Sunday, July 27, 2008

More Adventures in Amami

Well, it's our last day on Amami Oshima. We leave today for Okinawa, then to Osaka, then home to Chico in a couple of weeks.I'm ready to go, but I'll miss Amami, too. Theo and I did our last tour of the island yesterday, motorcycle riding, snorkeling, walking in the hills, and watching our last Amami sunset of the year. 

We've had a busy week with visitors. Masami's brother came for 3 days, then her friend from the Kawasaki city museum, then 6 American professors and students came for 3 days. Masami has been giving speeches and appearing on tv and radio promoting events that are being planned around next year's solar eclipse. It's going to be a particularly long one and Amami Oshima is one of the best places to see it.

One of Masami's talks.

Masami got some free tickets from a promoter to a 2 day music festival (value $100 each). We thought it was a great deal for us. The music schedule was kind of strange, from about 6PM to 6AM each day, but we thought we'd check it out. We borrowed Masami's uncle's car and drove to the site, about 45 minutes away. They actually bought a private beach for this festival, and plowed roads and parking lots with bulldozers. It was a pretty nice beach area, and there are so many of them here. There weren't many people there, maybe 100. There were 2 stages, but no live music, only some recorded techno. After a couple of hours we realized that nothing was going to happen anytime soon, so we went home. The free Amami music festival a couple of weeks before was better, however amateur, at least it was live music. We saw a ska band, a blues band singing "Sweet Home Chicago (!)," another band doing a hilarious version of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" (the video erased somehow, a great lost cultural artifact), and a scary death metal band with painted faces doing choreographed slow motion wrestling moves.

Masami's friend Kodama came the next day. We stopped at Amami Park, an art and nature/culture museum on the way back from the airport. There was an art show opening, a cooperative French/Japanese exhibit, so there were a bunch of French people there. One French artist was improvising abstract art on stage to the sound of Amami folk music, kind of black ink blobs on a big white sheet of paper. The exhibition had French art inspired by Amami. There was this one, where the artist used an official garbage bag filled with sand and the shape of Amami Oshima. It reminded me of the garbage wars we had with Masami's mother. I wonder if the artist had a similar experience with obsessive garbage hording. 
This year I tried to introduce Masami's mother to the concept of putting a plastic bag in the garbage can after I saw her pulling out the vegetable garbage with her hands and wrapping it in newspaper, then putting it in a plastic bag. I was sneaky and just put a plastic bag in the garbage can, hoping that she would just take the whole thing out, but there she was again the next week picking the rotten vegetables out by hand and putting them in another plastic bag. I usually don't interfere, but I went and got Masami to talk to her about it.

We decided to give the "music" festival another shot, since Masami knew when an actual live person would be on stage. The old woman sang Amami folk songs with the traditional jyamisen (Amami snakeskin banjo), along with sitar and African drum. They played for about half an hour, then that was it. For the next 2 hours they had folk dancing to mostly recorded music. I can't believe they charged $1oo for that. If it had been America, there would have been a riot.  

Kodama came with us for our yearly visit to Masami's uncle's house on Kakeroma, a neighboring island where Masami spent her summers as a girl with her grandmother. 

The island looks like a little chunk of Amami Oshima broke off the bottom. We had a car this time (for the first time), so we were able to see some of the island. Mostly we drove around looking for someplace to have lunch. The island still has coral walls with red tipped habu sticks for killing the venomous snakes that live in all the cracks in the walls. We happened on a beach called Suribama, which had the first healthy coral reef that I've seen here. It was a kind of a funky, low budget resort area, with a huge (for Japan) restaurant with live music and fishing paraphernalia stuck to the wall.
We had the usual barbecue at Masami's uncle's place. It was nice to be somewhere where we could actually sit outside and enjoy the evening without someone yelling at us to watch out for habus. There were so many stars (after we walked away from the obnoxious fluorescent lights of town), and we laid down on the warm road and watched shooting stars. Later, we went down to the beach, lit sparklers, and watched the yellow moon rise.

Theo and I went snorkeling in the morning at the local beach in front of the house, but all the coral was dead. Masami's uncle was being nice to us since we brought company, and he took us in his boat to some promising sites. We did find one great healthy spot, but most places were dead. 

