Shochu, Snakes, and Shamisen
Text and photos by Janet
When the south
islands of Japan are mentioned, it is often the exotic splendors of Okinawa or, more
recently, the ecological treasures of Yakushima. Yet sandwiched between the two are a
string of subtropical islands off the beaten track that offer a refreshing glimpse into a
traditional Japan that often feels more like a foreign country than a far-flung province.
The islands of Tokunoshima and Amamioshima, officially part of Kagoshima Prefecture,
retain the lively Satsuma spirit of their samurai ancestors. The people are quick with a
smile and generous in their hospitality, insisting on introducing you to the local shochu,
a wine made from rice and sugar cane, and serenading you with music on the sanshin, a
small, snakeskin shamisen. Musical styles vary from minyo - lilting folk melodies
about sugar harvesting or young lovers eloping - to the frenzied improvisational form
known as rokucho, which one islander likened to jazz. The shamisen is popular here among
young and old alike, and when it inevitably emerges at a bar or party, everyone partakes
in the song and dance. This is a place where tradition' roots run deep.
As soon as one lands on the lone airstrip at the water's edge and descends from the
forty-minute flight from Kagoshima, one is transported to another time and place. Driving
around the hills along the sea's edge, one passes a tableau of sugar fields and papaya
groves, fruit sellers and farmers drying their peanut harvest by the side of the road.
Sirens ring out at noon and five o'clock, reminding you that things here run on
The island is full of activities for visitors. Diving is primarily in the north, and both
coasts have fishing and beachside camping. A local pastime are bullfights. Unlike their
European counterparts, there is no matador. Two bulls are released into the ring and fight
each other with referees chasing along after them.
One of the larger cities on the island (population 14,000) is Kametsu. On the streets, one
can buy fresh-picked mangoes or newly-harvested peanuts and eat them raw or roasted with
miso paste. Nearby, beaches abound where one can swim or snorkel in the coral depths. On
the sand, one can gather beautiful shells or relax with the mountain view beyond the
sparkling blue-green water.
Kametsu has plenty of restaurants, karaoke, izakaya and snack bars for evening fun. You
can sample a wealth of local sashimi or try abura somen, a dish of noodles in a
light oil topped with goya, a slightly bitter cucumber, the insides of which are
a creamy avocado green color. Another local specialty is yagi, a hearty goat stew
served in broth with potatoes. People eat it for energy before sports events, such as the
annual Tokunoshima triathlon. Fresh uni (sea urchin) can also be found, although
the populations are diminishing and it is becoming increasingly rare, even here.
Before heading to Tokunoshima, people warned me about the habu, deadly snakes that come
out in the evenings to warm themselves on the roads. To my anxious inquiries, islanders
responded yes, the habu were there - they outnumbered the people, in fact - but were
mostly in the surrounding hills. In one week I didn't see any other than those distilled
in expensive bottles of sake known as habushu. The risk in the city is small, but
if you're out hiking on your own, it's best to take care, for their bite can be lethal.
Amamioshima is only a twenty-minute flight from Tokunoshima, but, lest you begin to think
all these islands are the same, differences abound. For starters, the local dialect is
mutually unintelligible with that on Tokunoshima; arigato becomes ariagassamaaryouta
instead of oboradaren. The local shochu (spirit) is sweeter and stronger
and seems to be drunk with that much greater relish. You'll still find the fresh mangoes
and papaya tsukemono (pickles), but also passion fruits and a local dish called
keihan, a variation of ochazuke where rice and pieces of egg, chicken, and
vegetables are mixed in a bowl with chicken broth. Keihan surged in popularity after the
Empress visited in her pre-throne days and ordered extra helpings. Various local seaweed
make delicious side dishes, and guava tea, said to lower blood pressure, is served with
every meal. As for the habu, the reaction here is different. Amami folk tell me
with a twinkle in the eye that the snakes will do me no harm if I simply love them, a
philosophy that no doubt fortifies the young men who hunt them here for a bounty of JY5000
Kasari, a small town of 7000, is located in the north. It is famous for its seaside, where
the usual water sports can be enjoyed. Diving is available all around the island from
March through October. In the south there are mangrove swamps to walk or canoe through,
depending on the tides, and bird watching parks where several rare species can be seen.
Amami is the home of mud dyeing techniques for silk, known as tsumugi. Near
Kasari, you can visit a village and see everything from the strange bottle-shaped trees
which provide one of the dyes for the silk, to the mud baths, to the tedious weaving
process. A tsumugi kimono takes about one year to create, making the steep price of
JY1,600,000 competitive with other such time-consuming works of art.
As on Tokunoshima, folk music is prominent. The town of Kasari has boasted three
Nipponichi players - the very highest ranking in Japan - and the local high school
students are the Kyushu minyo champions. The sanshin is the same, but the songs and dances
Surprisingly, on both islands I found some of the locals' English to be quite good.
Perhaps this is due to the fact that the island dialects, shimaguchi, are
stress-timed, unlike standard Japanese, lending them an intonation curiously similar to
English. Thirty years ago, local dialects were banned from schools and students suffered
humiliating punishments for using them. In recent years, though, there has been an
interest is preserving the dialects and a consequent educational push to revive them
through dialect classes for young people.
One Amami islander, a dignified 72-year old gentleman with a worried brow, voiced concern
about depopulation. He himself had just returned to the island after a long stint as a
salaryman in Tokyo. Many young people are leaving Amami to seek opportunities in the
cities, as was he many years ago. I can understand why they leave and I can understand why
they come back. The rhythm of life is loose but connected. Communities are close. Natural
beauty and traditions are soaked into the cloth of daily life. Surely an increasingly rare
environment worth preserving.
Tourist Authorities in Tokyo carry precious little on these islands, and the information
in travel guides is very patchy. There are direct flights from Tokyo to Amamioshima
(JY34,280) but to get to Tokunoshima you must fly via Kagoshima (JY37,020) or use the
twice daily service between the two islands (JY10,080).
For accommodation, on Tokunoshima the Kametsu Seki Hotel (Tel: 0997-83-1888, Fax:
0997-82-1134) is a good, clean business hotel. It's in a good location in a big city, so
you can have a little more of the nightlife/restaurant thing, and it offers easy access by
bus or car to anywhere on the island. The only disadvantage is that it feels like a
business hotel - anonymous and generic. On Amamioshima I highly recommend the Minatoya
minshuku (Tel: 0997-63-0023, Fax: 0997-63-0629). It's charming and traditional in a great
location across from the beach, which a couple of the rooms look out on. All rooms are
tatami, there's a huge stone communal bath in addition to private baths and showers. The
obasan who runs it is a dear; the food is delicious and it feels like a tropical getaway.
These islands are not very well-known and rarely visited, even by Japanese. Most choose
Okinawa for their glimpse into southern island culture. However, as any islander will tell
you, they're all different. To see what each island has to offer, you have to take the
leap of faith and just go. No matter which island you visit, I guarantee that special
For further details contact the tourist authorities on the islands: Amami Sightseeing
Information, Tel: 0097-53-111; Tokunoshima Sightseeing Information, Tel: 0097-85-3110.