Imo-re to the Amamis: A turbulent stay in Amami-Oshima

This summer is different from most. International travel has not bounced back yet and everyone is understandably nervous about how to take all precautions in order to travel safely. This is the reason why this time we delayed our summer vacation to the Japanese tropics (the only choice since foreign residents were allowed to freely re-enter Japan only recently) until September. Little did we know that covid-19 would be the last of our problems.

Sunset at Ohama Coast (大浜)

[The pictures in this post and more are available here ]

Since I have visited Okinawa before, another choice for a (sub)tropical island in the Japanese archipelago is Amami Oshima (奄美大島). Being the biggest island of the Amami island complex, it is paradise on earth with turquoise waters, pines and tropical fruits as well as indigenous species that cannot be found elsewhere. It is mainly promoted as a place to connect with nature and relax next to the beach.

A cloudy day at Uchidahara beach (打田原ビーチ)

Upon arriving, I was expecting the island to be emptier than usual due to Covid-19 and typhoon No. 9 Maysak that had left the island merely hour before I landed. However, I didn’t expect it to be THAT empty.

Haneda’s flight schedule disrupted by typhoon Maysak

Basically, our group of two people were usually the only ones visiting the beach at each given moment. And since the beaches are pure and untouched, without beach bars or shops next to the seashore, the emptiness felt even more vast.

View from the observatory on Yuidake (油井岳展望台)

We were planning to stay for 4 nights at Setouchi town at the southern side of the island, located conveniently across the smaller island Kakeromajima. The two islands form a small strait at that point, that used to be crucial for commercial and military purposes in the previous decades. The southest tip of Oshima is known for the beautiful landscape of Honohoshi coast (ホノホシ海岸).

The entrance to Honohoshi coast

Apparently, it is a famous photo spot due to the landscape looking like a heart and a hole in the rock on the left side of the beach. I am still struggling to understand the similarity of this landscape to a heart, but it remains beautiful nonetheless.

The Honohoshi coast

Although Honohoshi coast has beautifully round cobbles, it is not so fit for leisure swimming. Instead, if you turn 1-2km back and turn to the right, you quickly reach the more casual Yadori beach (やどり浜). A hotel with amazing full height windows with ocean vistas occupies one end of the beach, but the rest is open to everyone.

Morning view at Yadori beach (やどり浜)

This beach is popular during the afternoon side, due to the tide conveniently transporting the surfers closer to the reef. Big waves are forming at the rocky left side of the beach, as the sun sets on the right side.

Sunset on Yadori beach (やどり浜)
The area for evening surfing at Yadori beach (やどり浜)

The island is full of lush forests, covering every corner of it. There are only a few forest paths due the looming danger of the poisonous habu snake. The locals use snakeskin to make musical instruments and charms, while making cosmetics with snake oil as base (cruelty-free practices are not so widespread yet). A key area at the middle of the island is the mangrove, a half-submerging forest of Adan trees. A couple of different companies offer canoe rentals to go around. Depending on the tide height at the time of the visit, the landscape appears different. When the tide is low (as when I visited), there are a lot of crabs visible coming out of their nests.

Canoe along the mangrove forest

We used a company called マングローブ茶屋 (mangrove chaya) as we had some discount coupons for them. A staff member leads you closer to the sea while explaining details about the forest and later leaves you a 1-2 hour window as free time to enjoy until your heart is content. On the way back, don’t forget to grab some dragonfruit frozen yogurt to enjoy on the balcony overlooking the mangrove.

Top view of the mangrove

On the next day we went around the shrines, in order to get some shrine stamps (see here) to commemorate our stay on the island. Unfortunately, the only shrine that offers a stamp is the Takachiho shrine close to Naze city.

A sister shrine of Naze’s Takachiho shrine in Setouchi called Koniyatakachiho Shrine

The most famous beach around that area is Ohama (大浜), poised for an ideal sunset photo spot. These oceanic waves at this specific beach costed us a cellphone and a wallet, so do not make the mistake of trusting that you left your stuff far enough from the water. Enough is never enough. A couple of beaches at the north-eastern side of the island, including Ohama, serve as a sanctuary for sea turtles giving birth and are marked accordingly.

