Exploring the Galapagos of the East

Looking down on central Naze from atop Mount Ogamiyama

Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture is the largest of the Satsunan islands that run between Kyushu and Okinawa, south of Japan's mainland. Among the biggest of the hundreds of islands that make up the Japanese archipelago, this sub tropical paradise is a sprawling land of lush mountains, stunning beaches and breathtaking natural beauty. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend three days on the island and couldn't wait to experience all things Amami, especially in taking in its many picture-perfect views, pristine forests and celebrated food and human culture.

I arrived after a direct flight from Tokyo's Haneda Airport and, wanting to first learn about some of the human history of this fascinating island, headed to a place known for Oshima Tsumugi, Amami's own fabric that is revered for its quality and has been used to make kimono and other wares for many centuries.

Oshima Tsumugimura today produces the fabric, and I was taken on a short tour around this weavers-cum-museum and informed about the laborious processes involved in dying the fabric. I then got a chance to watch the weavers in action as they painstakingly weaved the material into its signature patterns with extraordinary attention to detail. The tour was enjoyable and a great introduction to the rich human culture that has persisted on the island for many generations.

the weaving machines used in the creation of fabric
One of the seamstresses weaving
Intricate patterns perfectly woven

By now the sun had gone down and that meant it was time to eat. After checking into my hotel in downtown Naze, the island's largest city, I headed into the backstreets to find an eatery famous among Amamians. Torishige is a cozy yakitori restaurant that serves a wide range of grilled delights, from chicken breast and liver to vegetables like green pepper. The meat and the vegetables were succulent and made for quite the feast, especially washed down with local Amami Shochu, which, unlike its counterpart on the Kyushu mainland that is made using potato, is made using sugar cane.

Torishige yakitori restaurant
Inside the cozy venue
Mouthwatering skewered meat and vegetables

Before retiring to my room for the night I had the special opportunity to participate on a nighttime wildlife tour, for which I was driven by a tour guide up into the mountains to search for wildlife aided by car-mounted spotlights. Amami Oshima is special in that it is home to many endemic species, and it is largely due to this fact that the island is being considered as part of the natural world heritage site 'Amami and Ryukyu', to be decided next year.

Following a scour of the hillsides, we came away with sightings of various species of frog indigenous to the island, the Amami Woodcock and the Amami rabbit (which unfortunately eluded my camera). All in all, the tour was very educational and is recommended for those interested in the island's wildlife.

One of the multiple frog species indigenous to Amami Oshima
An Amami Woodcock

The next morning I awoke in Naze and, after a quick breakfast, made the gentle hike up Ogamiyama, one of Naze's small mountains that provides great views of the town and the port. Feeling fresh and accomplished after my morning ascent, it was time for the second nature tour in as many days, but this time to the island's famous Kinsakubaru Virgin Forest.

Following an approximately 30 minutes drive up into the mountains in the tour guide's car, we arrived at the entrance and began the jaunt into the forest, informed about the plant and wildlife by the knowledgeable guide. In addition to Amamian ferns and butterflies, I also got the chance to see the largest chestnut tree in all of Japan.

The view from Mount Ogamiyama
These Amamian ferns' age can be calculated from the spots on their trunk, which occur when the the trees shed their branches around twice yearly.
A rare butterfly species
The largest chestnut tree in Japan
A quick lunch of Keihan, Amami's quintessential traditional dish, following our trek through the forest.

Upon leaving the Kinsakubaru forest and descending the mountain, it was time to drive south to see a couple of Amami Oshima's pristine beaches. Located so far south of the main land, the beaches on the island are much more resemblant of those in Okinawa Prefecture, and are often characterized by white sand and clear, blue waters.

The first beach to see today was the serene Yadorihama Beach in the far south of the island, before heading to Honohoshi Beach, famed for its abundance of round rocks that make a soothing sound as they roll up and down the shoreline pushed by the waves. I made it up to the nearby Mount Yuidake to see one of the most stunning sunsets I've had the pleasure of beholding before heading to my hotel in Setouchi, the second largest settlement, on the island's south coast.

Yadorihama Beach
Honohoshi Beach
The view from Mount Koriyama, overlooking the town of Setouchi

Night fell to end my second day on the island and I eagerly made my way through the narrow streets to an izakaya that is a favorite of the locals. Inside the small but bustling establishment I was served some local Amami cuisine consisting of sashimi caught off the nearby shores and seaweed tempura.

The meal was delectable, and tonight the izakaya's owner coaxed me into trying Habu liquor, in which a local poisonous habu snake is soaked in local liquor. After lugging the large bottle up to my table, the owner poured me a small shot of the sufficiently alcoholic tipple and it was bottoms up. The liquid was sweet but packed a biting aftertaste, and it paved the way for a great night's sleep.

Heading into a local izakaya
Sashimi and deep-fried seaweed
The habu liquor had quite a bite to it

I woke on my third and final day on glorious Amami Oshima and headed to one of the island's main attractions; the famous Mangrove Park. The mangrove forest here is the second largest in all of Japan, exceeded in area only by that on Iriomote Island. A natural oasis comprised of a river and narrow channels that weave through the thick mangroves, this is an ideal place to kayak, which I did led by a tour guide who taught me about various aspects of the forest and diverse wildlife that exists here. The kayak tour took around one hour and is highly recommended for anyone visiting the island.

A morning view of Amami's Mangrove Park
Paddling among the mangroves
Our tour guide leads the way

Paddling through the gentle waters, I worked up quite an appetite and after arriving back on dry land went in search of food. Around 45 minutes' drive north of the mangroves lies Shimatofuya, a tofu restaurant that came highly recommended as a place to fill my stomach while touring Amami. I arrived and sat down in the rustic yet a-la-mode establishment, ordering a lunch set which consisted of all things tofu, including fried tofu, tofu skin and tofu mixed with different vegetables. The restaurant even has tofu milk on offer for visitors to drink as they please.

I was now nearing the end of my stay on Amami Oshima, but before heading to the airport, there was time to take in one last spot. Tomori Beach in the northeast of the island is regarded as one of if not the most beautiful beaches on the island, with its gentle waters lapping on gorgeous white sand creating the idyllic setting for swimming, snorkeling or sunbathing. It was then off to the airport to say farewell to Amami Oshima until my next visit.

The stunning Tomori Beach
Shimatofuya Tofu Restaurant
A delicious set course for lunch