvillea of the coastal areas appear to speak of Okinawa, wooden houses with zinc roofs seem closer to Kagoshima. Above the rooflines of homes, slopes rise from subtropical to temperate levels.

The bus from Amami’s small airport takes a full 45-minutes before reaching Naze, which was once the island’s main city, a measure of how large the island is. Although Naze, which in 2006 merged with the town of Kasari to become Amami City, is a good base from which to explore the island, it has little to offer the visitor, remaining essentially an exercise in stained concrete. The prime appeal of Amami is nature, splendid in its unspoiled coastlines and densely forested interior. Over 80 percent of the island is covered by trees, creating a completely natural habitat for fauna such as the nocturnal Amami Black Rabbit and birds you are unlikely to come across in mainland Japan, among them the pastel Ruddy Kingfisher, orange-crowned Akahige, and the red-backed Ryukyu Akashobin.

The combination of rare animals, poisonous snakes and mangrove place the island close to the geographical and climatic category of sub-tropical Okinawa. Arguably, the single most conspicuous plant on the island is the cycad. Of all the vascular plants, cycads have the largest growing apexes, delicate to look at but surprisingly resilient, which explains why they have been around since they first flourished in the humid tropical climate of the Jurassic age. Guam is known as the “island of cycads” — the islanders there make flour from the seeds — but I saw a far greater concentration of sago palms as they are also known in Japan, on Amami Oshima than perhaps anywhere else on my travels.

The plant often appears in the paintings of the artist Isson Tanaka (1908-1977). Choosing an independent course that placed him outside the circle of contacts that would have made his life easier, but compromised his art, Tanaka relocated from Chiba to Amami in 1958 at the ripe age of 50. Drawn by the natural beauty, the immense biodiversity of the islands, photos of the painter show him working in a one-room, wooded shelter attached to a small plot of land where he grew vegetables. Tanaka’s prolific output, his paintings of the birds, creatures, flowering hibiscus, orchids, palms, tropical fruits and the thousands of cycads that grow wild along the coast, was not matched by sales of his work. The artist has only achieved recognition posthumously with the establishing of a memorial museum near the airport on Amami Oshima and with exhibitions in Tokyo.

A few years ago, a NHK TV documentary compared Tanaka to Paul Gauguin. Aside from the obvious southern island locations and being figures outside the art establishment, the parallel is tenuous at best. In Tanaka’s work, Gauguin’s tropically inflamed colors achieve a quiet tonal luminosity, suggesting images that could have been painted at dawn or twilight. The artist is closer perhaps, to the Post-Impressionist Henri Rousseau.

To support his frugal life and to buy the materials he needed for his art, Tanaka worked as a dyer, helping to produce the island’s distinctive Oshima Tsumugi textiles. Visitors can watch the process involved in 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 dying. The preliminary work is tough: The fabric is soaked in a mixture of lime water and dye from the sharinbai plant, boiled for up to 14 hours in a giant caldron, then soaked and kneaded countless times in field mud rich in iron. Bound threads are dyed in dark red water between 30-40 times, turning the rough fabric a rusty color. Cotton and silk threads are bound together and then woven on a loom. Each row of the design is threaded by hand, the precise alignment of the design requiring a good deal of skill and precision.

Another rich source for Tanaka’s subjects was Kasari Bay to the northeast of Naze. I rented a scooter to get to Sakibaru Beach, a matchless stretch of white sand backing onto sugar-cane fields. The blinding strip of sand attracts a trickle of visitors, but is rarely crowded. The higher roads of Tatsugo Gulf, a little visited inlet of the bay, hug the contours of flower-strewn cliffs, sea-facing southern gardens and one-story wooden villas, creating a mood closer to the Mediterranean than the East China Sea. I stopped here to watch a family fishing off the end of a large wooden structure that looked like a floating pontoon, but turned out to be pearl cultivation rafters. One of Amami’s two very distinct dialects is spoken in this part of the island. The tongues belong to the Ryukyuan languages group and, like the rare Amami Black Rabbit, are in danger of extinction, with a mere 12,000 speakers, mostly elderly folk, remaining.

While thankful for the lack of mainstream tourism, its neglect is, given Amami’s natural assets, mildly perplexing. Perhaps a lingering sense of its former isolation and penury has spared the island from the withering attention that has vulgarized parts of Okinawa. A Time magazine article from Feb. 24, 1958, began, “Life is grim on Amami Oshima, an island in the typhoon-swept East China Sea, 200 miles southwest of Japan. The islanders are beset by leprosy, poverty, poisonous snakes and fire.”

The unspoiled slopes of Amami’s Kinsakubaru virgin forest, are a fitting place to end a paean to the island’s natural beauty. Though little known to most Japanese, it is the island’s most singular site. The winding, complicated route up the mountain takes you over a flinty, unmade road ascending through a primeval landscape of giant feather-ferns called “hego,” great clumps of cycads, and impenetrable undergrowth steaming with clots of mist. During my afternoon on the slopes, I only spotted one group of visitors, six amateur naturalists walking the earth road in the company of a guide.

If eco-travel is about encountering kingdoms of nature respectfully uninhabited by humans, the green slopes of Kinsakubaru are a cloud forest of the imagination, the world as it created itself.

Japan Air Systems (JAS) has daily flights to Amami from Tokyo, Osaka and Kagoshima. Note though, that JAL itself is going through some restructuring of its commuter routes, so check carefully. There are plenty of ferries from Kagoshima. The airport has a very decent tourist information office, with English speaking staff. The waterside Hotel Big Marina Amami (0997) 53-1321 at the north end of Naze, is a well run, immaculately kept business hotel with sunny single rooms for about ¥6,000. Ask at your hotel about car or scooter rentals. It’s better to have your own transport, though the bus service is good.