I wrote this post last night. I came home from an amazing day and needed to turn my experience into words. Here you go.
Today. I need to put a day like today in words. Right after it’s happened. When I can still feel the palpable heat of the sun on my face and it makes my head throb with happiness and exhaustion after a perfect day in the sunshine. Today I did many things on the island that I never imagined I would ever do: trek deep into the woods, safely touch a habu, and then step back into the Old West at a Japanese Cowboy Cafe. Let me explain…
I love my routine on the island, but breaking away from what is familiar and doing something new is always nice. Today I woke up early for a Sunday and drove down south to Yamato village–a place I’ve never been before–to hike through the trees and plant tutuji (azaleas) with a mix of ALTs and Japanese friends. The night before was bittersweet–we had a farewell party for a few of our friends who are leaving the island soon, so I think a day for trying new things in the gorgeous weather with good people was needed. Most of the azaleas in this village were stolen years ago, so the Miyakozaki Tutuji Walk happens annually to try and restore the land back to what it was. So this morning we followed a huge group of islanders, young and old, into the mountains. It was nice to be involved in a community event–something I long to do as much as I can.
We hiked through lush greenery alongside the ocean. The sky was so clear today and the gradient turquoise water sparkled. Parts of our hike reminded me of my time in Yakushima, but not as challenging of course.
Since there were so many people on the walk today, friends had to share seedlings. I picked out our azalea for our group of seven. We named our plant Charlie because it reminded me of the limp Christmas Tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas. The time it took to pick Charlie and plant Charlie only took a minute or two…so we had plenty of time to explore!
As we meandered through the tall grass, I imagined we were in Ireland exploring the rolling hills I’ve only seen in pictures.
And as we descended down towards the water, Dina said that we were like mountain goats in Greece. I’m glad I’m not the only one who imagines she is in a different place when she is currently in a different place to begin with.
We took our time walking back and got in the long line for curry and rice. We sat outside and ate our lunch while looking at the sea and listening to the island music playing softly in the background. The wind picked up and blew a little sand into our food but we didn’t care. Today was the perfect island day. The first one of 2016. A memorable experience for only 500 yen.
The last ones walking back. 島時間 (Island Time)
We also made a new friend today. She speaks fantastic English because she studied abroad for a year in Montana of all places. She offered to take us on another hike to see an ancient oak tree close by. But first, we made a pit stop to see where the village of Yamato keeps their captured habu…
For those who are unaware, habu are venomous pit vipers that inhabit Amami Oshima and other Ryukyu islands. One of the first things I learned about my exact JET placement was that Amami has habu, and that I wouldn’t be able to hike leisurely in the mountains because it was too dangerous. But Amami people can actually capture live habu, turn them in, and receive a reward of 3000 yen (about $25.) So our new friend basically took us to a Habu Prison today.
There were about 11 habu in the cage, all of various type, length, and color. One of the workers brought out a rare golden-colored habu for us, and he let us touch it. I guess I can cross “touch a habu” off my bucket list, even though it wasn’t on there in the first place.
The habu were clearly threatened by our presence. (I don’t blame them.) When the guy put the habu back in the cage, he slithered quickly over to a group of his friends in the back corner and then four of them intertwined like vines, raised their narrow heads, and starred back at us with their glowing, copper eyes. They looked so angry, but I also imagine they were scared.
My heart plummeted into my stomach after that habu encounter. The two guys who showed us the snakes also were our guides to go and visit the old tree. We followed them up some incredibly steep steps into the mountains, passed a tiny waterfall, and then on to see what is likely one of the oldest trees on Amami Oshima. Our new friend told us that this forest is protected by Yamato Hama neighborhood because the trees are so ancient (though their exact age is an enigma), and the forest is believed to be sacred and infused with the spirit of kamisama (gods). I adored being in this spiritual forest because it was so reminiscent of my time in the Yakushima cedar forest. It’s like Amami has its own Joman Sugi (Yakushima’s oldest tree.) Like Joman Sugi, this tree on Amami was protected by a wooden barrier so we couldn’t touch him.
After the hike, we said goodbye to our new friend, and then Dina and I chose to follow Seido and Carson farther down south for some more sightseeing. We drove up and down windy roads with the ocean on one side and the dense forest on the other. Seido made a sharp turn into a parking lot next to a bright red storage unit..and then things got strange in the best way possible.
This little red storage unit turned out to be the Westerner’s Cafe, owned by an older Japanese
man cowboy. I’ll let the pictures of him and his cafe do most of the explaining.
I could not stop taking pictures of this cafe. The decor was so authentic, and if you think living on a subtropical island 210 miles away from the rest Japan already would make you feel like you’re not in traditional Japan, you should try stopping by this place. Spending an hour here made me homesick for Texas and Arizona even though I’ve never even been there before. Steve McQueen-san spoke a little English so I was able to communicate with him a bit. “Cowboy boots, cowboy pants, cowboy belt,” he said. And then he grabbed his cheek and said “made in Japan!”
I was so curious where he got all of his memorabilia from, and I laughed when he answered Ebay. “I’ve only been to Alaska to fish. Grizzly bears! Black bears!” he shouted. I told him everything he owned was so authentic and I truly felt like I was in the old west. He also is an artist and had some of his paintings and drawings of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne on display. While we waited for our coffee and teas, I ran outside to wave goodbye with him to the group of bikers who had been there before us as they rode away on their motorcycles.
I’ll admit my only experience with the old west is Woody’s Roundup from Toy Story….but now I have an urge to binge watch western movies after this experience.
While all of that was happening, I was simultaneously hanging out with the most adorable three-month old beagle puppy who wanted to do nothing more than cuddle and sleep on our laps. Her name was Harley. Yes, like the motorcycle.
I needed to drive home after that. I wanted to end my day with that cafe. It was just too perfect. But Seido urged me to drive another 5 minutes south so I could see this cliff and tunnel he had been talking about.
I am so glad that I did. Because I got to see and hear the Lidth’s Jay, one of Amami’s rare birds, sing its gentle song.
Finally Dina and I drove the hour or so back home and then collapsed at our favorite spicy pork ramen spot for dinner.
I am now propped up in my futon sunburned and exhausted, but I am just so grateful for days like today. I love the sun, good friends, and exploring new places. Today was one of those days where I wake up and the experiences I end up having exceed far outside my realm of expectations. Today was a Good Island Day. Over the winter I was so jealous of people who got to ski or just be constantly surrounded by other people on the mainland. But then days like today I am reminded by how in love I am with my island life and how truly special and unique my experience is to me. It’s not what I expected my life would be like in Japan. I don’t exactly know what I was hoping for at this time last year. But what I do know is that I am so happy where I am. And grateful.