My first encounter with the Amami islands, in the south of the Japanese archipelago, was a rather unforgettable experience. I landed on the main island, Amami Oshima, with the last flight from the mainland, just before a powerful July typhoon hit it. Knowing the unpredictability of such weather, my host did not waste much time. After a brief stop at a supermarket in Naze, the capital, where I was urged to buy provisions for three days, I was taken to my apartment and instructed to stay in until his return.
For three days, the elements raged around me, feeling the building battered on all sides, fearing at times for my life. What a folly, I thought, to come all the way to a small island in the North Pacific where hardly anyone knows of my existence, only to perish in a typhoon! During those three days, the only evidence of life was a disembodied voice from the neighborhood’s loudspeaker. As it turned out, these loudspeakers, part of Japan’s efficient emergency broadcasting system, became part of my island's communicative ecology mapping research.
That dramatic entry to Amami islands in 2017 was followed by one of the richest island experiences I have had in my career, often punctuated by typhoons that I learned to navigate around, especially about canceled ferries. The rich island culture and lush nature along with the beautiful hospitality I have since been experiencing, have resulted in a special relationship with these islands. Due to the pandemic, I had not been back for three years. So, when I received a painting from my artist friend just before the borders with Japan opened, I decided it was time to plan my return to this special place to renew my friendships and research.
The eight inhabited Amami islands maintain many of their traditions and cultural practices. Some of my favourite ones are linked to Shimauta (soulful island music), the August Dance festival celebrating the harvest, the unique tsumugi making (local kimono fabric), sochu (sugarcane sake), and its wonderful cuisine made of fresh island ingredients. “One of Japan's most prized textiles comes from a subtropical island where the makers still hew to the methods of 1,300 years ago. Using indigenous plants and ponds of iron-rich mud, the artisans of Amami-Oshima create luxurious silk pongee, threading the island's long history of poverty and oppression into their craft” (NHK). When Minori, the research center’s administrator, came on a rainy afternoon with a big furoshiki fabric bundle containing the family’s Amami traditional tsumugi, asking me if I was ready to get dressed in one, I counted myself lucky given that tsumugi is a very expensive fabric now to make, requiring a laborious process. Having the chance to wear one that has lived in a family for three generations made it all the more special. And please note I do not say “worn” but “lived” because such fabrics contain the lived story of these small islands in the south of Japan. It took about 40 minutes to get all the layers on and get that tummy tucked in with obi and various other ties and belts.
Being so far south, their sub-tropical weather offers a much milder winter season. As this was the first time I visited the islands so late in winter, I had the opportunity to celebrate the Lunar New Year with its mochi no Hana tradition that involves decorating tree branches (bubuki) with colourful rice cakes (mochi). This is part of a traditional event called Narimuchi, held on the first day of the Lunar New Year to pray for the family's safety and a bountiful harvest. On the 14th of January, bubuki was displayed in alcoves and entrances as well as in front of Buddhist altars and graves. I loved seeing these colourful branches everywhere, and I was delighted to get my hands on decorating a bubuki with mochi flowers with my colleagues at the island’s research center. It was like playing with plasticine, only that this one was edible.
One of my first reunions was with my friend Manami, a hospital technician who returned to the islands from Tokyo to farm her mother’s land. Like most smaller islands in Japan, depopulated and aging communities are the norm. Having younger people coming back to live on the islands is a much-needed injection of life. She invited me back to Atetsu, her village in the south of Amami Oshima, to visit her farm where she grows passion fruits, mini pineapples, pomelos, dragon fruits, and avocados, some of which are sent to Tokyo restaurants, and some made into bespoke jam. She does organic farming, where instead of chemical fertilizers, she uses local seaweed, seawater, fish, and manure from her uncle’s cows. She treated me with Miki, the Gods' sake, made with rice and sweet potato, slightly fermented and non-alcoholic, very refreshing and as the bottle said: rice power!
