Amami, Japan (CNN) — Forget what you thought you knew about Japan: bustling neon cities, speeding bullet trains, silent temples, robot restaurants and gentle geishas.
This island nation has a different side, where life moves at a slower pace, white sandy beaches are lapped by waters teeming with colorful fish, and locally grown produce has created a distinctive culinary scene.
To get there, it’s a short flight south from Tokyo to Kagoshima, then an adventurous 30-minute prop plane ride. Those efforts are rewarded with views over the luminous coral waters of the Amami Archipelago, hikes in UNESCO-listed rainforest, visits to even smaller islands dotted along the coast, and days of dipping your toes in the ocean.
Crossing the limits of the gods
Amami Oshima is one of eight islands in the Amami Archipelago – just a few of the many islands that dot the 1,200-kilometer stretch of sea between mainland Japan and Taiwan. Life here is ruled by the ocean; Its villages are built against the backdrop of steep mountain slopes facing the water.
Much like the local wildlife, the culture of the archipelago has been shaped by its isolated location. Amami’s remote location far from the mainland has helped preserve the island’s endemic identity. Two dialects of the Amami language are still spoken in Amami Oshima today. Even its myths are endemic.
Tradition has it that a land of paradise and bountiful harvest called Neriyakanaya is found over the seas. The dazzling coral reefs that surround the archipelago are but boundaries separating the realm of men from the realm of the gods beyond.
Not only gods lurk behind the coral rings, but also traders.
The beautiful rugged coastline of Amami Oshima.
Ippei Naoi/Moment RF/Getty Images
For centuries, the Amami Archipelago has been an integral part of trade in the region. Nestled between the powerful samurai-led Satsuma domain in Kagoshima and the Ryukyu kingdom further south in Okinawa, it was a center for trade and travel between China, Taiwan and Japan.
Traders traveled south on the Kuroshio River in search of goods, stopping in Amami along the way, creating a cultural crossroads that enhanced the richness of Amami culture.
Life on the island remains deeply rooted in the connection between land, sea and moon. To this day, inclement weather cuts locals off from food and essential supplies from the mainland. The numerous festivals that take place throughout the year are planned according to the lunar cycle.
The New Year celebrations are marked by the sacrificial slaughter of a pig; in summer Arahobana celebrates the first harvest; Many other festivals focus on food, from harvesting the 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 throughout the islands.
This legacy of Ryukyu, not Japanese, is palpable. Walking through any of Amami’s villages, there are hardly any Shinto shrines and hardly a hint of Buddhism. In their place are sacred trees, sumo grounds and ashage – ceremonial platforms to welcome native deities descending from the mountains or from across the seas.
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
Kakeromajima Island, a five-minute boat ride southeast of Amami Oshima across the Oshima Straight, is home to a slice of traditional island life. The piece of land offers solace and seclusion from modern conveniences, even as basic as grocery stores; With that comes an understanding of how remote these islands would have been before the age of high-speed travel.
Steep tropical roads covered with vegetation lead to cloud-capped peaks and vistas of the large island awash in the sea’s delicious blue translucency: a hue so specific it’s nicknamed “Kakeroma Blue” by locals becomes.
Down in the compact coastal village of Kanyu, the local school has closed for lack of students. Outside of festivals, the open-air wood ash, which is still the heart of village life, is the place for local men to be lulled by the heat for an afternoon nap. Further along the coast in the sleepy village of Saneku, a hut-like kakigori (shaved ice) shop run by a welcoming woman offers a chance to sit for a while with a refreshing fruity snack and gaze out at the ocean as the people do have been doing here for centuries.
A wildlife incubator
Amami Oshima is dominated by the 694 meter high Yuwandake. This nationally protected peak, praised by UNESCO for its “high biodiversity value,” is home to many endemic species, most of which are not related anywhere else in the world, and many are listed as threatened.
While it’s rightfully difficult to venture into the dense depths of Amami’s natural environment, a small, controlled portion of the island’s forests have been opened to visitors to mitigate the threatening effects of tourism.
The subtropical deciduous rainforest of Kinsakubaru is an accessible glimpse into life beneath the sultry canopy. Strict rules apply to visitors: no more than 10 vehicles may drive on the site at the same time.
Kakeroma Island is a five-minute boat ride from Amami Oshima.
Only certified “Eco Tour Guides” (some English speaking) can lead groups into this ancient forest. These eagle-eyed guides can spot the camouflaged wildlife hiding along the forest route, such as the Okinawa tree lizard, the Amami woodcock, and the Amami jay, which lives only on the islands of Amami Oshima and Tokunoshima.
But the island is so rich in nature that you don’t have to go deep into the forest to spot the rare wildlife. A clever initiative has resulted in an old mountain road that has been closed by the construction of a tunnel being turned into a nocturnal nature trail. The route can only be used by vehicles that are authorized for a specific time slot in order to keep numbers low.
Along this dark, winding mountain pass, the main attraction is the chance to see the elusive black Amami rabbit. The endemic animal has become something of an island mascot after a successful campaign to increase numbers.
When you stop along the way and step out of the air-conditioned car, the thick humidity of the mountain air is ever-present. A festival of rare frogs (one of which won the title of Japan’s most beautiful frog), owls and snakes slink and scurry into the night as the stars pierce the night sky overhead.
There is also a lot of life in the waters around the archipelago. Tropical fish can be spotted swimming just offshore; Beaches provide nesting sites for sea turtles; Its channels are a migratory route for humpback and North Pacific right whales. A native species discovered in 2014, the Hoshizora-fugu (white-spotted pufferfish), forms beautiful circular patterns in the sand to attract a mate.
Aside from the sapphire blue seas, Mangrove Park offers an opportunity 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 through the soft, muddy waters beneath branches of mature mangrove trees while crabs hastily fly up the logs.
Amami’s combination of lush nature, fertile soil and history of trade has created a wealth of culinary creativity. From orange groves halfway up a mountain to vegetable patches in the heart of the city, there’s no shortage of places to sample the island’s harvests.
The most famous and ubiquitous dish is keihan (chicken rice): rice with soup topped with shredded chicken, thin strips of egg and shiitake mushrooms.
Classic Japanese dishes with a local twist can be sampled at small roadside restaurants. Amami Yakuzen Tsumugi-an is one; Her memorable soba lunch (1,500 yen or about $10) is a hungry array of quality fresh ingredients, including the island’s melt-in-the-mouth black pork cartilage.
The result is delicious enough to lure guests back for a second trip – a dessert of homemade sorbet with local fruit jams seals the deal.
Keihan (chicken rice) is a local specialty.
Eric’s Library/Adobe Stock
Even over in the remote corner of Kakeromajima, organic restaurants are tucked away along a dusty village lane.
Tucked away in an old house is the undeniably and unconsciously chic Marsa, named after the local word for ‘delicious’.
The talkative owner — a non-native islander who came here to lead a healthier life for her family — creates lunch breads and salads from scratch in her tiny kitchen. Guests sit on shabby chairs and look out over the orchard, which grows fruit for the jams.
Local facilities like this prove that Amami is not a forgotten province, but a community with such a strong identity that it tempts many from other parts of the country to relocate.
It may only have been recently certified by UNESCO, but life and nature have been ticking in the Amami Archipelago for endless generations.
It’s the antidote to overcrowded, overtoured and overrated must-see destinations. Here is a subtropical landscape where time and distance elapse between the chirping of the ever-present cicadas and the heavy drowsiness of the all-pervasive island heat.