As an island country, Japan is full of beach paradise islands that feel like they came straight out of a guide book. While Okinawa is usually the ultimate destination for beach goers in Japan, the Amami Islands (奄美大島) offer seclusion and relaxation while also still bringing the same warm weather Okinawa has. As part of the greater Ryukyu Islands, you’ll find that many of the locals don’t speak standard Japanese. Originally its own island nation, the Amami Islands were later occupied during the Meiji Restoration and incorporated into Kagoshima Prefecture.
Today the islands are known for their subtropical climate, beautiful coral reefs, water sports, and amazing food which can be enjoyed all year round. The Amami Islands consist of 13 islands total with only eight of them are inhabited by people. Many tourists and locals are only familiar with the most popular beach destinations in Japan, however, if you want a real peek inside Japanese culture and history, we suggest you check out the Amami Islands.
How to get to the Amami Islands
The Amami Archipelago is located about 380 southwest of Kyushu and, like any of the other islands in Japan, you must take either a ferry or plane to reach the main Amami Oshima island. Although the ferry is cheaper costing ¥9,000 for one trip, it does take approximately 13 hours to reach the island. Reservations for the ferry must be made in advance and can be made on the Kagoshima Tourism website. The plane on the other hand takes about 1 hour from Kagoshima and Okinawa, and a little longer from Tokyo, and Osaka. Most of the smaller inhabited islands have local flights between the islands, and regional flights to Kagoshima, and Okinawa as well.
The Amami Islands
The Amami Island group is very popular for its pristine beaches and jungle, with about 95% of Amami Oshima forested. The 13 islands offer a beautiful and unique flora and fauna including Japan’s second-largest mangrove forest. Let’s have a look at some of the islands.
1. Amami Oshima
As suggested by its name, Amami Oshima (奄美大島) is the largest of the islands. “O” is the prefix for large and “shima” means island in Japanese so that name literally means “Big Island”. It’s also the ninth-largest island in Japan. Amami Oshima is a part of the Amamigunto National Park, as 95% of the island is forested. There are also crystal clear beaches which allow for fantastic diving opportunities to see the brightly colored coral reefs and fish. The northern region of the island is filled with beach resorts so getting around the island is as easy as buying a bus pass.
2. Tokunoshima Island
Tokunoshima (徳之島) is the second largest of the islands and is home to a rare type of bullfighting called bovine sumo or togyu. Typically bullfighting is associated with matadors, swinging a red cloth at a bull, Bovine Sumo puts bulls against other bulls in a display for dominance. Bovine Sumo has been practiced on the island for over 500 years. Aside from bullfighting, Tokunoshima also has a beautiful coral coastline, excellent for snorkelling and diving through crystal clear waters. Tokunoshima is also a popular destination for athletes to train. In June there is also the annual triathlon open to everyone who would like to participate. With its motto “Fast or Slow, It’s Your Show” this gives people a chance to test their abilities like the athletes on the island.
3. Okinoerabu Island
Okinoerabu Island (沖永良部島) is a combination of natural beauty and mysticism. Home to over 300 limestone caves and a diverse amount of flora and fauna, Okinoerabu is known as the island of flowers and caves. There is a 600-meter section of limestone caves open for public exploration for only ¥1,100. Visitors can view the breath taking stalactite and stalagmite formations, a haven for those interested in geology. There are also plenty of corals to see through snorkelling and diving as well.
4. Yoron Island
As the closest island to Okinawa, you can sense the impact Ryukyu culture has on the culture of known as Yoronjima or Yoronto. Despite being smaller than the other three main islands, Yoron Island (与論島) has much to offer in terms of tropical nature, and enchanting folklore. The Yoron Folk village was created to preserve the cultural traditions and heritage of the native island people. Old houses and machinery were restored here to help tell future generations what life was like on the island. The Yurigahama sand bar is also an amazing sight to see. It’s a seasonal phenomenon that only occurs between April and October during low tide. The small island offers over 60 beaches surrounded by turquoise waters!
Culture of the Amami Islands
After the arrival of humans on the island, the Amami natives developed their own unique culture and traditions heavily influenced by the Ryukyu Islands and other cultures in Southeast Asia. Some of the unique festivals include the Hirase Mankai and the Yui no Honen Odori style of dance. Oshima tsumugi is also found on the island. It’s a luxurious silk fabric whose history goes back over 1,300 years. Historically, many of the residents speak a local Ryukyu dialect to help keep the traditional culture alive.
On the islands, keihan is a popular local delicacy. The name translates to chicken and rice, and the basic ingredients are chicken on rice covered in broth. It usually includes a mixture of omelet, ginger, green onion, mushrooms, and dried seaweed. Across the islands, locals also drink distilled liquor known as kokuto shochu. It’s made from sugar cane grown on the islands rather than the usual base of sweet potatoes, rice barely, or buckwheat. A must try when visiting the Amami Islands.
Where to stay in Amami
- Hotel The Scene – Ocean view resort hotel and spa
- SHINMINKA Villa UTTABARU – Wonderful holiday home
- 百合ヶ浜ビーチハウス Beach house – Waterfront beach house on Yoron
The Amami archipelago offers rich cultural exploration and beautifully stunning views. Filled with flora, fauna, and incredible sea life the Amami Islands make an excellent escape out of the busy metropolitan lifestyle. It’s also a great alternative for those who want the Okinawa experience without Okinawa crowds. The islands are still somewhat secluded leaving much of the traditional culture intact offering an inside peek at Ryukyu traditions and Japanese life.
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Jamila Brown is a five-year resident of Japan, teaching in the day and writing at night. She enjoys movies, reading, cosplaying, and eating good food in her downtime.
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