When Manami suggested we visit Ayano, a former nurse who turned into a Hajichi tattoo artist, I jumped with excitement. In the Ryukyus archipelago that includes Amami and Okinawa islands, there has been this old tradition of tattooing the fingers, backs and wrists of women’s hands called hajichi. Since the Japanese government banned it in the Meiji era as a barbaric practice, the tradition has almost been lost and you will not see women carrying this tattoo now.
So we went to her village to spend an afternoon immersed in island culture. And what an experience it turned out to be. At first, I could not decide what tattoo motif to select; each island has its distinctive patterns, full of symbolic meaning. Traditionally when a girl had grown up, she would do a pattern on one hand, and when she got married, she would do a new pattern on the other. Hajichi was seen as a symbol of pride, admiration, wish and a talisman for the women of the time and it was a source of pride for her and her family. Unlike the original practice, Ayano is not drawing permanent tattoos but using henna and a Brazilian plant paste that dries to an indigo colour. I chose an Amami Oshima motif that depicted the ocean, a dugong, waves, birds, the sun for protection on the outside of the wrist and the turtle’s inner collar combined with a butterfly emerging from its cocoon on my inner wrists. I liked the spiky tayo/sun on the spot where islanders believe bad energy enters your body.
I asked Ayano why she chose to do this. The last person in her family to carry hajichi was her great-grandma, Ayano’s mother is the last to have memories of it. The first time Ayano saw these tattoo patterns was during her nursing practice, on the hands of her very old Amamian patients. That left a deep impression on her and when she started mehndi, she decided to incorporate hajichi to her practice. Later, when I showed my tattoos to Amamian friends, they were impressed as none had thought of doing one; perhaps Ayano’s efforts to revive this old tradition might slowly succeed. I wish so. I left Ayano’s house with my hands and wrists bandaged to protect the tattoo and with a bag of a small island winter bananas and chestnut sweets as gifts.
I love how serendipity works in small islands, where every person you meet has a whole interconnected island world behind them and you never know what you will discover next. In this instance, the kind administrator at the research center shared her Jodo Buddhism lineage. Amami islands have a large Christian community, fairly unusual for Japan. Historical conditions enabled the establishment of churches partly as a reaction to Buddhism which was felt as an imposition by the mainland Satsumas whose presence was linked with exploitation. So I was rather happy to have a chance to look at the presence of Buddhism on the island today. It was Minori-san’s great-grandfather who established the first Jodo Temple in Amami and ever since, the responsibility of running it passed from one generation to the next including her strong-willed Buddhist nun grandmother and currently lying with her mother and younger sister, both Shin Buddhist ordained nuns. I jumped at the offer to visit and experience the “Namu Amida Butsu” (I shall entrust myself to the awakening of infinite light) chanting by the two of them one evening in Naze. I was impressed that they were able to be both lay people and nuns at the same time. The younger daughter is an academic, a mum and a media personality on the island who has decided to be ordained after she did her Ph.D. research in this field and came to appreciate the significance of her family’s history and spiritual tradition. It was an extraordinary visit and I am deeply grateful not only for visiting the Temple but mostly for interacting with this family of lovely and spirited women who sit at the core of the island’s spiritual past and present and learning directly from them about this Japanese Buddhist tradition and its radical egalitarianism.
While the human inhabitants of the islands have created a unique culture that visitors fall in love with, their stunningly beautiful nature is also inhabited by some pretty unique “other-than-human” species. Before Amami Oshima and Tokunoshima islands received their UNESCO World Natural Heritage status in 2021 for their one-of-a-kind animal and plant species, it was hard getting any brochure in English. So I was amused when I finally found one, to see that it was entirely dedicated to habu, the island’s venomous snake. On several occasions, my Amamian host had pointed out the stick available in villages that you can use to protect yourself when walking in the bush or the garden. Amami Oshima's lush forest interior is full of them. I remember noticing how untouched nature was; other than the coastal human settlements, nature makes its presence deeply felt here.