Afternoon view at Ohama beach

If you venture further towards the northern tip of the island, you pass close to the famed Heart Rock and the Soreiyu farm (それーいゆファーム). Although the heart rock is visible during low tide, I mistook its position and didn’t see it. Instead, we enjoyed fresh yogurt float, honey and other treats from the farm.

Going further up following a long peninsula, there are a couple of calm beaches to enjoy. The first one is Uchidahara beach (打田原ビーチ) and then Sakihara beach follows. These beaches combine white sand with black volcanic rocks. Low greenery and blue-green water complete the contrasting landscape. In the good days, these beaches are full of opportunities for water sports and diving. A salt factory using the traditional technique for producing salt offers workshops nearby.

Morning in Uchidahara beach

Then, heading back south, there is one more beach that needs mentioning. That is Katoku, an untouched beach located next to a river mouth. Due to the authorities blocking the river flow, which was transferring sand to the other end of the beach, the entire beach disappeared a couple years back. In order to solve the problem they caused themselves, the authorities started a plan to support the beach with cement blocks instead of letting the river flow. The locals don’t like this approach either and are currently suing Kagoshima prefecture. You can read more in their page. Nearby, there is a big waterfall accessible only by water, worth visiting if you have a canoe.

Katoku also has a small community museum hosting the works of an artist that used to live in the village. It also has a cemetery facing the ocean. Among the tombs, the one of Nabe Kana is assumed to belong to the person a famous traditional song of the island refers to.

Photo exhibition centered around the village people of Katoku
The cemetery of Katoku facing the ocean

Katoku is a small village indeed, but there is another small village known for preserving the culture of the island; Kuninao or Yamato village. Located inside a gulf, offering refuge to sea turtles and sumo/workshop events to touritsts, it is a nice place to immerse oneself to the life on the island.

Overhead view of Kuninao village from the observatory above it

Last but not least is the most beautiful beach on the island, Domori beach (土盛りビーチ). These crystal clear waters are the place to go when trying to investigate the coral reef. Be sure to bring a mask with you.

The coral reed in Domori beach
Seaside flora

So, why did I say that Covid-19 was the last of our concerns in the beginning? Well, foremost because the island was empty. No people, means it is easier to keep social distance, right? Well, the one typhoon we met on our way to the island was accompanied by another, greater typhoon coming after him. Typhoon No. 10 or Haishen caused the sea to be turbulent, our flight to be cancelled twice and most importantly widespread damage in south Japan.

Provisions for a two-day lockdown induced due to typhoon Haishen

With evacuation advisories in effect, fearing viral infections in enclosed spaces, the locals opted out of evacuating to the city halls and chose to head to sturdy hotels. With a canceled flight and a fully booked accommodation, I tried to book another one and the response shocked me, “Our building will probably fall, so cancel your reservation and don’t come here”. We were prepared to head to the town hall, but luckily a cancellation allowed us to remain in our original hotel. Regardless of the size of the typhoon, most damages were repaired quickly on the next day. You could see the crews working passionately and checking swiftly every corner of the island.

In the end we managed to leave the island 3 days later, which allowed us to enjoy the clear atmosphere after the typhoon and the beaches a bit longer. As per my suggestion for local cuisine, that would be the Keihan gohan (rice with chicken broth), honey-sesame bars, andagi doughnuts, goat yoghurt, fresh tropical fruits and fresh fish. The island is also popular for its local produce of sochu distilled from brown sugar called Kokuto, ranging from 25 to 40 alcoholic degrees. Kokuto sochu is sometimes promoted as “Amami’s alternative to rum” due to its sugar base. My favorite brands were jogo (じょうご) and ryugu (龍宮) . Kokuto factories on the island offer free tours in their facilities although they are put on hold at the moment.

The islands also boast their own dialects, distinct even among the islands belonging to the complex. So in true Amami fashion I thank you for reading this article with a “arigassamaryo-ta” and wish you will be able to listen to the warm welcoming “imo-re” when arriving on the island, soon.

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