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

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Amami, Japan (CNN) — Forget what you thought you knew about Japan: the frantic neon cities, speeding bullet trains, silent temples, robot restaurants and gentle geisha.
There's another side to this island nation where life moves at a slower pace, white sand beaches are lapped by waters filled with colorful fish and locally grown produce has created a distinct culinary scene.
This is Amami. Centered around Oshima ("Big Island"), this subtropical archipelago is part of Japan's Kagoshima prefecture. It's often referred to as a living fossil, with its unique biodiversity earning it UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2021.
To get there it's a quick flight south from Tokyo to Kagoshima, then an adventurous 30-minute ride in a propeller plane. These efforts are rewarded with views out across the luminous coral-strewn waters of the Amami archipelago, hikes in the UNESCO-listed rainforest, visits to yet smaller islands scattered around the coast and days spent dipping toes in the ocean.

Crossing the boundary of the gods

Amami Oshima is one of eight islands in the Amami archipelago -- just some of the numerous islands that spot the 1,200-kilometer stretch of sea between mainland Japan and Taiwan. Life here is governed by the ocean; its villages are built facing the water on the backdrop of steep mountain slopes.
Much like its native wildlife, the archipelago's culture has been shaped by its isolated location. Amami's remote position far from the mainland has helped preserve the island's endemic identity. Today, two dialects of the Amami language are still spoken in Amami Oshima. Even its myths are endemic.
Tradition holds that a land of paradise and bountiful harvest called Neriyakanaya is to be found over the seas. The iridescent coral reefs that ring the archipelago are mere boundaries marking out the realm of humans from the realm of the gods beyond.
Not only gods lay beyond the rings of coral, but traders, too.
The beautiful rugged coastline of Amami Oshima.
The beautiful rugged coastline of Amami Oshima.
Ippei Naoi/Moment RF/Getty Images
For centuries, the Amami archipelago was integral to trade in the region. Sandwiched between the powerful samurai-run Satsuma domain in Kagoshima and the Ryukyu kingdom further south in Okinawa, it was a centerpoint for trade and travel between China, Taiwan and Japan.
Traders would travel south in search of goods on the Kuroshio Current, stopping off at Amami on the way, thereby creating a cultural crossroads that enhanced the richness of the Amami culture.
Life on the island remains deeply rooted in the connection between the land, the sea and the moon. To this day, poor weather cuts locals off from food and important deliveries from the mainland. The multitude of festivals that take place throughout the year are scheduled according to the lunar cycle.
New Year festivities are marked by the sacrificial slaughter of a pig; in the summer, Arahobana celebrates the first harvest; many more festivals focus on food, from the harvest of sweet potatoes to black sugar production. The worship and guidance of Noro, divine beings in the form of earthly priestesses, is still observed and respected across the islands.
This legacy of Ryukyu, not Japanese, is tangible. Walking around any one of Amami's villages reveals scant Shinto shrines and barely a breath of Buddhism. In their place are sacred trees, sumo grounds and ashage -- ceremonial platforms to welcome native deities who travel down from the mountains, or from beyond the seas.
A man tries to cut the rope during the "Tsunakiri" ritual as part of Amami Oshima's Good Harvest Festival.
A man tries to cut the rope during the "Tsunakiri" ritual as part of Amami Oshima's Good Harvest Festival.
The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images
The island of Kakeromajima, a five-minute boat ride southeast of Amami Oshima across the Oshima Straight, harbors a pocket of traditional island life. The slice of land offers solace and seclusion from modern conveniences even as basic as grocery stores; with this comes an understanding just how remote these islands would have been before the age of high-speed travel.
Steep tropical roads overgrown with vegetation lead to cloud-coated peaks and views of the big island floating in the delicious blue translucency of the sea: a shade so specific that it is described locally as "Kakeroma Blue."
Down below in the compact coastal village of Kanyu, the local school has closed down for lack of students. Outside of festivals its open-air wooden ashage, still at the heart of village life, is the venue for local men lulled by the heat to an afternoon nap. Further along the coast in sleepy Saneku village, a shack-like kakigori (shaved ice) shop run by a welcoming woman gives the chance to sit for a while with a refreshing fruity snack and gaze out over the ocean as people have done here for centuries.

