Scenic Miyako Island Is Japan's Idyll Answer to Hawaii

Foster is a free-lance writer and photographer living in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

For those who have lazed on the white-sand beaches of Maui, danced the mesmerizing gyrations of the tamure in Tahiti or baked to a golden tan in Bali, vacation destinations on remote tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean are getting about as scarce as pollution-free days in Los Angeles.

Not to worry. At least one remote island offers the beauty of Hawaii, the mysteries of a foreign culture and all the sunshine and azure water a vacationer could ever dream of.

The catch is that this tropical paradise is off the beaten pathway. About 14 hours' flight time west of Los Angeles, halfway between Okinawa and Taiwan and a million miles from everywhere, lies Miyako Island.

Shrouded in mystical legends and steeped in a history of clan wars, oppressive taxes and foreign rule, the island of Miyako remains practically unknown outside of Japan.

Has Everything

The Japanese point out that Miyako has everything Hawaii does--mild weather, scenic vistas, calm waters. So why can't it become the resort destination of the '90s?

Miyako, the name of the group of seven islands (the largest being Miyako Jima) offers an unusual blend of cultures. The cumulative culture not only derives from the Japanese, which have governed the island since the 1800s, but also from the Chinese, who live a few hundred miles across the East China Sea.

From the air Miyako looks like the Garden of Eden. Unlike the heavily polluted, urban sprawl of Tokyo or Osaka, Miyako blooms like a verdant rosebud, surrounded by a halo of reefs in the middle of the deep-blue Pacific.

The extensive offshore reef structure, which has supported fishermen for generations, flourishes with an array of rainbow-colored reef fish, multihued exotic corals and scores of eatable crustaceans. Japanese diving magazines have dubbed Miyako the unofficial diving capital of Japan.

An element of mystery surrounds Miyako's famous reefs. One ancient legend claims that Yaebishi, the massive phantom who lives in the reef, emerges every March during an unbelievably low tide to mysteriously show his face. While islanders pay homage to Yaebishi, fishermen, shellfish collectors, divers and photographers flock to the exposed reefs.

Divers aren't the only ones attracted to Miyako's water. Brightly colored sails of windsurfers and sailboats skim across the placid waters between islands. On land, miles of virgin beaches, with sand the consistency of sugar and the color of fresh fallen snow, lie virtually devoid of beachgoers.

The Japanese government understands Miyako's valuable potential in the tourism arena. Officials watched the overdevelopment of Hawaii, noted the lack of service problems in French Polynesia, and monitored the growth of tourism throughout the Pacific.

Unwilling to repeat the mistakes of other areas, the government has designed a two-fold plan: create the best sport facilities available, then limit the number of hotel rooms on the island.

Traditional Inn

Right now there are only about a thousand hotel rooms on Miyako. Rooms at the top include the luxurious Miyako Island Tokyu Resort, with all the amenities of traditional Japanese inns.

During major sporting events, such as the Strongman Triathlon, a swim-bike-run event based on the Hawaii Ironman, the 550 participants and their supporters monopolize every available room.

"Right now the island's No. 1 industry is sugar," says Miyako official Yukio Nagahama, pointing to the hundreds of acres of waving green cane. "Then it's tobacco, flowers, vegetables, beef and fishing. Tourism is on the bottom."

To boost tourism, the government has embarked on a commitment to sports and sports facilities. Besides the triathlon, plans call for baseball camps and tennis tournaments, plus volleyball and fishing competitions.

"But we want a different kind of tourism here," Nagahama says. "We want an exchange. When a visitor comes, he will not only get to experience our culture, but our friendship."

From the time a visitor arrives at the pink, lotus blossom-like airport terminal, it is clear that Miyako is definitely un-California-like.

Visitors are treated like royalty, beginning when they are bowed to while disembarking from the plane. But the real experience of culture and the chance to develop friendship comes through the numerous festivals.

The Miyakoans celebrate the wheat harvest, rice harvest, millet harvest, and hold a fishermen's festival and seemingly every kind of political and religious festival imaginable. At least once a month many of the 60,000 island residents from toddlers to old-timers show up in elaborate costumes to perform singing, dancing or drumming rituals.

