Amami Guntō National Park, Japan

Photo: Amami Tourism

This summer is going to be a bit different than usual. Okay, a lot different than usual. Restaurants are operating at reduced capacities. Many public pools won’t open. Lakes and beaches are limiting the number of people they allow. While masks and social-distancing measures are the new normal. You need to figure out ways to get away from the crowds.

You should turn your attention to national parks. The historic and scenic areas are protected by the government. So are the unique animals and plants within them. They’re usually beautiful spaces. Physical activities—hiking, kayaking, swimming, etc.—are encouraged. They also provide plenty of space in which to spread out. You just have to decide where to start.

Amami Guntō National Park is remote, new, and beautiful. The park is in the Amami Islands, a group of islands in the center of the Ryukyu arc that trails off Japan’s southwest coast toward Taiwan. It covers at least part of eight volcanic islands, as well as portions of the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean on either side. Amami Ōshima is the largest island in the archipelago. That’s where the park’s visitor and wildlife center is located. It was built in 2017, when Amami Guntō became Japan’s 34th national park. Given the rare species, the old-growth forests, the limestone caves, the pristine beaches, and the thriving coral reefs, it’s surprising that it took so long.

Mount Yuwandake is the highest point in Amami Guntō. To reach the peak, you have to pass a coral reef and a mangrove forest at the mouth of the Katsushi River. You’ll see lilies, Tokunoshima ebines (wild orchids), and rhododendrons along the way. Keep an eye out for Amami rabbits digging in the dirt, prehistoric-looking Kuroiwa’s ground geckos, and tiny Ryukyu spiny rats. You might hear an Ishikawa’s frog’s birdlike call in the distance. Paths wind around huge flying spider-monkey tree ferns (they grow up to 16 feet tall) and into evergreen beech forests. Amami jays, which used to be hunted for their velvety feathers, nest in the larger trees. While the view from the top of the mountain looks across bright white sand, tiny islets, and sparkling water. It’s breathtaking. Your new summer plans might work out better than you ever expected.

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