This past summer I decided to take a ride down to to Amami-Oshima, which is an island located 2 hours south of Tokyo by plane. It was a pretty amazing trip!
While most foreigners coming to Japan may be familiar with the island of Okinawa as one of the more popular vacation spots that many Japanese shuffle off to throughout the year, not so many people have heard of Amami-Oshima, which is a nice & quiet little place located right next to it. Amami Oshima is one of the Satsunan Islands, and is the largest island within the Amami archipelago between Kyūshū and Okinawa.
Climate & Economy:
Climate-wise and geographically speaking, Amami Oshima and Okinawa both have a lot in common. They are both small islands with not a lot of industry. The climate is temperate and the island mostly consists of undeveloped mountain and forest areas, meaning that it is green year-round. Compared to other islands located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, the main Japanese island Honshu included, Amami has had surprisingly fewer earthquakes over the past few decades until recently ( a 4.7 hit there a few months ago, but it was a highly rare occurrence).
However, the island does routinely get hammered during the Japanese rainy and typhoon seasons, so you`ll probably want to avoid any extended trips there during the months of August & September just to avoid getting stranded with no flights able to leave the island.
Economy-wise, Amami depends heavily on tourism and agriculture (such as sugar cane, rice, and sweet potatoes), commercial fishing, and the distillation of shōchū (Japanese potato wine). The island is also popular for traditional crafts include the production of high-quality hand-crafted silk. There are a good variety of tropical fruits and vegetables that can be grown on this island as well, such a passion fruit, mangoes, and papayas. But it`s Amami`s brown sugar products and snakeskin exports that are the most popular with Japanese and foreign visitors to this place.
Amami Oshima is fairly convenient to travel to from Tokyo (Narita Airport Terminal #3 – what? I didn`t even know it existed!), Osaka, Naha, Fukuoka and Kagoshima via the Amami Airport. You can also easily get there from Tokyo by 8-hour ferry via port of Naze, which is a major regional shipping and ferry hub. Upon reaching the island, you can pretty much get anywhere you need to via a cheap taxi ride, buy driving or by cycling. Walking is also a good & healthy option, although I wouldn`t really recommend it at night unless you know the area and exactly where you are going. The streets of Amami are very dark at night because of a lack of street lamps or proper lighting in a lot of areas. The island is also overrun by a few creepy-crawlies that you would probably rather avoid if possible (we`ll talk about them later).
Why you should visit!
From a tourism perspective, the Amami island does not attract the same massive amount of attention as Okinawa and is far less frequented by both Japanese and foreign travelers for some reason. Many visitors to Japan have never even heard of it. This makes Amami a perfect spot for a quick and quiet getaway most of the year that is generally far less expensive than traveling to Okinawa or Hawaii! Airfare and hotels are cheaper, due to less demand, and the place has far less of a “crowded tourist spot” feel to it. The locals are very nice, laid-back and friendly, offering more of a small community “village” style atmosphere to the place than most tourist spots in Japan.
Amami also has a lot of interesting sites and activities to offer for those adventure seekers and people who are traveling with family members!
Main Hot Spots – The Beaches!
Amami island has some of the cleanest and whitest beaches in Japan! While most of us living in Tokyo are used to the black ash beaches of Enoshima, Chiba and other areas, Amami Oshima offers nothing less than perfectly white sands and sparkling blue seas as far as the eye can see! Also, the beaches are far less crowded than other places. Don`t believe me? Check out the photos below and just from there!
Accommodations – The Hotels
While Amami does have some very good 4 & 5-star resort hotels, you won`t necessarily need to select one of those to enjoy your stay. The hotel that I stayed in was quite reasonable considering that it was located literally within a 2-minute walk to the nearest beach and a 10-minute taxi ride to the largest one. Here are some photos from the hotel that I stayed in! Nice view huh?
Activities – Paddle Boat Rides, Mangrove Canoeing Trips, and Playing with Poisonous Snakes!
Since it`s an island, you can pretty much guess that most of the tourist activities would be focused on beach activities such as paddle boat rides, surfing, snorkeling, diving, and standard beach-bum lifestyle. That`s exactly what we want!
There`s nothing better than just doing absolutely nothing while laying around on warm, white sands and listening to ocean waves lazily lapping at the beach.
But Amami does have a lot more to offer!
Amami is also popular for it`s Mangrove Parks and cultural museums. One of the main attractions for the island is a canoeing trip through the Mangrove Parks during high tide when then water from the sea is high enough for boats to pass. During low tide, you can actually walk through them in some places! Canoeing through these parks give you access to some of the most beautiful scenery on the island. Just don`t paddle too far or you will (literally) find yourself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!
