Mother island: Amami Oshima

Mother island: Amami Oshima
Mother island: Amami Oshima

originally published July 1, 2022

In February I visited Amami Island, Tokunoshima’s nearest neighbor to the north. Imagine the country mouse arriving at his city cousin’s estate: compared with my stomping ground, the sprawl of this island verges on metropolis.

An archipelago in microcosm, Amami did not lend itself to pedestrian traffic. I secured a room at a highly rated bed and breakfast near the ferry port, where the beaming owners suffered nothing so trivial as a language barrier to impede their welcome.

Their breakfast more than merited the rave reviews on the booking website. In the charming style of tiny plates, the lady of the house plied me with enough delicacies to feed three — including a bowl of seaweed she and her husband had harvested themselves.

Not only did they banish the spectre of hunger that had dogged my Kyoto holiday, my hosts blessed my itinerary with recommendations, reservations, even transportation! The husband drove me to the bus stop for my first excursion: kayaking among the mangroves.

view from the kayak boathouse

The next day, they booked an e-bike tour for me — with another guest (on holiday from her marine science studies at university) for company. Though I thought to turn my nose up at electrically-assisted cycling, I realized batteries preserve all of the fun of biking with little of the sweat. We zipped up steep slopes as if pedaling across flatlands, skirting the island’s ancient forest borders. The guides stopped us frequently to point out the local flora and fauna. Highlights ranged from the giant leaves immortalized in Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro as a woodland umbrella, to the islands’ purple sakura blossoms (in season a solid two months ahead of Tokyo’s paler variety).

Invigorated by our expedition, I next embarked in quest of sashimi. The previous night had tutored me in the hard school of social distancing requirements in a modestly apportioned tourist destination — suffice to say, reduced seating and advanced booking permitted no latecomers.

I had consoled myself with a hot meal at an izakaya (something like a Japanese pub), where the friendly staff comforted me in my culinary bereavement. The dish of pork on hot rice, with a raw egg cracked on top, did its bit too.

At lunchtime I seized on a generous special, which heaped my plate high with wedges of the classic raw tuna. Still not satiated, I vowed to relaunch my assault that evening.

At first Saturday dinner promised no better prospects than the previous night: two restaurants turned me away, pleading full tables for the night. In desperation, I surrendered myself to the auspices of Google Maps. Stars, sushi, some indecipherable kanji — it was enough to timidly poke my head in through the curtained doors. My feeble Japanese phrases met an encouraging reply. Soon I was seated on a stool, marveling as the traditionally attired chef and his partner operated a pocket-sized restaurant with elegance and grace.

They served me simply the most exquisite sashimi I have ever encountered, also humoring my eccentric request for a sample of basashi (馬刺し, horse meat). When I reluctantly rose to depart, the owner bid me farewell with the gift of handwarmers — a token of hospitality to foreigners that put me in mind of Biblical proportions.

The unfortunate timing of the ferry necessitated my departure at o’dark thirty the next morning. Unfazed, my hostess arose an hour still earlier to pack me a bento brunch. Clutching my plastics and packages, I bowed myself out the door, wishing fervently I knew a more vigorous phrase in Japanese than the standard “thank you… thank you…”

Settling into the somnolence of the ferry’s rocking stride, I mused on the incongruity of life in the remote Pacific. Supplied by twice-daily ferries, the people resign themselves to food shortages when typhoons shut down shipping lanes. The islands’ fragility conjures for me the tale of Atlantis: all the trappings of modern life perch on the rocks as if poised for a vortex of wind and wave to sweep them away.

Perhaps it reminds us that all life is like that — on the brink, precious in its brevity.

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