During this visit to the islands, I finally had the opportunity to visit HaraHabuya, a three-generation family-run business exclusively working with snake materials, including snake powder and oil, snake accessories and other items made of snake leather, teeth, and bones, even a snake show that is meant to be both educational and entertaining. The third generation’s contribution to the family business caught my attention, as Takeomi explained to me his philosophy. He is not interested so much in using the habu itself in his product design but in habu as a concept that represents Amani’s nature and a need for humans to live in harmony and balance with animals and nature. He mentioned how it took the mainland authorities decades to realize their habu eradication actions had a devastating impact on the island's ecosystem and find ways to reverse the damage. Why can’t humans and habu co-exist, he asked. He has designed two comics/manga-style books that contain dozens of fascinating animal characters with distinctive personalities living in an imaginary Amami country where animals and humans try to co-exist or dominate the other. What I love about this story and many others I often come across on the island is the continuing generational involvement in family business and activities, each bringing a new element and a continuation of past and new island practices.
The island’s natural world has provided and keeps providing a source of creative inspiration to many artists. One of my most important first island connections was Futoshi Hamada, an award-winning photographer and island ecologist. He and his wife, Yuriko, have played a significant role as ambassadors to the islands’ nature and culture. At his admission, Futoshi wants to be remembered as the Rabbit Man, for the black Amamian rabbit, unique to these islands, is his passion. He spent once 40 days and nights with his camera in a forest full of venomous snakes to record a black rabbit mama feeding her baby. And the rabbit reciprocated by taking him to Washington to receive an award at the Smithsonian. The Hamada couple founded and ran the first islands magazine, Horizon, which is now online (https://amami-horizon.com/en/) with my contribution as its English Editor.
So, right from the start, I kept meeting the most inspiring people on these islands, and not unlike here on Waiheke, many of them are creatives and people with a deep love of their island. I could not leave the islands before catching up with my friend Kimio Wada, a self-taught painter. The drive to his studio goes through one of the most scenic landscapes on Amami Oshima, descending from high up the mountain overlooking the most photographed sunset spot down to a small bay enclosing the small village of Toen. Self-styled as a Japanese cowboy, he spends his days in his studio in an abandoned old village school while his Amamian wife makes a single curry dish to perfection (involving over 25 spices) served at their Arizona Café by the bay. In one of my visits, I asked him why he moved to Amami from the mainland, to which he answered that he had to do too much bowing to those with status, while in the islands everyone seems to be equal. After many conversations, I thought of him as the ideal personification of “Zorba the Buddha,” Osho’s ideal man, an autodidact with a zest for life, like Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek character but one who is also spiritually grounded like Buddha. On the wall, he has a page pinned with his top three wishes, including a trip to New Zealand for fly-fishing. His artist's name is Kigyo (Ki: Joy, Gyo: fish).
In all my visits to Amami, I pay homage to Isson Tanaka, considered Amami’s Gaugin of the North Pacific. My first encounter with his work proved influential as it provided the lenses through which I came to see these islands. Ever since and everywhere I go, I see Isson’s islandscapes. His ability to capture the natural beauty of the islands, the nuanced gradation of colour and light that give this three-dimensionality to his landscapes, the minute details that bring a tropical forest to life, the gentleness through which he depicts the local flora and fauna, and above all the perspective through which he painted that gives you the impression that nature was standing above the human eyes, that the human was in awe of nature, gazing from below with respect and admiration. His work reminded me of a Buddhist monk who when complimented for his paintings, replied, “I am just the cartographer of beauty that already exists.”
It was the hardest of departures, a month was hardly enough, and I felt emotional when the time came to leave. I must return soon, if not to fulfill my wishes to visit a yuta, the islands' female shamans and traditional spirit connectors, and canoe paddling at its famous mangrove forest.