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JAPAN'S EXILE ISLANDS : The lush Okis, where royal outcasts were once sent, are gorgeous getaways from the country's glass-and-concrete cities.

November 05, 1995|MARK JENKINS | Jenkins is a Singapore-based travel writer who was born, raised and educated in Asia

OKI ISLANDS, Japan — A blast of the horn, a final rev of the engines, and the ferry lurched out of port toward the blue-black clouds on the horizon.

"Just like going to the Vineyard," I said, thinking aloud.

Cynthia cocked an eyebrow. My chopsticks were poised to tuck into a packed lunch of fish, tofu, rice, pickled cabbage and candied peas. The steam from a pot of salty green tea curled upward. A crash of cymbals over the PA system preceded yet another announcement.

OK, so this was nothing like the ferry to Martha's Vineyard.

It was late September and we were bound from the tiny mainland port town of Sakaiminato for the Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan--a place on the map as far as imaginable from Japan's urban sprawl. As was our intention from the start, Cynthia and I had escaped the futuristic nightmare that is Tokyo and Osaka--"Blade Runner" meets "Brazil"--to search for a Japan that so far existed for us only in watercolor paintings on hanging scrolls . . . lush meadows, mist-shrouded mountains, mysterious forests.

We found that Japan in the Okis, four main islands plus hundreds of islets about 45 miles off the west coast of Honshu. Furthest out to sea is the largest, Dogo (Back Island). The other three main islands--Nishino Shima, Nakano Shima and Chiburi Shima--clump together and collectively are called Dozen (Front Island). Like similarly minded Japanese travelers seeking refuge from glass-and-concrete mainland cities, we had heard of the islands' reputation as rugged alternatives replete with spectacular scenery, a unique culture and rich history. Barely an hour after the ferry deposited us in the postage-stamp-sized fishing port of Urago on Nishino Shima, we were in the wilderness.

In Urago we quickly got ourselves a room at an inn, or minshuku , a family-run bed and breakfast--in this case, Kishimoto, a comfortable but humble abode directly across from where the ferry arrived. Minshukus, which are found all over Japan, are almost always part of an association, and generally are less lavish and less expensive than another traditional Japanese lodging, the ryokan. We negotiated in sign language a fairly standard room rate of about $60, and found directions for Nishino Shima's reputedly awesome Kuniga Cliffs, a 40-minute hike away.

Never mind that storm clouds threatened the surrounding hills and a light rain had begun to sprinkle Urago. We were so thrilled to be within striking distance of Japan's great outdoors that we tugged on our hiking boots and charged out of the inn's sliding doors into the rain toward Kuniga.

Twenty minutes out of town the driver of the first passing vehicle pulled over to the side of the road and waved us over.

"Kuniga?" we asked.

"Kuniga!" he answered with a laugh suggesting that since there was only one road on the island, where else could we be heading?

Together we spluttered uphill in the tiny van--Cynthia and me, the driver, and in his lap, a precious cargo indeed, his cherub-faced daughter--until we got as far as we could go, a rest area beneath the Kuniga Cliffs. The drizzle had by now turned into a full-blown rainstorm. Undeterred, we bade farewell and set off into the storm.

Within minutes we were soaked to the skin. Dressed in light summer clothing, we had completely underestimated how cold it would be. We hiked onward to keep warm.

Some of Japan's most dramatic landscapes are in the Oki Islands. Jagged cliffs streaked orange, gray and black plunge 1,000 feet into the Sea of Japan, which on this day heaved angrily and hurled huge waves against the cliff face. Given the ferocity of the pounding, it was easy to see why this coastline is so rugged. Pebble beaches rumbled like thunder as the surf dragged millions of millennia-smoothed stones back and forth over one another. Hawks nested on top of natural stone pillars jutting out of the sea while their mates soared overhead, screaming at our intrusion.

With the wind and rain whipping about us, we hiked uphill toward the cliff-top meadows above, stopping occasionally along the way to shelter at lookout points.

*

It took over an hour to reach the highest point, but finally we were upon it. It lay over the cusp of the precipice we were approaching. But as we clambered over the final set of slippery rocks, we discovered we weren't alone.

A set of huge horns, a black head the size of a Mazda, a pair of smoldering eyes and then the rest of Papa Bull came into view. He looked unamused. Behind him stood a dozen more bulls, as well as several more cows and calves. Scattered among the bovines were their equine companions--shaggy brown horses with bedraggled blond manes.

The islands also are famous for bullfighting festivals, a summer attraction on Dogo Island, the largest of the Okis, and we couldn't help wondering if these were some cantankerous ex-fighting bulls spoiling for a scrap. We envisioned the headline: "Harmless Oki Hike Turns to Tragedy for Young Couple."

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