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(2024 - Spring/Summer Issue)


No one is around for magic hour where this sunset script is unlike any other. I’m watching the natural spectacle at a new eco-boutique beach property submerged on a subtropical island off the southern coast of Japan in Amami Oshima.

The added bonus protrudes in the horizon—the dromedary shape of a stubby deserted unpopulated islet—that locals say inspired renowned artist Tanaka Isson, Japan’s Paul Gauguin, to paint this coastal landscape. Japanese tourists flock here on the northwest coast to Denpaku The Beachfront MIJORA where each villa has sweeping ocean views of Kasari Bay.

Only 2.5 hours from Tokyo by plane, Amami is steeped in a green-infused setting where the sea swirls, the forest canopies hover high above valleys, the long heavy rains drench the terroir creating super foods and drinks, and the art of living in nature is a way of life. The largest of the Amami Islands chain, an archipelago in the East China Sea, it’s a part of Kagoshima Prefecture, one of Japan’s largest regions, which includes two peninsulas and 27 inhabited islands. It’s in Kagoshima where you’ll find active volcanoes, the world’s only hot sand beach, hot springs, and a foodie bastion of luxury specialties like Kagoshima wagyu beef (kuroushi) and black pork (kurobuta).

In 2021, UNESCO designated Amami Oshima (Island) a World Natural Heritage Site to protect the unique flora and fauna, which is considered intangible culturally significant. Home to one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, the volcanic island’s mountain people, historically isolated from the rest of the world, for millennia have lived in harmony in nature. There’s an acoustic-aging distillery that manufactures the island’s award-winning shochu and a village dedicated to the ancient art of weaving highly prized mud-dyed textiles, a labour-intense process dating back 1,300 years. There’s also a flourishing population of endemic black rabbits living alongside Japan’s deadly venomous snakes—so naturally I signed up for a duo island tour in Kagoshima.

I wanted to explore how the Japanese get away from it all, so in December with other curious souls I took a long-haul Tokyo direct flight on Air Canada—my first visit to Japan—and after a one-night layover was off to Amami Oshima. I learned that urbanites in Tokyo (the highest populated metropolitan area on Earth with 37 million residents) have found this happy place.

Amami Oshima

Driving into darkness, the suspense intensifies. “Look beyond the road,” announces guide Shun Sirahata, his flashlight scanning the undergrowth. The nocturnal Amami rabbit—Japan’s national treasure—is munching on acorns. One of the world’s rarest rabbits, the native species thrives in this protected area known as Santaro Pass. Farther up the decommissioned thoroughfare, now a winding jungle road, was a habu viper snake, so poisonous supermarkets sell snake sticks and hotel rooms include emergency medical kits. Yes, tourists can enjoy a guided night tour of the ecologically rich pass on controlled timed drives (only four vehicles permitted per night). Dark sky is included.

Mornings: Outdoors

On a guided kayak excursion, I dip the paddle in shallow water passing virgin mangrove alleys that grow more spectacular at every turn. Exploring the protected Kuroshionomori Mangrove Park on the eastern coast, I learn how tiny scorpion mud lobsters keep the ecosystem alive in Japan’s second largest mangrove system. At the top of Kinsakubaru National Forest on another early morning, I step into a Jurassic Park-looking film location for an original forest bathing experience. Green skyscrapers of flying spider-monkey tree ferns are common sights as are the rock walls spurting spring water nourishing the luminous orchids and velvety moss. The protected park, so precious, is only accessible with certified eco-guides.

Afternoons: Cultural Immersions

In Uken Village, at the Lento Kokuto Shochu factory, a production tour of the island’s go-to tipple reveals how mountain spring water and brown sugar harvested from sugarcane is transformed into a top-shelf product due to a unique aging process. For three months fortissimo classical music of Mozart and Beethoven becomes surround sound cradling the steel tanks with sonic shakes, giving this firewater spirit the delicate notes required for slow sipping. And at Ooshima Tsumugimura village, amid a sprawling garden, I witness mud-dye artisans and weavers developing luxurious tsumugi silk with splashy patterns of kasuri from traditions passed on hundreds of years.

On my final evening I join other hotel guests for a good old-fashioned drinking party Amami style with some locals. In Kasari town, at a restored traditional stilt house, we form a circle dance, hands gesturing skyward as we sway like waves in the ocean. It was the harvest dance, performed amid sleeping hens, toddlers following the elders, and the spirited shima uta (village song) from a snakeskin-covered sanshin banjo screeching in the night.

Inevitably, Amami’s goodbye was Kyushu Island’s hello. I was ready to explore another part of Kagoshima Prefecture.

Kyushu Island

In the not-so-far-distance Mount Sakurajima puffs white clouds during my visit. One of the world’s most active volcanoes has erupted 215 times over the year, yet it doesn’t seem to affect the locals in Kagoshima city. Cyclists pedal along orderly streets, white-gloved taxi drivers chauffeur their customers in cabs styled with white embroidered doily headrests, and uniformed school children practice their English as one studious lad gifted me with his class project … in English.

I quickly adopt the art of the onsen, which is the traditional Japanese hot springs culture. At the hilltop hotel, the Shiroyama Hotel Kagoshima, mornings start with the ritual bath, sitting with other nude female guests in a hot tub (no tattoos allowed), as we watch the magical sunrise over Mount Sakurajima ahead.

Mornings and afternoons in Kagoshima blend harmoniously together. One day we drive northeast, through an agri-rich green tea plantation area to Kirishima, known for its onsens where ryokans (traditional inns) are common. Beside the Amorigawa River, smoke plumes from the sulphuric springs prick the fresh countryside air at the Wasure no sato GAJOEN. Renowned for organic cuisine, private and public baths, like the other hotels, guests are provided assorted slippers and jinbei pyjamas. A sleepover at this thatched-roof village feels like I am transported back to the past.

But it’s in the Satsuma peninsula in Ibusuki on a nostalgic one-hour scenic train ride where I along with a full train of Japanese tourists really settle into a happy state. The Japanese hold dear a fairy tale Urashima Taro about a boy, a dragon palace and a magical treasure box that is the emblem of this rail journey. From Kagoshima we chug south to Ibusuki, fittingly leaving the station in a cloudy puff of engine smoke mirroring Urashima’s magic box.

Japanese arrive here to Saraku Sand Bath Hall for the ultimate suna-mushi (sand bath). The only place in the world where it’s okay to be buried alive, I follow the customary routine. Clad in a thin cotton yukata and slippers, I step on the volcanic black sand beach where rainbow-striped mini-parasols pronounce the sand pit location for every hot sand bather. The goal will be to lie horizontally under a steaming mound for 15 minutes in temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius as your reclined head is exposed to the elements. It’s believed this sauna practice has strong health benefits like detoxification of blood and easing diabetes symptoms as you sweat in the hot sand.

Now as the last heap of steaming sand is shovelled on top of me, I feel every pulse point immediately throbbing. Yet the crushing weight of the sinking sand brings me to a surprising calm. Cocooned from the world, the sounds of my own breath and the surf lull me to this happy place.

Travel Planner

For more trip inspiration on Kagoshima visit kagoshima-kankou.com/for and for travel information about Japan see japan.travel/en/ca

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