An incubator for wildlife

Amami Oshima is dominated by the 694-meter-tall Yuwandake. This nationally protected peak, praised by UNESCO for its "high biodiversity value," is home to a great deal of endemic species, most with no relatives anywhere else in the world and many considered threatened.
Although, quite rightly, it's not easy to get into the thick depths of Amami's natural environs, a small, controlled portion of the island's forests has been opened up to visitors, mitigating the impending impact of tourism.
The subtropical broadleaf rainforest of Kinsakubaru is one accessible glimpse into life under the sweltering canopy. Strict rules for visitors apply: No more than 10 vehicles may enter the area at one time.
Kakeroma island is a five-minute boat ride from Amami Oshima.
Kakeroma island is a five-minute boat ride from Amami Oshima.
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Only certified "Eco Tour Guides" (some English-speaking) can take groups into this old-growth forest. These eagle-eyed guides can spot the camouflaged wildlife that hides along the forest route, such as the Okinawa tree lizard, the Amami woodcock and the Amami jay, which only lives on the islands of Amami Oshima and Tokunoshima.
But the island is so rich in nature that it doesn't take going deep into the forest to spot the rare wildlife. One clever initiative has seen an old mountain road -- made redundant due to the construction of a tunnel -- transformed into a night-time nature trail. The route can be driven only by vehicles registered for a specific time slot to keep numbers low.
Along this dark, winding mountain pass, the chance to spot the elusive Amami black rabbit is the main draw. The endemic animal has become something of an island mascot following a successful campaign to increase numbers.
Stopping off along the route and leaving the air-conditioned car, the thick humidity of the mountain air is all encompassing. A festival of rare frogs (one of which has won the title of "most beautiful frog in Japan"), owls and snakes slink and skitter in the night while the stars prick the night sky above.
An abundance of life also lives in the waters surrounding the archipelago. Tropical fish can be spotted swimming just off the coast; beaches provide nesting grounds for sea turtles; its channels are a migration route for humpback and North Pacific right whales. One native resident discovered in 2014, the hoshizora-fugu (white-spotted pufferfish), creates beautiful circular patterns in the sand to attract a mate.
Aside from the sapphire seas, Mangrove Park offers the chance to explore a different side of Amami's marine world. This protected mangrove forest, the second-largest in the country, can be explored by kayak; visitors paddle their way through the soft, silty water under boughs of old mangrove trees while crabs hastily escape up tree trunks.

Food from the land

Amami's combination of plentiful nature, fertile soil and history of trade has created a bounty of culinary creativity. From orange groves halfway up a mountain to vegetable patches in the middle of town, there's no shortage of places to sample the island's harvests.
Its most celebrated and ubiquitous dish is keihan (chicken rice): soup-infused rice topped with shredded chicken, thin strips of egg and shiitake mushrooms.
Classic Japanese meals with a local twist can be sampled at small roadside eateries. Amami Yakuzen Tsumugi-an is one; their memorable soba set lunch (¥1,500, or about $10) is a hunger-inducing selection of quality fresh ingredients including the island's melt-in-the-mouth black pork cartilage.
The result is delicious enough to entice diners back for a second trip -- a dessert of home-made sorbet topped with local fruit jams seals the deal.
Keihan (chicken rice) is a local specialty.
Keihan (chicken rice) is a local specialty.
Eric's library/Adobe Stock
Even over on the far-flung corner of Kakeromajima, organic dining hides along a dusty village path.
Tucked inside an old house is the undeniably and unknowingly chic Marsa, named after the local word for "delicious."
The chatty owner -- a non-native islander who came here seeking a healthier life for her family -- creates lunches of breads and salads from scratch in her tiny kitchen. Diners sit on shabby chairs and gaze out at the orchard growing fruit for the jams.
Local establishments like this prove that, rather than being a forgotten backwater, Amami is a community with an identity so strong that it has enticed many from other parts of the country to relocate.
It may only have been recently UNESCO certified, but life and nature has been ticking along in the Amami archipelago for endless generations.
It is the antidote to over-trafficked, over-touristed and over-hyped must-see destinations. Here is a subtropical countryside where time and distance slip away among the chirp of the ever-present cicadas and the heavy sleepiness of the all-permeating island heat.