No festival would be complete without downing a few glasses of the local brew-- awamori --a distilled liquor made from rice and found nowhere else in Japan. Less sweet and quite a bit more potent than Japanese sake, the Miyakoans claim awamori suits their tropical climate. Miyako also boosts a local beer, Orion, which tastes like a cross between a rich European ale and an American domestic light.

Next to singing and dancing, eating and drinking are the most popular pastimes in Miyako. Residents tell visitors that no one should leave the island without trying sea grapes, the local specialty.

Sea grapes, which translate from the local dialect as "green pearls of the sea," are a bizarre type of seaweed resembling small green grapes. Usually dipped in lemon juice, vinegar or soy sauce, sea grapes assuage the palate with a sweet-tangy taste, vaguely like that of a grape.

Abundant Fruit

Nearly all of the tropical fruits of Hawaii--papaya, banana, pineapple, star fruit, guava and mango--grow in abundance in the fertile soil of Miyako.

Miyako's largest port city and capital of Hirara has several notable eateries.

Nomura, which specializes in local dishes plus Chinese and Japanese food, is the oldest restaurant on the island. Prices are from 1,000 to 4,000 yen ($7 to $28 U.S.).

Beni has a pub-like atmosphere and is popular with the locals. It's inexpensive--500 to 1,000 yen ($3.50 to $7 U.S.), and dinners include sake.

For a more upscale dining experience try Sangriha, the restaurant at Miyako Island Tokyu Resort. Elegant, beautifully presented Japanese food is the specialty there, for 4,000 to 9,000 yen ($28 to $63 U.S.).

There's even one American restaurant on the island--Captain Marian's, which serves steak, lobster, spaghetti and hamburgers. Prices are in the 2,500 yen ($17 U.S.) range.

For the really adventuresome, Miyakoans recommend goat sashimi (raw goat meat) raw kelp and seaweed, or the local delicacy, ashitibichi-- broiled pig's feet.

After dinner, residents stroll the few blocks from the restaurant district to Izzatu (West Side) in bustling Hirara.

Hundred-year-old concrete stone buildings crowd the narrow alleyways that pass for streets. There establishments, ranging from sushi bars to cabaret supper clubs, feature the most popular form of entertainment on Miyako-- karaoke , a sort of Japanese amateur hour.

Volunteer singers from the audience select a videotape of their favorite song. On the tape, the lyrics are displayed over an instrumental audio track. The singer takes the microphone and belts out the song.

Most karaoke bars have some songs in English, with the favorites being "Blue Hawaii," "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Love Me Tender" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

During the day Hirara thrives on commerce. The dollar may be falling against the yen, but the crowded markets lining the streets of Hirara still remain a bargain hunter's paradise. The smell of ripening fruit, mixed with recently caught fish and fresh-cut flowers, permeates the air in outdoor markets, which line the congested streets for blocks.

Good buys in exquisite coral jewelry, rare Pacific shells and Miyakoan ceramic pottery can be ferreted out in small, nearly hidden, single-proprietor shops, sandwiched between the outdoor markets.

Hopes for Tourist Increase

While the Japanese government hopes it can succeed in attracting increased tourism to Miyako, residents and visitors alike who have discovered the island's pristine waters hope that it doesn't come too fast.

Southwest Air Line, an island commuter company, runs hourly flights from Naha, Okinawa. The flights are about 45 minutes on Boeing 737 aircraft and cost about $70 U.S. round trip.

The only resort hotel on the island is the Miyako Island Tokyu Resort. The rooms, which begin at 10,000 yen (about $70 U.S.), are as luxurious as any in first-class resorts around the world.

A less-expensive Western hotel in Hirara, Marukatsu, costs 4,000 yen ($28 U.S.) a night and includes two meals. There are also cheaper traditional Japanese inns. For a complete list with price information, write to the Miyako Tourism Assn., 1657 Nishizato, Hirara, Okinawa, Japan.

The only month to avoid on Miyako Island is June, when torrential downpours occur almost daily.

For more information on Miyako Island, write to the Tourism Promotion Division, Hirara City Office, 186 Nishizato, Hirara, Okinawa, Japan.

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