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Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012
Time stands still on Amami Oshima
By AMY CHAVEZ
We had already been on Amami Oshima for a week waiting for Typhoon No. 21 to pass. But the typhoon was meandering around the Pacific like a drunken sailor, zigzagging a path north-west, once making a U-turn then righting itself, and another time its path taking a complete pirouette.
The typhoon was large but not fast. It was travelling so slowly that sometimes it would be stationary for periods of 24 hours or more before gaining the strength to move onward at a leisurely 5-10 km per hour. But one thing was for sure — it was going to eventually slam right into us. All we could do was wait for it before sailing onward to Okinawa.
So many things had already happened during that one week on Amami Oshima that it seemed more like one month. One of our three Japanese crew members returned to Okayama, I turned 50, and we had shacked up with the locals on the island.
Every time we watched TV, we noticed that all the TV stations talked about what was happening on mainland Japan — none of it having anything to do with Amami Oshima and its population of 70,000. Even the approaching typhoon hadn't been mentioned yet. We wondered if we were still in Japan.
In many ways, Amami Oshima seems just like mainland Japan. It shares the same crumbling infrastructure of the countryside, and sports the same public signs along the road encouraging citizens to "manner up."
But upon closer look, you notice the houses are a little more in tune with their surroundings here. Many new houses are made out of all natural materials and some have tiled verandas, archways into gardens and hints of Mediterranean architecture that match the mild climate and semi-tropical surroundings. On Amami Oshima, I felt a little less inclined to shout out to people to "Have fun!" and "Enjoy life a little more!" the way I do on mainland Japan when I see houses with no windows facing the sea, or apartments that feature elaborate verandas built solely for laundry rather than BBQs.
One day, a middle-age woman from Mangrove Chaya picked us up to take us kayaking in the mangroves. Sitting in the back of her car with the windows open, it was refreshing to see, hear and smell the forest again. "How lovely the sound of cicadas!" I remarked. "You like that?" said the woman. " I think they're too noisy." Again, I wondered if we were still in Japan.
"Have you heard about the habu snake?" the woman said. "Habu are very poisonous. Very dangerous," she warned us.
"Where do they live?" I asked. "Near the sea? In the mountains?"
"They're everywhere. They're over here, and over there," she said, pointing to the forests on each side of the road. "They're near the sea too." They were probably even in her car.
"How many people die each year from snakebites? I asked.
"Oh, not as many as before. Now there is an antivenom for it." She seemed disappointed in this antivenom development. It didn't make for good stories.
But she continued talking up the danger of these snakes so that my curiosity was piqued to the point of hoping to see one of the angry vipers.
I asked if she had ever been abroad. She hadn't. "I would love to go to American in this lifetime," she said. "But I'm afraid it's impossible. I'll have to wait till I'm dead — then go." Well, there's an idea.
I told her we were en route to Okinawa. "Okinawa has lots of foreigners — it's just like America," she assured me, as if she had just died, gone to America, and had come back to drive us to the mangroves before returning to her grave. "It's just like America," she repeated. "All the writing is horizontal."
After a lovely afternoon kayaking through the mangroves of Amami Oshima, the next day we moved our yacht from the Naze Port, on the north side of Amami Island, to Koniya Port, on the southern part. It looked like a more protected part of the island to wait out a typhoon. It took eight hours to sail to the southern tip of Amami Oshima, where we tied up the boat in the "guest berth" at the sea station. Furthermore, we'd be that much closer to Okinawa when we set sail.
Koniya is not a tourist town. Rather, tourism just accidentally happens here. The town features abandoned dive shops, closed restaurants and beautiful beaches inaccessible by public transportation.
The next day, we visited Kakeroma, an island just across from Amami Oshima and accessible by ferry.
While walking around this island, a woman came by in a van and stopped to chat with us. Suddenly she raised up an implement from the back seat of the van.
What was this? I thought, a bit alarmed. "A snake catcher!" she said. "I always carry one in my car." Not because she is afraid of being attacked by a habu snake, but because if you catch one, you can get ¥4,000 for it from the local town hall.
I suddenly didn't want to meet up with one of these snakes any more. Cash for snakes reminded me too much of gun buybacks in the United States.
Meanwhile, word was out among the sailing community that we were waiting out a typhoon in Amami Oshima.
One morning, a Mr. Nakano approached our boat. He explained that we had a mutual friend, and offered us his private cottage to stay in until the typhoon passed. His little haven was located in one of Amami Oshima's numerous protected coves.
One week turned into 10 days. We visited beaches. We went snorkeling. We drank kokuto shochu with the postman and the rotary club president.
We had dinner with the local Women's Club. Everywhere we went people said, "Aren't you the people who arrived by yacht?"
When we drove around the island by car, we saw mudslides everywhere — damage from two recent typhoons. Rocks and dirt had blocked roads and trucks were busy carrying off the excess dirt and rubble. There were over 50 slides across the road that goes around the perimeter of the island. And we were taking shelter from a typhoon here?
Not only that, but local people started telling us that our boat, tied up in the guest berth at the Sea Station, was not safe from the typhoon there. On the other hand, there was no other place to move it to.
Follow Amy Chavez's sailing trip on Twitter @JapanLite.