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Friday, Aug. 24, 2007
Love you and you're green
By CHRIS COOK
It seems that when Amami-Oshima, an island in southern Kagoshima Prefecture, was created, there was just one color left on the palette: green.
You get a sense of this uniformity when you fly in over the shallow waters that surround the island: The turquoise ocean gives way to low mountains cloaked in dense subtropical forest and, on farmland in between, green stems of sugar cane — one of the island's main crops — sway lazily in the warm onshore breeze.
Drive along the narrow roads that twist and turn their way up and over the hills and you'll see green trees on the right, green trees on the left and, sometimes, huge tree ferns spreading their broad green fronds overhead. And, of course, the refreshing tea served up in the restaurants and cafes is . . . you guessed it — green!
The island was held by the rulers of the Ryukyu Kingdom (which stretched from the southwestern Yaeyama Islands to as far north as Amami-Oshima), between the 15th to the 19th century, but in the early part of the 16th century it was annexed by the daimyo (feudal leader) of the Satsuma domain — modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture.
Nowadays, Amami is one of Kagoshima's best-kept secrets — far enough from Kyushu to have its own identity, yet distant enough from Okinawa to have escaped the massive commercialization that blights that once-idyllic destination.
Even though Amami lies off the beaten track, Japan Airlines has direct flights each day from Tokyo and Osaka, and there are indirect flights to the island via Kagoshima or Naha.
If arriving by the daily ferry, which plies the island route between Kagoshima City and Naha in Okinawa, you'll dock in Naze, the island's "capital."
With its sprawling mass of unregulated concrete, neon signs that sparkle in a hundred hues in the warm night air, entrance roads lined with used car, truck and digger/crane lots (one even has a sign advertising "city-conscious cranes" for hire) and uncountable kilometers of wires strung between ugly concrete poles that look ready to throttle the sky in an instant, Naze is like any other Japanese town or city.
But turn the clock back 100 years or more and it's not too difficult to imagine that what is now the island's commercial center was very likely a picturesque fishing port sheltering under verdant hills and surrounded by coral reefs in the shallow offshore waters.
The island is about relaxation, and while there are thankfully no big resort developments to be found, there's plenty to do to pass the time of day: kayaking through the mangroves in the south, diving and snorkeling in the clear offshore waters, or hiking through humid forest to the top of Mount Yuwan, at 694 meters the island's highest point.
Next to the car park below Yuwan-dake is a sign commemorating the planting of a tree by the Duke of Edinburgh (husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II) during his visit to the island in 1984 to observe its unique wildlife.
Another place nature lovers should visit is Amami Natural Forest, where a host of endemic birds — the attractive purple and maroon Lidth's jay, the secretive and nocturnal Amami woodcock and the shy Ryukyu robin — hang out among the trees and bushes.
Set on the ridge above Kasari Bay, in the island's northeast, it is a peaceful place to wander, especially on an early spring morning when the birds are singing. It's also a good place to observe butterflies and a variety of insects, and in the ponds, the rare Amami fire-bellied newt can be found.
The wooden building housing the visitor center looks as if it is in a war zone: the local woodpeckers have gone to work on it and have left several trademark holes and drill marks on the outside.
From the observation towers you can look south across verdant hillsides, and near the forest entrance the view down into the bay is fantastic on a clear, sunny day.
Another very relaxing way to spend a few hours is to explore the island's forests; one of the attractions while wandering among the greenery is the magnificent, slightly prehistoric-looking tree ferns (hego), which can grow to a height of 10 meters or more.
There are several places where these ferns can be seen, and a couple of good spots to admire them are along Kinsakubaru, the forest road that is accessed on the west side of Naze, or the road that winds itself westward toward the village of Uken.
There are also a few endemic mammals scurrying about in the undergrowth: one is the Amami black rabbit, a pudgy, short-eared denizen of the island's southern forests, best seen at night, and also the forest-dwelling Ryukyu long-tailed giant rat (kenaga-nezumi), whose tail looks like it has been dipped into a pot of white paint.
But beware: the island is famous for the habu, a kind of pit viper that can grow to 2 meters or more in length. Mostly nocturnal, they do not pose much of a risk, but care needs to be taken just the same: Just don't poke your hands into any dark holes!
From the gourmet point of view, Amami-Oshima would not be a bad island to be marooned on.
As might be expected, seafood is the feature on many menus, and you are never too far from a port where, with a bit of bargaining, you might be able to persuade one of the fishermen to part with his catch as it is brought ashore.
Another local specialty is kehan — thin strips of chicken served over a bowl of hot rice with seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, pickled papaya and orange peel and a soup that is either poured over it or drunk at the same time.
A popular kehan restaurant is Minatoya ( 63-0023) in Kasari Town near the airport.
Delicious fruit — papaya, mango, passion fruit, tankan oranges and big juicy sumomo plums — are all available seasonally, and it's not a bad idea to take a shopping bag with you to carry some back home as on the roadsides many stalls sell fresh fruit and vegetables — especially bitter gourd (goya) — at bargain prices.
With cane fields covering a large volume of land, sugar-based products are also popular as take-home gifts: There's black cane-sugar candy, cane-sugar sponge cakes and a dozen different kinds of cookies on sale at island gift shops.
One of my favorites is the rabbit-shaped kokuto sabure cookie: sweet and delicious, but without even the faintest taste of the endemic black bunny!
Amami information: Night safaris: Local naturalist Mikio Takashi organizes night safaris to search for the island's endemic wildlife. Contact him at Amami Nature Center (0997) 57-7592. Tours last just over two hours and cost ¥5,000 per person in a group and ¥9,000 for one person. In Japanese only. Accommodation: Naze City has several tourist hotels, and there are minshuku and ryokan dotted about. For a more upscale resort hotel with marine sports check Basyayama, with its own white-sand beach, in Kasari Town, just west of the airport (www.synapse.ne.jp/basyayama — in Japanese). Tel: (0997) 63-1178. Tourist information: Maps and tourist information can be obtained from the information desk at the airport, and in Naze the Amami-Oshima Tourist Association can be reached on (0997) 53-3240 (in Japanese). English-language brochures are available. Ferries: Two companies sail from Kagoshima: Maru-A Line ( 26-4141) and Marix Line ( 25-1551). Both leave late in the evening and arrive at Naze port early the following morning. For more info check japan-guide.com