It’s Monday morning and I’m on the road again. In the rush to the airport, my mental map of Tokyo vanishes into thin air. I’m lost in the crowd, when suddenly a suited Japanese businessman motions for me to follow him.
We zip through clusters of travelers, over suitcases and along glass corridors until, seemingly minutes later, my guide has transformed into an elegant and smiling Japan Airlines flight attendant. She leads me to my seat by the window; almost immediately we’re taking off for the southern tropical island of Amami Oshima in the first leg of my journey with the Japan Explorer Pass. Two hours whizz by and we’d begun our descent onto the island, which glittered like a green jewel through the rain.
Fast is really fast in Japan.
Once on firm ground, I was greeted with thick, warm air cut through with cool rain. In an instant everything slowed.
We had entered a different time zone, a different Japan.
I met my guide and we stuffed our bags, and ourselves, into the tiny rental car before heading along the volcanic road to Oshima Tsumugi Village. Framed by the rumbling monsoon sky, the village was a collection of whitewashed wooden buildings where the local art of tsumugi dying and weaving is ritually preserved. The smell of wet leaves and paint impregnated in wood was everywhere. Various painted yarns were hanging to dry. Using only natural paint in the three available colors: deep blue, curry yellow and muddy brown, the master at work – a wrinkled man with a wry smile – introduced us to this centuries-old technique behind some of Japan’s most beautiful fabrics. Communication easily switched to entertainment, especially when my guide and her language tools were at a distance from me and my sensei. Luckily for me, the Japanese have a good sense of humor.
To sum up, the process is something like this: first you fold, then you tie a yarn where you want to prevent colour from penetrating. After, you dye, boil, and finally wash the cloth with a special color stabilizer. We moved onto the weaving workshop, where they create the fabrics for kimono. Running my hands among the various patterns, I could read the story of the weavers’ devotion to their craft in the subtle changes in direction and flow of the thread.
That night, the island gave me her very best all at once: the forest covered mountains, the sandy coral beaches, the heat, the overwhelming moisture and the waves breaking in time with the buzzing of the cicada. They were so loud, you could hear them with the music on and the windows closed. I had to freeze a shout.
An unlikely encounter
The next morning I went snorkeling at a nearby reef. The high, black cliffs close to the shore were hiding a colony of colorful fish swimming in and around twisted structures of white coral. When rain popped out of nowhere, I refused to go back to the hotel and instead rented a bike, took my rain coat, grabbed my flashlight and – forgetting to reserve dinner for the evening – rushed to explore more.
A squeaky ride followed on the narrow streets of Amami. Steeling my eyes against the rain, I came across a series of small clearings in the woods that revealed scenes straight from a Miyazaki movie. Covered with vivid vegetation, lost fishing boats and tangled nets, everything concrete had turned to black.
It was getting late, so I decided to try to find a restaurant. Unfortunately, my tiny map was tearing apart in the rain and every place I came across that looked like it might offer food and somewhere to dry off seemed either shut or long-abandoned.
As I realized that each and every restaurant must be closed on Tuesdays, a car pulled over.
A voice came out of the half-open window. “Helllooo! Where you from?”
”Romania!” I yelled with the wind in my face.
“Aa, Ruumania! Ceausescu, Casa Poporurui! Burasovu!”
Apparently, here in a remote corner of an island at the end of Japan, I had met somebody who could speak Romanian. He invited me to his restaurant, telling me stories of his travels through Eastern Europe while offering me gifts with bread, tea, and a chance meeting that seemed more than coincidental.
Learning to adapt
The last day on the island was also set with heavy rain. On the way to the mangroves for a canoeing excursion, my taxi driver, who had been silent up to now, suddenly stopped the car and cried, “Photo!” He gestured for me to come with him down a narrow tunnel set off from the side of the road. I only understood that I should use my camera in some way and scrambled out of the car. Then: the most extraordinary tree. Surrounded by stones and springs, the twisted, curled trunks began to ascend, wrapping around the other trees with their hundred-meter long vines.
Later, drifting through the mangroves, I could see these forms everywhere. The mangroves, with their peculiar roots, are specially adapted to the water in this area which consists of fresh water from the canal mixed with the salty ocean. They use only the fresh water, collecting the salt in the leaves, which gradually turns them to yellow. Nature adapts.
So, too, do humans. It hardly seemed real that two days before I had been spinning in the center of the world’s biggest and busiest metropolis. And now I was floating through stillness on what felt like my own private island, wondering, where would Japan take me next?