Echo Kawauji, 79, walks slowly with a cane stick in one hand and an ax in the other. But after sitting in his seat, his ax starts moving fast.
She peels off the stem of the cycad plant (sotetsu in Japanese) and extracts the pulp inside, just as her grandparents taught years ago.
At any other place in Japan, people stay away from this poisonous plant. Cycad can cause internal bleeding, liver damage, even death if eaten raw.
But the island of Amami Oshima, 300 kilometers away from Kyushu and Okinawa, Japan's southwestern main island, has a very different history.
The island is closer to Taiwan than Tokyo. Cycad thrives in the tropical climate here. People often forget to consider it as Palm.
Cycads have existed for around 28 million years and are considered living fossils.
In the Jurassic period, they were so numerous that it is often called the Cycad era.
The neurotoxins found in cycads were digested by dinosaurs without any problems, but it is fatal for humans.
Eating hard days
For 67 thousand residents of Amami Oshima, Cycad has supported them in difficult times.
Over the centuries, people here have learned to cultivate these poisonous plants and extract their poison. This work takes 4 weeks.
They extract the pulp from inside the stem. Grind it to make flour. After washing and drying him many times, he expels his poison.
This gives them sago starch, which is called Nari. Noodles are made from it or cooked in rice mixed with it.
Toshi Fukunaga, Kawauji and his two elderly friends are among the last people on the island who know how to remove food from the cycad. Fukunaga calls it hard work.
Only 55 people live in Ikegashi village on the beach. Cycads grow naturally here and some trees have also been planted.
Like many parts of Japan, Ikegashi has a large population of old people. The youth has not only left Ikegashi, but has also left Amami Oshima Island.
Most of the youth have either moved to Kagoshima city of Kyushu Island or have gone to big cities of Japan in search of work.
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No one to teach
It is said that the age of learning never ends, but for the pensioners here you can be too old to teach something.
The pulp of cycad and the method of extracting poison from it is very complicated which they do not see any benefit in teaching.
Kenshi Fukunaga, 25, is the only young man living in Ikegashi. He tried to learn the method of preparing food from Sotetsu. But his grandmother Toshi says, "We are too old to teach anything now."
A day before reaching this village, I spent time in Amami Museum, which is in the island's main city of Amami (Nazi).
Museum official Nabuhiro Hisashi told the history and importance of this plant for the island.
Amami was under Oshima Satsuma clan during the Ido period (1603–1868). His territory is the southern Kagoshima province of present-day Japan.
The island was frequently hit by storms and traditional farming was difficult. But it was one of the few areas in Japan where sugarcane could be cultivated.
Hisashi says, "Satsuma rulers used to send rice instead of jaggery. If the sugarcane crop went bad, the people of Amami Oshima would die of hunger. Cycads had to be eaten at such a bad time."
There is no evidence of how people have discovered how to eat cycad safely. Hisashi estimates that people may have taken risks for this.
The museum now wants to document its cultivation and harvesting methods.
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After the second world war
The tyranny of the Satsuma rulers ended in 1868 with the end of the Ido period. But in the First and Second World Wars, the ancient Cycad knowledge of the islanders started working again.
During the war, the supply line was cut off from the main islands of Japan, which led to a food crisis in front of the people here. People turned to Cycads again to stay alive.
Hisashi says, "Nobody knows how old this method is, but it is very important for our island. Now we are trying to prepare books on it so that people do not forget."
Despite the history of Cycad and its importance, most people of Ikegashi have no problem in destroying this tradition.
The elders here ate sotetsu in the days after the second world war. Some people of that era still call those days "Sotetsu Jigoku" or "Cycad Hell".
Is this why they do not want to preserve it? Are the memories connected to it very painful?
Fukunaga denies. "Then we were all young. I remember the taste of it too. If Sotetsu had not been there, we would all have died."
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No need for sotetsu
The truth behind decreasing attachment to poisonous food is slightly more practical.
Amami Oshima is not as prosperous as the other 6,851 islands of Japan, but compared to the past, the present time is much better.
Today, he is not worried about any exploiting army. Plenty of imported grain is available and farming methods have also become advanced.
Eating cycads is not a compulsion, so people work hard for this.
Cutting the trunk of a poisonous tree and extracting food from it is a very difficult task. There is also a danger of poisonous wiper habu.
Nevertheless, Kawauji, Toshi and their two friends prepare some cycads every year. They cooked it with rice and gave it to me to taste.
The four women surrounded me and stood up. Seeing them, my hands trembled. This food can kill me.
Before putting the first morsel in my mouth, I asked when someone had fallen after eating it last time?
Fukunaga said, "No, no, never." I quickly ate some rice.
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The biggest surprise was that the food extracted from the infamous poisonous prehistoric plant had no taste.
I ate some more rice. I remembered the infamous Puffer Fish (Fugu) of Japan, which is said to have a slight negligence in cooking it.
It is no surprise that cycad is no longer considered an essential food source in Amam Oshima. Even then, the women of Ikegashi still take all the risks and cook it occasionally.
Amami also has a restaurant in Oshima where this food is served. This small Udon restaurant runs a few miles from Amami Airport under the name Mash Yaduri.
Nobody was sure about its place. But I found it at the end of a narrow road leading to the beach.
Cycad has become a thing of the past in other parts of the island, but the mistress and chef Tai Wada and her husband Akiho have been selling cycad starch noodles for the last 5 years.
There was no translator, yet Wada knew why I came there.
A few minutes later, a bowl full of hot umami broth chicken and cycad-udon noodles was in front of me.
To be honest, it was also a little tasteless, but the history of Cycad was not dead.
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