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Wednesday, Sept. 22, 1999

Good things come in Iki packages


By STEPHANIE GARTELMAN

Iki Island, administratively part of Nagasaki Prefecture but located in the straits between Fukuoka and Korea, has some of the finest white sand beaches in Kyushu.

Don't moan that summer is over already.

Right now -- September to October -- is perfect for camping and cycling, the latter being something I wouldn't torture myself with on Iki's rolling hills during the hotter months. Golden rice fields, a dramatic coastline and glimpses from almost anywhere of the surrounding jewellike ocean are mellowing to an autumn perfection right now. Utter peace, hot springs and fresh seafood make a perfect respite after a long day.

Iki has an airport, but most people arrive by ferry from Fukuoka, a mere two hours to Ashiya or Kazuhara. To explore the rugged coastline of south and west Iki, with its magnificent sunsets, arrive at Kazuhara; for plentiful beaches and less hills, start from Ashiya on the east side. Sprinkled around Iki's center are sites that illustrate the island's history, and dotted around the edges are numerous small islands offering delicious privacy.

Touring the island in a rented car (available at each port) will enable you to see a lot within two or three days -- Iki is, after all, only 17 km long and 15 km wide. Cyclists will have to limit themselves to one or two corners of the island, unless they have a week to spare. You'll see more by bike, though, and feel exuberant afterwards.

Iki and neighboring Tsushima, a spectacular mountainous island that deserves an article on its own, are historically interesting mid-points between Japan and Korea. The remains of a makeshift castle built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to accommodate troops heading for Korean battles still stand near Iki's Katsumoto.

Other sites are where medieval battles with the Mongol invaders took place. Kofun Period burial mounds dating between 500 and 700 A.D. dot the island. An exciting find was made near Ishida as recently as 1996, of the moat and foundations of a Yayoi Period village, believed to be between 1,700 and 2,200 years old. These historical remnants are subtle in scale, but make fascinating stops.

From Gonoura, head north to Yu no Moto onsen, easily reached by evening on bicycle although it's hilly going. Yu no Moto is a natural hot spring town, unusual on islands in this part of Kyushu. Relax in the distinctive, reddish waters at several establishments, all with superb views over the ocean. An onsen pass for 4,500 yen allows you to sample eight different onsen.

Campers should head for the nearby Saruiwa, or "monkey rock," whose rocky profile really does look like a sombre, giant ape. Green grass on the rock provides a realistic, hairy back. You almost wonder if the locals didn't add a few creative touches. This dramatic outcrop -- and, in fact, Iki's entire western coast -- directly faces the sun as it sets into the sea. Wake up the next morning perched on a cliff above the azure sea, and follow the coastal road back south.

The tiny, hilly roads of Iki wind past golden rice fields and quiet farmers, wooded copses and masses of glorious cosmos flowers. Take the detour to another bizarre rocky outcrop, Oni no Ashiato, or "devil's footprint," and back to Gonoura. Gonoura has a few cafes, a market and other places to potter around before taking the ferry back. Foreign visitors should drop by the fertility shrine to gawp and giggle at the innumerable phallus sculptures -- quite a sight if you've never seen these before.

If you arrive at Ashiya, take the road south via Iki's easternmost point, Sakyobana Cape, and to the waterline Harahoge Jizo, stone bodhisattvas that protect the island's women divers. Three dramatic beaches, Tsutsukihama, Ohama and Nishikihama, all boast large shady trees and clear, clear water. On the way to Gonoura, near Ishida, is the recently discovered Haru no Tsuji, the second-largest Yayoi Period site in Kyushu. This route is easy cycling, and offers plenty of ad hoc camping opportunities.

North from Ashiya, a number of sites along the roadway are battlegrounds where Mongol forces devastated Iki in 1274 and 1281 on their way to invade Kyushu, before being wiped out themselves by a typhoon each time. Fudoki no Oka, a reconstructed 18th century farming village, is an interesting stop in the center of the island. Katsumoto, Iki's northernmost town, is the departure point for Kushiyama National Park, where a myriad of islands and rocks form a stunning backdrop to the sunset.

Taking a ferry to nearby Tatsunoshima is highly recommended. The island has pristine white sand beaches, and you can see Korea on a clear day from the dramatic cliffs of Jagatani.

Apart from all this excitement, Iki is also a haven of fresh seafood. Uni (sea urchin) is a year-round specialty, while the ika (squid) and buri (yellowtail) are so good in autumn and winter that some city folk come to Iki just to eat lunch, returning to Fukuoka the same day.

The best way to sample the cuisine is staying at a ryokan (a Japanese-style hotel) or minshuku (a Japanese-style bed and breakfast). Lodging, a delicious dinner of seasonal fish and breakfast start at 6,000 yen per person. Iki's main towns have restaurants for evening meals, but there aren't many breakfast or lunch choices. Try buying supplies at supermarkets in the larger towns, and fresh fish at the daily markets for an outdoor feast.

So there you have it: Iki's treasures in a nutshell. Don't wait too long, as the island is unrelentingly windswept in winter, and many services close down until springtime. Take your bike, take a weekend and take several deep breaths of Iki's tranquility.

Ferries leave Fukuoka twice daily for Gonoura and Ashiya. For more information call Kyushu Yusen at (092) 281-6636. For more information on ferries to Hanoshima call Tatsunoshima Tourist Information at (0920) 42-0102. For info. on accommodation, car rental and other tourist facilities, call the Iki Tourism Association (0920) 47-3700.


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