Detours in Japan / Southern island full of artistic, natural treasures

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The area around Mt. Yuwan on Amami-Oshima island features a panoramic green, blue and white landscape view.

By Kazutaka Nakajima / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterUKEN, Kagoshima — Although I was on an island, the sea appeared small and distant from where I stood on an observation deck. Rows of subtropical laurel forests sprawled out below. The contrast of blue skies and white clouds made for a vivid, expansive panoramic view.

Amami-Oshima island is roughly located between mainland Kyushu and Okinawa Island. Mt. Yuwan straddles the border between the villages of Uken and Yamato in the island’s west. The mountain stands 694.4 meters above sea level, making it the tallest in Japan south of the Tokara Islands. Amami-Oshima, a trove of flora and fauna that have evolved in isolation, is included in the listing “Amami-Oshima, Tokunoshima island, the northern part of Okinawa Island, and Iriomote Island,” which has been nominated by the Environment Ministry and other agencies for World Heritage status.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Masterpieces of artist Isson Tanaka are exhibited at the special exhibition room of the Tanaka Isson Museum.

Led by Hiroshi Yamashita, 67, an eco-tour guide certified by the Amami Islands, I walked through the area around the observation deck situated on the Uken side of Mt. Yuwan.

I saw seven species of wild orchid in a short time, including indigenous species that grow only on Amami-Oshima and its southern adjacent island of Tokunoshima. All are rare, precious species threatened with extinction, but persistently survive in obscurity on Mt. Yuwan.

“These are the roots of Tokusaran. A lot of yellow and lovely flowers will bloom in late November,” Yamashita told me while pointing to the ground.

Without missing a beat, he added while looking up at a tree trunk, “The epiphytes over there are Nagoran, and their flowers bloom in June.”

Leaving the observation platform, we traveled by car to the starting point of a trail up the mountain. On the drive over, I saw two Lidth’s jays, which are special national treasures. The birds looked like jewels fluttering through the air with their bright blue and red-brown feathers and white tails. On the slope of the mountain, we saw an Amami Ishikawa frog, a species indigenous to the island. Its green body was speckled with black and bright gold.

From the Yamato village side, we walked along a gentle trail with wooden floor panels. The forest interior was dark despite the clear weather, with ferns and moss flourishing on the damp ground. The height of each tree was no more than 5 meters.

“If one tree grows notably taller than the others, it might be damaged by the strong sea winds,” Yamashita said. “As a result, the trees appear to stand close to each other.”

Amami-Oshima has a complex topography with intricate ridges and valleys, while receiving copious amounts of rainfall that allow about 1,500 kinds of seed plants and ferns to grow. Of these, about 70 are wild orchids.

Life of craftsman-painter Tanaka

I next visited the Tanaka Isson Museum. Tanaka (1908-1977) moved to Amami-Oshima after he turned 50. He was a Japanese-style painter who depicted the island’s nature in his works while working as a craftsman who dyed Oshima Tsumugi pongee.

Tanaka’s paintings of the island are imbued with his perspectives of its forests. Most of his works are distinctly characterized by backdrops in which the sea and other objects can be seen beyond green woods. Lidth’s jays and other creatures are arranged and painted using brilliant colors. Tanaka is said to have purchased many green paints, and his depictions of plants are so vivid that viewers may believe the aroma of forests will soon emerge.

“I suggest that visitors compare the nature depicted in Isson’s paintings with the real nature of Amami. This will surely enhance the island’s charms,” Koichi Maeno, 49, a special curator at the museum, said with a smile.

I felt as if this land rich in biodiversity and the arts it inspired were woven into my mind, just like a gorgeous Oshima Tsumugi pongee.

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A special exhibition commemorating the 110th anniversary of Tanaka’s birth is being held at the Tanaka Isson Museum through Jan. 15 next year.

The exhibition follows his career as a painter with 115 paintings and materials. Among the items displayed are 15 masterpiece works — displayed in a special exhibition room — about 1.5 meters long and produced during Tanaka’s time on Amami-Oshima.

The museum can be reached by a five-minute bus ride from Amami Airport, and is generally closed on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.


Take a one-hour flight from Fukuoka Airport to Amami Airport, before taking a one-hour bus ride from the airport to Amami’s central area. An observation deck near the summit of Mt. Yuwan can be reached by driving another 1½ hours by car. The island is also accessible by regular ferries from Kagoshima or Okinawa to Nase Port in central Amami city.

Inquiries: Amami-Oshima Tourist Information Center at (0997) 57-6233

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