Contrary to the comparison drawn a few years ago in an NHK TV documentary, Isson Tanaka was no Paul Gauguin, but his life and work, particularly his last years on Amami Oshima, have all the hallmarks of the long-suffering artist.
Born in Tochigi Prefecture in 1908, Isson enrolled in the prestigious Tokyo Arts Academy’s Department of Japanese Painting. Had he worked within the confines of the Japanese art establishment, his future may very well have been assured, but Isson chose an independent course, placing himself outside the circle of contacts that would have made his life easier, but compromised his art. Drawn by the natural beauty, the immense bio-diversity of Amami Oshima, Isson relocated there in 1958 at the age of fifty. Working at a textile workshop provided him with the bare income needed to live a frugal existence. His sister also provided economic support until the end of his life in 1977. Photos of the painter show him working in a one-room, wooded shelter with a small plot of land where he grew vegetables.
Isson’s prolific output, his paintings of the birds, creatures, flowering hibiscus, orchids, palms, tropical fruits, and the thousands of cycads that grow wild along the coast, was not matched by sales of his work, and the artist has only achieved recognition posthumously with the establishing of a memorial museum near the airport on Amami Oshima, and exhibitions in Tokyo. In Isson’s canvasses, like those of the European painter Rousseau, the deep and often dark foliage of the island is illuminated with the radiance of stained-glass, revealing in minute detail plant and animal varieties, all the tones and organic textures that produce Amami Oshima’s extraordinarily fecund life forms. Perhaps it was this very life and the island’s palpitating colors that drew the artist. And it is nature, in one of its most intact states in Japan that still draws a small, sustainable number of visitors to the island today.
Nature, in fact, is the prime reason for a visit to Amami Oshima, the largest of this island group, which enjoyed a brief moment in the sun recently as the best spot to view the total eclipse of the sun. Nothing much has been heard about the island since. Roughly halfway between Okinawa and Kyushu, it was annexed by the daimyo of Satsuma in 1624. Once part of the Ryukyu, or Okinawan islands, now a distant administrative part of Kagoshima prefecture, there is a temptation to dismiss Amami as neither fish nor fowl. This would be a mistake. While subtly different from both Okinawa and Kyushu in ways that are not always easy to articulate, Amami succeeds in blending the best of both worlds.
Kunio Yanagita was one of the first people to try and situate the islands within some kind of geo-ethnic category. In the days of steamboats, the distances to the islands were no different, but the time spent in reaching them was considerable. Yanagita, best known as a writer and researcher of Japanese folklore, did just that, taking an old, coal-fuelled steamer from the city of Kagoshima to the southern island of Amami Oshima and its main port of Naze, a journey that can still be done today, albeit at a considerably faster pace. Yanagita arrived in Amami Oshima in 1921, en route to Naha, in mainland Okinawa.
In Yanagita’s descriptions of the customs and local history of the islands, one senses both affinities and differences between the two island groups. Today’s visitor can see in horizontal lines across the island indications of the conflation of two cultures and topographies. While the seas, coral, finely grained white sands, palm trees, hibiscus and bougainvillea of the coastal areas speak of Okinawa, the wooden houses with their metal roofs are closer to Kagoshima. Above the rooflines, the slopes rise from sub-tropical to temperate levels.
There are no jungles on the island, though many of the plantings associated with the undergrowth of the tropics can be found here. And the combination of rare animals, poisonous snakes and mangrove place the island close to the geographical and climatic category of sub-tropical Okinawa. Arguably, the single most conspicuous plant on the island is the cycad. Of all the vascular plants, cycads have the largest growing apices, delicate to look at but surprisingly resilient, which explains why they have been around since they first flourished in the humid tropical climate of the Jurassic period. They call Guam the island of cycads and the islanders there like to eat the flour made from the seeds – but I saw a greater concentration of sago palms as they are also known in Japan, on Amami Oshima than perhaps anywhere else on my travels.