Amami has a small area of tiny mangroves (like pretty much everything in Japan, they're smaller than other kinds). The next day we went kayaking through the diminutive forest and watched the tiny crabs crawling all over the trees and mud. It was fun navigating the narrow channels and ducking under the tree branches.

We went to the main tourist beach, Ohama Kaigan, but it was kind of depressing after Kakeroma. Kodama said the giant reef of coral skeletons  looked like the ruins of an ancient civilization. Theo and I buried each other in the sand on the beach. He wanted to be buried so that he couldn't get out. Strange kid. I tried burying him standing up, but he always managed to make it out. 

I was invited by the father of one of Theo's school friends to participate in his boat race practice for the Amami festival in August. I've never seen the festival, but a big part of it is racing the old wooden boats with 7 man teams. Masami wanted to go for a ride, so Masami, Theo and two other kids came in place of two of the rowers. It was pretty tough pulling those heavy wooden oars, especially with the dead weight in the boat. My arm got pretty sore, but I rowed the whole time. I asked the guys if one of their arms got bigger than the other from rowing, since they never switch sides. 

It's been fun in Amami, but I'm ready to do some traveling. I don't know if I'll have time or computer access to continue this blog, so this might be the last one for a while.

Nice yard. Japan loves cement. 

Deadly habus.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Amami Hillbillies

                          Materiya Waterfall 

Amami Oshima is a pretty good sized island at 715 square km. I've already written about the coastline, which is where almost everyone lives. Sugarcane cultivation is traditionally the main economy, and in stores you can find chunks of brown sugar to buy as souvenirs, original flavor, as they say. They're starting to grow some other things,  like mangos and passion fruits, too. They had passion fruit in the grocery store a couple of weeks ago, and I just stood there over the mound of fruit, intoxicated by the smell.
Amami has traditionally been a poor island (like a Japanese Haiti), and it's still poor compared to the rest of Japan. But it's still Japan, so you don't have the crime and other problems that usually go with urban poverty. It also means the island has stayed relatively undeveloped, with 95 percent forest according to one account. A map I have from a vegetation survey shows it as mostly natural forest, whatever that means. Amami was a neglected corner of Japan for many years. Here's an excerpt from an article in Time magazine from Monday, Feb. 24, 1958, a few months before Masami was born: "Life is grim on Amami Oshima, an island in the typhoon-swept East China Sea, 200 miles southwest of Japan. The islanders are beset by leprosy, poverty, poisonous snakes, and fire. Again and again, storm-spread fires have all but wiped out the wooden shanties of Nase, the island's largest town (pop. 43,000)."
That's our town, and I haven't seen too many people walking around with leprosy lately, but the population hasn't changed much. Young people tend to get out of here as soon as they can, leaving the island with an aging population. The infrastructure has developed way out of proportion to the population, as, to make up for years of neglect, federal money pours in here for roads, tunnels, parks, and all that cement that they're trying to cover the island with. There are tunnels 2 km long and more, shortcuts that save the busy commuter nearly 2 minutes off the brutal Naze City rush hour commute. There are paved roads in the middle of the forest, good roads that go nowhere. Some look promising for a while, then just end suddenly.

                           . Another dead end

These roads are not necessarily maintained, and I often find myself on a road overgrown with weeds, barely passable on the motorcycle. I've been exploring a lot of these roads, and going into the mountains with Theo on weekends. Well, I can't really say they are mountains, as there probably aren't many that are over 2,ooo feet. I have a tourist map, which doesn't have all of the roads on it, has roads on it which aren't there (maybe overtaken by the jungle?), and doesn't distinguish between paved roads and jumbles of rock and mud. Add to that landslides, mud, fallen branches, moss growing on unused roads, streams going across the road, and riding off the beaten track on Amami becomes an adventure. I regularly get lost here. I have a good sense of direction usually, but I get turned around on the winding roads here, and in the thick forest, there's no reference point. At least in town I can climb a telephone pole in the maze of streets and orient myself by seeing where the ocean is. 
The island is not incredibly big, but there are no roads that are straight for more than two blocks. The maximum speed anywhere on the island, including so called "highways" is 50 kmph, about 31 mph. That is probably too fast for most roads, but that doesn't stop anyone from going 80 or more. Add to that the obstacle course of bicycles, motor scooters, people walking on the road, and cars parked in the road (where else would they park?), and driving becomes a kamikaze commitment. 
There are trails in the forest, too, and although some were well built, a machete is usually needed. I usually grab a stick to collect spiders and their webs that take over the trails. 