The museums around the island offer a good and historical view of the Amami islands in general. They aren`t very big, but they offer a nice spot for family visits. Besides, if you`ve always wanted a pet mongoose but couldn`t get one due to international import restrictions, then at least you can get a glimpse of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi`s long lost cousin here.
And speaking of pets…
Remember how I mentioned earlier that walking around on the dark streets at night probably wouldn`t be the best idea in the world? That`s because 70% of the island is populated with these guys.
Things to watch out for:
These are Japanese habu and mamushi snakes. And yes, they are highly venomous! Once bite from these guys, and you’ll need to get to a doctor quickly. But if you stick to the usual tourist locations, you`ll probably never see one.
Other than typhoons during the late summer season, one of the only other real threat you may need to watch out for during the warmer seasons are habu. These snakes are native to the Ryukyu Islands and there are a lot of them. Their venom is mostly hemotoxic, meaning that it is designed to act on the cardiovascular system (heart) while destroying (dissolving) muscle tissue, making it easier for the snake to not only easily kill it`s unfortunate prey, but also digest it after eating. These guys love dark and shady places, so they usually move around at night. They can grow up to 8 feet long.
But these snakes are generally lazy and human`s aren`t usually on their snack menu. They try to avoid humans as much as possible so the only ones that I saw during my 4 days on the island were the ones that I paid to see. There are relatively few snake bites per year considering the fact that there are currently more snakes than humans inhabiting the island. But not to worry, there are ample medical facilities nearby and bites from these guys are rarely fatal or disabling if proper medical attention is given in a decent amount of time.
They also tend to avoid the beaches and the seaside areas (our favorite places to hang out) for the most part during the daytime from what I`ve heard due to lack of cover to duck under, so unless you`re trekking through the woods, your chances of running into these guys are pretty slim.
Keep in mind, that people on Amami and in Okinawa have been living in harmony (mostly) with these snakes for a very long time. Mongooses were imported to the island to deal with the snake population back the 1700`s but that didn`t work out too well in the end. So the factions on both sides just gave up and decided to respect each other`s territory. Snakes try to ignore the humans and humans try to avoid the snakes. It kinda works out well.
Incidentally, people in Amami and Okinawa tend to have one of the longest recorded average lifespans of any recorded population. This is rumored to be due to the fact that they have a very strange habit of catching these poor snakes in mass quantities (especially at night when the hunting is good) and dumping them, body, fangs, tail, and all into a jar of Japanese sake for afternoon drinking later.
This popular drink and export is called “habu sake“, and is rumored to have miraculous health benefits that contribute to the longevity of the island population. The residents also use the snakeskin in a lot of traditional handmade crafts.
I don`t really know who to feel sorry for at this point, the humans or the snakes!
I know, some of you are thinking, “But what about shopping? I want to buy some good, expensive stuff!”
My answer to that is; “Do that in Tokyo or at the airport when you return!” 🙂
Amami isn`t really a place for brand name stores or shopping. Of course you`ll find plenty to purchase in some of the main city areas, which are easily accessible by bus or taxi, but Amami is basically a resort area where they focus more on rest & relaxation rather than selling expensive, brand named goods. Besides, some of the local handmade crafts are very high quality and make great souvenirs or presents for those of you who are looking to purchase something both memorable and worthwhile.
Interesting Cultural Fact: Real snakeskin wallets and purses are very popular throughout Asian cultures for bringing health, money, and wealth! A snakeskin wallet is said to bring the buyer good fortune and lots of money, so Amami is the perfect place to buy one for much cheaper than you might get it anywhere else. Also, you can bet that the snakeskin will be 100% authentic!
The food in Amami isn`t really anything too special in terms of exotic Asian cuisine. You have most of the foods that you would find on the main Japanese island of Honshu with a large selection of fresh sea foods. But you have to admit that everything tasted much better when there`s a beach and fresh ocean air nearby! A lot of the hotels offer beachside barbecues, and western buffet-style breakfasts, lunches or dinners.
But when you`re out on the town, expect most of the same food that you would find in Tokyo. However, one of the exceptions to this rule would be Amami-style “keihan“.
Keihan is basically a type of Japanese okayu (rice porridge), served warm with shredded chicken meat and various types of vegetables. Boiling chicken broth is then poured on top of everything and it tastes really good! Goes great with beer too.
As far as food was concerned, keihan was the most unique experience that I had while on the island.
At the end of the work day, if you`re looking for a good, low-key vacation spot to visit in Tokyo this year, Amami is definitely a place you`ll want to check out! It has all of the perks of a trip to Okinawa, for half of the price and with less of a tourist crowd. Can you think of a better place to relax? 🙂