Kikaijima, abeautiful coral island is called the "Island of coral". You can see walls of coral which were built to protect the houses from typhoons.
The Oshima islands of southern Kagoshima are touted for their beauty and liveliness. A sport enthusiast's promise land and a beach bum's paradise, Oshima is synonymous with leisure. Whether it be slugging back great shots of Yusen in Yoron; Oshima's very own Ibiza, combing the cool, damp caves of Okinoerabu, or jogging along Tokunoshima's "Naoko-road," named for Olympian Naoko Takahashi: Japan's preeminent running master, Oshima has a ports of call to tempt all appetites (suffice to say you enjoy the heat, oppressively thick humidity and a limited cocktail selection.) Then, there's Kikai. Ah, Kikai....
The island equivalent of a scrawny, awkward little sister, Kikaijima, the northernmost island of the Amami archipelago, has developed a personality all her own. Part Oshima, part mainland Kagoshima, and part Ryukyu. Although Kikai does contain her share of beaches, diving spots, and at least two diving companies, she is best explored by aimlessly wandering walks, drives or bicycle excursions along the 36 kilometer periphery road. Highlights include Sugira Beach, Nakanishi Park, and Muchakana Park (with its cliff-side location it claims to be the site of it namesake's fabled demise.)
If its Club Med you desire, look elsewhere. Kikai lacks the hedonism and decadence found elsewhere in Oshima. Kikai resonates a brawny, working class feel. She is prideful of her lush, fertile sugar cane fields and her strong kokuto shouchu guzzling citizenry, not flashy, palm tree festooned hotels beckoning sun starved Tohoku tourists. That being said, Kikai is hardly a sleepy little town of cow tippers. Our convenience stores may close at midnight but our eateries and watering holes stay open indefinitely, closing for typhoons and the proprietor's capricious inclinations only. It is inside these same eateries and watering holes that Kikai is best explored. Here the adventurous pilgrim, weary from a day of sun and sea, will be taught the second official language of this isle of 8000; food. More specifically; YAGI and YAKITORI.
"So cute but SO tasty!" That's my stock answer when asked how I enjoy "Kikai meat," known commonly as "yagi" (goat.) While not to everyone's liking, yagi is a delicacy that should not go untried if you are keen to make the pilgrimage here. (5 ferries per week 099-224-2126,11hrs, about 13,000yen r/t, 2 flights daily about 42,000 r/t) Stringy, pink, and stinky, yagi emits a mild stench in its cooked form but is surprisingly odorless in the raw. Added in meaty chunks to steamy bowls of ramen, sauteed with fragrant onions and shiny leeks as sukiyaki, and served chilled with garlic sauce as sashimi, yagi can be procured at many of Kikai’s dozens of izakaya's.
If its quality and freshness that you are after (and why wouldn't it be, you are eating goat for god's sake!) then hail a cab to HAYARI. Deep in the sugar caned darkness of the Shitooke area, HAYARI is situated 15 minutes by car outside of Kikai's center. Its well worth the trip just to have your dinner's extended family ominously greet you as you enter the thimble sized izakaya. If you can manage to shake their plaintive, lamentable cries of MEEEHHHHHHH after the door has closed and replace them with the welcoming, cheerleadery "IRRASHAIMASEN," then get ready for some serious chow. Le Cirque it's not, but the yagi here is touted as the best in all of Kikai, and competition for the half dozen tables fiercely attests to it's popularity, if the packed wall of half empty "keep" bottles doesn't convince you.
Sample any of the dozen or so yagi dishes on the menu. My favorite is "yagijiru"; goats liver marinated in shouchu and slowly stewed in a broth of it's own blood (and more shouchu). Served as a massive heap of steamy brown mush with the consistency of instant Quaker Oats, it is unbelievably delicious. (You'll just have to trust me.) If you are not so inclined to try yagi then sample any of the array of tasty dishes available. "Tonsoku" (pigs foot) at HAYARI is renowned as a epicurean marvel. Deliciously salty, this perfect marriage of tenderness and chewiness (meat and skin) is the culinary equivalent of a gold bikini clad Princess Leah!
If the thought of ingesting so much meat leaves you clutching your chest and fretting for your cholesterol, do what we Kikai folks do, focus on its health benefits. You heard me. Both Yagi and tonsoku are touted here for their healing qualities. Yagi, as a cure all for "natsubate" (summer exhaustion) and "hataraki sugi" (overwork,) and tonsoku for its (purported) ability to increase the radiance of one's complexion. While I can attest to the truth of yagi's ability to genkify (after last year's particularly exhausting guntaikai, a large meal of yagi and beer set me back on my feet in a matter of minutes) the jury's still out on the pig's foot verdict. While I do so enjoy a nice warm tonsoku, the only thing I manage to radiate after eating one is the greasy shine of gristle bits stuck to my yet unwiped chin.
Yagi may be Kikai's gastronomical claim to fame, but we do exploit other sources of flesh to satisfy ort hunger. Case in point: Yakitori. In Kikai "yakitori" (grilled chicken skewers) is not just food, it is a way of life and during my years in Japan I have adopted a sincere dedication to it. Thanks in part to close proximity of inexpensive, open-til-late grill shops in the center of town, yakitori has usurped the popularity of ramen as the de rigeur post drinking meal of choice.
I think I speak for many of us when I say that I'm usually too tipsy to see straight, much less to futilely grasp for noodles at 2:00am. Couple that with the danger of balancing a gargantuan bowl of scalding broth atop a slippery counter and late suppers of ramen are much like shougakusei wearing short shorts in January; lacking logic and sense. Enter yakitori. Laying mercifully prostrate it can be gobbled up quickly, safely, with minimal hand/eye coordination, and without fear of a trip to the burn unit (which, by the way, would require an expensive airlift to Naze.) Kikai has several establishments specializing in yakitori, the best known and hands down local favorite being AI-CHAN. Run by the incredibly hospitable Aizawa family, AI-CHAN serves up some great food, and not just chicken. A small eatery, guests of AI-CHAN may choose to ruminate over the menu selections while seated at one of shop's two tables, or seated atop stools along the periphery of the pleasantly smoky, open kitchen. Comfortably seated you'll be notice how AI-CHAN eschews the vastness of an izakaya menu for the simplicity of traditional favorites like karaage and tamagoyaki and their renowned Nagasaki Chanpon, manna from heaven! These can be ordered in addition to AI-CHAN's dozen or so skewered meat choices. Among the choices a local favorite is the "buta bara" (pork.) This dish is the perfect ratio of tender pork and fat grilled with salt, and served crackling hot on a bed of cabbage. Dripping with juices and an intense flavor this dish is by far my favorite item from the menu and one I will miss most come August.
So there you have it. A brief glimpse of what Kikaijima has in store for the visitor. Some lovely sights, lots of sun and heaps of meat and booze- in a nutshell.
Transportation to and fro is long, expensive and mind numbingly inconvenient but day trips from Amami Oshima are possible if you are short on time (though it's evening when this place livens up.)
Happy traveling and eat up!
ALT stands for Assistant Language Teacher.
They work in local government organinzations throughout Japan.