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Scenic Miyako Island Is Japan's Idyll Answer to Hawaii

December 13, 1987|JEANETTE FOSTER | Foster is a free-lance writer and photographer living in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

MIYAKO ISLAND, Japan — 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.

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