The bus from Amami’s small airport takes a full 45-minutes before reaching Naze, the island’s main town, an indication of how large the island is. Although Naze is a good base from which to explore the island, it has little to offer the visitor, remaining essentially an exercise in stained concrete. The best spectacle on Amami remains nature, best seen along its unspoiled coastlines and in the densely forested interior. This last is the haunt of the rare Amami black rabbit, a mostly nocturnal creature living in earth holes and caves. You’re more likely to glimpse sight of birds like the orange-crowned Akahige, the pastel-colored Ruddy Kingfisher, or the striking red-backed Ryukyu Akashobin, a bird that often appears in Isson’s paintings.
Isson worked as a dyer producing the island’s distinctive Oshima Tsumugi textiles. Visitors can watch the process involved in making tsumugi and kasuri silk-cotton fabrics at the Oshima Tsumugi Village, a craft complex in a beautiful hillside setting among flowers and many of the plants used in dying. The preliminary work is tough: the fabric is soaked in a mixture of lime water and dye from the sharinbai plant, then soaked and kneaded countless times in rice-field mud, before being boiled in colored water, which turns the rough fabric a rusty color.
One of the most outstanding coastlines on the island, another of Issonís subjects can be found at Kasari Bay to the northwest. Sakibara Beach, a matchless stretch of white sand backing onto sugar-cane fields, attracts a trickle of visitors, but is rarely crowded. The higher roads of Tatsugi Gulf, a little visited inlet of the bay, hug the contours of flower-strewn cliffs, sea-facing southern gardens, and one-storey wooden villas, creating the mood of a modest French Riviera. I stopped here to watch a family fishing off the end of a large wooden structure that looked like a floating pontoon, but turned out to be pearl cultivation rafters. One of Amami’s two very distinct dialects is spoken in this part of the island. The dialects belong to the Ryukyuan languages group, and like the rare Amami black rabbit, are in danger of extinction, with a mere 12,000 speakers, mostly elderly folk, remaining.
The unspoiled slopes of the virgin forest of Amami’s Kinsakubaru virgin forest, though little known to most Japanese are one of its most impressive natural spectacles. The winding, quite complicated route up the mountain takes you over a flinty, unmade road that ascends through a Jurassic landscape of giant feather-ferns, cycads, and impenetrable undergrowth damp with clots of mist. During my afternoon on the slopes I only spotted one group of visitors, a small eco-tour consisting of six people being led by a guide along the earth road.
If eco-travel is about encountering kingdoms of nature respectfully uninhabited by humans, the heights of Kinsakubaru are as close to the ideal that you can possibly get in Japan.
Japan Air Systems (JAS) has daily flights to Amami from Tokyo, Osaka and Kagoshima. Note though, that JAL itself is going through some restructuring of its commuter routes, so check carefully. There are also plenty of ferries from Kagoshima. If you can read Japanese, publisher Blue Guide’s Tekuteku Aruki 27 covers all the islands in the chain. The airport has a good tourist information office, with English-speaking staff. Taxis run into Naze, but it’s a one-hour ride; the bus is cheaper. The Resort Hotel Marine Station Amami (0997-72-1001) is at the higher end, with a white beach location and water sports facilities. The waterside Hotel Big Marina Amami (0997-53-1321) at the north end of Naze is a well-run business hotel with sunny single rooms for about ¥6,000. Minatoya, a restaurant in the airport, serves the local specialty, kehan: hot rice with chicken, pickled papaya, orange peel, mushrooms and seaweed. Naze is packed with shochu bars. Ask at your hotel about car or scooter rentals. It’s better to have your own transport if possible, though the bus service is good.
Festivals & Events
The island has a number of jogging, marathon and triathlon events throughout the year. July’s Garden Lantern Festival is beautiful; August is the Odori Festival, September the Yui Harvest Festival.
Story & photos by Stephen Mansfield
From J SELECT Magazine, November 2009