I climbed this tiny hill on the edge of town and had 20 big spiders on my stick by the time I got to the top. By big I mean as big as my face, which is why I carry a stick to clear them out of the way. Even though I know they're not poisonous, it is still creepy to have a giant spider crawling on your face, stuck there by its own web. Today I was trying to catch a lizard like the one from the picture in the last blog. He was on a tree trunk, turned to face me and gave me a flying kick to the face. We dubbed him the ninja lizard.
Theo and I took off one Saturday afternoon, June 28, on our first mountain adventure together. We stopped at a nice nature center, looked at the displays and got some information, some even in English, which is really rare. We were the only ones at the nature center. We got a butterfly chart, which was nice. Although I came equipped with a bird guide to Japan, I haven't used it, as nearly all the birds seem to have left for the summer. Must be too hot for them. But there are butterflies everywhere, dragonflies, and other insects.  We headed off to Materiya Falls, which I'm guessing is Amami's biggest waterfall. It's not as huge as the ones on Yakushima, but it's a nice one, and there are good swimming holes in the splash pools. Theo and I went swimming (see picture above). Some Japanese tourists came by and took our pictures. These iridescent blue damselflies were everywhere.
Forest Polis

After the waterfall, we went to a developed forest camping and recreation place called the Forest Polis (Forest Police? Don't ask me). They must have spent a fortune on this place, with campgrounds with tent platforms, cabins, ponds, wooden walkways, observation towers, landscaped grounds, developed trails, but the place was practically abandoned, and some of the wooden decks had caved in. Things fall apart pretty fast here with all the rain and the heat and humidity, so it probably wasn't even 10 years old. I remember going there a few years ago when everything was new. Anyway, we had the place to ourselves. There were lots of dragonflies and butterflies around the ponds. We saw a couple of Amami's most interesting and elusive birds, a Ruddy Kingfisher, an orange bird with a long beak, and the large red and blue Lidth's Jay, along with some flyovers of green pigeons.
The walk around the Forest Polis didn't take long, so we decided to ascend the Mt. Everest of Amami Oshima, Yuwan dake. At a whopping 694.4 meters (2248 feet), it's the tallest mountain on the island. It was shrouded in clouds, so it really did feel like we were in the mountains. Of course, we were the only ones there. We climbed the 639 slippery steps of the wooden walkway to the shrine. The cicadas were deafening. There are a few different kinds, and the call of one species made me think the brakes on the motorcycle were scraping. This made for an eerie hike through the mist to the abandoned shrine, with the cicadas screeching in the dense forest.

The pinnacle of Amami.

I don't know what the cow was doing at  the shrine. There was an observation tower where we could look out over the mist. We hiked the rest of the way to the official top, but it was in dense forest, so we couldn't see anything.

A couple of weeks later, on July 12, Theo and I went to the north part of the island to another forest preserve type place with developed trails. It must take a lot of work to maintain the trails here, judging by the state of the mountain roads. So you can't just hike anywhere in the forest. This was another developed place with wooden walkways, ponds, a playground, and three, count 'em, three observation towers. We saw three snakes, some salamanders, and a Lidth's Jay that sat and posed for us.

We were the only ones in the forest, of course, except for this guy in a green jumpsuit like the maintenance people here wear, but he turned out to be a naturalist. He caught up with us at the last observation tower at 5PM to tell us that the forest was closing. He invited us back to an evening firefly program he was doing for 20 preschoolers. I was sure that we wouldn't go for a walk in the forest at night with the threat of the Habu, the nocturnal poisonous snake that's reputedly under every blade of grass here. If you'll remember from a few years back, Masami's mother would yell at me to get inside when I would try to sit in the backyard. But after the slideshow, we actually went for a walk in the forest at night, viewing the fireflies, finding two huge frogs, and enjoying the night view from one of the platforms. Even with 20 noisy preschoolers tagging along, ignoring the naturalist's pleas for quiet, it was a magical experience.

Amami "virgin forest."

Sago Palms, a native cycad.

House geckos are everywhere. This one's in the bathroom. 
Ogawa reservoir, not on the map.

Longhorn beetle.
Koi in the nasty polluted city drainage, formerly known as a "river."

Another hidden waterfall.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Amami Beach Boys

It's hard to believe that we only have about a week left in Amami Oshima. I'll kind of miss the place. It is incredibly hot, but beautiful. It has some of the most beautiful coastline anywhere. The hills come right down to the rocky coastline, white sand beaches, and coral reefs just under the brilliant blue water. Not many tourists come here, since it's out of the way, and plane fare is expensive. Someone living in Tokyo can fly to Hawaii for cheaper than they can fly here. And whatever Naze City is, it sure ain't Waikiki. So there aren't many Japanese tourists around, not to mention foreigners. I try to go snorkeling every other day if it's not raining. 
The reefs aren't pristine by any means, not the kind of thing you would see on tv. Most of the coral is dead. Maybe more than 90%. There are just little patches of live coral and sponges and so on here and there. A six foot diameter patch of living reef is about as big as it gets here. But the fish still use the dead reef for shelter, and there is food there. I've been snorkeling here since 1997, and I have seen an incredible amount of damage, with previously healthy reefs now dead, a wasteland with no live coral. Global warming is heating the water, in some cases to 105 degrees F, as reported here in Amami. Dramatic changes in temperature stress the coral and cause them to evict the symbiotic algae that support the coral, which kills the coral, and the ecosystem collapses. A study completed in 2004 found that worldwide only 30% of the world's coral reefs were healthy down from 41% two years earlier, 20% have been destroyed, and 50% could possibly be saved. They are dying fast. 
But there are still a lot of things to look at. Here are some pictures of pictures taken around the islands. I don't have the proper gear to take my own underwater pictures. The water is warm, and the waves are small. The visibility is about 20 feet, which is not great, but ok. There are all kinds of fish, eels, sea turtles (although I've never seen them), sharks (I saw a small one last year). I found a big spiny lobster someone had eaten the other day.

The beaches are mostly deserted. There are only a couple of beaches that are developed, where you'll find tourists. The rest of them are pretty wild, and only people collecting clams and things go there. There is one beach in town here (the rest have been cemented over), but it's next to the sewage treatment plant on the edge of town. The water isn't any worse than anywhere else, and in fact it has just as much coral and more fish than the most popular tourist beach. Maybe it's all the nutrients. Everyone tells us not to go there, but we go anyway since we're gaijin, and we hang out with the town kids there. It seems pretty cruel to tell kids they can't go to the only beach in town. I think the sewage treatment plant effluent is cleaner than the stuff coming out of the storm drains. People dump everything down them, and of course all that stuff goes to the ocean. The old lady next door's washing machine empties into the gutter. Guys step out of their houses to urinate in the drains. 
There are all kinds of rules here. No swimming before 5PM is a good one that Masami likes to repeat often. What else are you going to do when it's blazing hot? She never went snorkeling before I took her. Teachers even patrol the beach to check for their students. It takes a lifetime to learn the rules in Japan: swimming before 5: not ok; pissing in the street: ok.

The sunsets are fabulous here, if you're in the right spot, and you can see past the mountains.

The coastline is pretty spectacular, and there are great views from all over the island.

There are skippers (little fish that like to be out of water) walking around on the rocks, legions of hermit crabs, occasional frogs in tributary creeks, and lizards.

I like to try out all the beaches, ride the bike or motorcycle along the coast, then take a swim when I get too hot. I've never been really fond of swimming, but when there's something interesting to look at, I could snorkel all day. The wild beaches aren't pristine, either. Piles of garbage wash up on the beach from all the boats and others that use the ocean for a dump. I hear it's like that everywhere, even on the remotest islands in the world. A few years ago, we were snorkeling in front of Masami's uncle's house, on a remote part of a neighboring island, and the water was so full of plastic garbage that I couldn't move without getting a plastic bag wrapped around my arm. That was pretty extreme, and usually the water is pretty clear.

Theo's pretty sick of swimming, but today is his last day of swimming club, so maybe he'll want to go snorkeling again now. We still have a couple of beaches left to explore.