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Tuesday, June 26, 2001

MIYAZAKI'S NICHINAN COAST

Down the Devil's Washboard


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD

When evening falls on Miyazaki, a scarlet and indigo sky drops behind the phoenix palms that line many of the city's roads. You might think you were strolling through a middle-class quarter of Cairo or Marbella.

The atmosphere of Miyazaki City often suggests the Caribbean more than it does Japan.

The city reminded travel writer Will Ferguson fleetingly of Miami, but "without the handguns or shiploads of narcotics or Cuban exiles. Both cities," he noted, "do share the same sun-bleached feel, where the colors fade into pastel shades of neglect and where the people are grateful for a breeze."

Once it was one of Japan's top honeymoon spots. Modern Japanese couples, finding Miyazaki too provincial for their taste, its mangoes and palm fronds a poor shot at exotica, have moved on, and prefectural authorities are working hard to develop other tourist attractions.

The grandiose Seagaia, or Ocean Dome, theme park proved a failure; authorities are negotiating with U.S. investment fund Ripplewood Holdings to take it over in hope of a turnaround. Meanwhile, Miyazaki's deep history offers possibilities. At the center of Peace Park, the Haniwa Garden is worth visiting, with its replicas of 5th-6th century haniwa clay figures, standing on damp, moss-covered earth under a copse of trees. The expressions on the faces of many of these Japanese ancestors give an impression of self-mocking humor. Models of animals with cheerful, comical expressions stand beside figures that suggest Greek statues, vases and urns balanced on their heads or shoulders.

Other facial expressions disturb. Models with mouths agape in soundless horror are like figures from butoh, Japan's avant-garde dance theater. Edvard Munch, you feel, might have seen a photo of one of these figures before painting "The Scream."

The Tower of Peace, Miyazaki's most hideous structure, has also stood here since it was built, strangely enough, in 1940. A mix of prevailing Teutonic ideas, it's astonishing that this now badly stained column, topped with mythological gods clothed in contemporary, quasimilitary garments, survived the war, the American Occupation, and postwar tastes.

Traces of a far older cultural geography are visible elsewhere, protruding through the surface of the city: burial and shell mounds, ancient camphor trees at the Uriuo Hachiman Jinja, a gnarled wisteria at Miyazaki Shrine.

A striated basalt formation known as the "Devil's Washboard" stretches along the Nichinan Coast of Miyazaki Prefecture.

If Miyazaki is pleasant but unprepossessing, more interest is found along the Nichinan coast that stretches south of the city.

The Nichinan train line follows the shore, slightly inland. This is a decidedly rural line. When the two orange and yellow carriages, with their period ceiling fans and lumpy upholstery, stop at country stations to pick up locals and school children, one might be in an Ozu film.

The crowds, where they exist at all along this part of eastern Kyushu, are reserved for Aoshima, a seaside resort with action of the modern kind at its beaches, cafes, hotels and amusement arcades.

Patronized by sun-worshippers and weekend surfers, Aoshima's main drawing card is its tiny subtropical island of the same name, surrounded by great platforms of "devil's washboard," eroded rock formations, row upon row of shallow pools, indented octopus-shaped rings, sunk into long furrows of basalt which disappear at high tide.

At low tide, comparisons flood the mind: lines of buckled portholes bored into the gunmetal gray of a capsized warship; a barrier reef of takoyaki molds. Similar but smaller suppurations of rock occur farther down the coast.

The Black Current streams up from Okinawa and the Pacific, reaching the Japanese mainland at Aoshima and imparting in the process a subtropical character to this coast, covering Aoshima in a jungle of green and luxuriant plants. Aoshima Jinja, an attractive vermilion-colored shrine, stands at the center of the island.

Further down the coast, Udo Grand Shrine is dedicated to Ugayafukiaezu no Mikoto, who according to Japanese mythology was the father of Jinmu, the country's first emperor. This vermilion shrine, about 30 km south of Aoshima in the city of Nichinan, occupies an unusual setting in a cave right beside the ocean. The staircase that leads to the mouth of the cave, flanked by bright red-and-orange banisters, clings to the rock face.

Forms take a moment to emerge as the eyes adjust to the dim light, the sound of dripping water, the dull tinkle of coins dropping into the offertory box, the rattle of a prayer bell.

As the scene comes into focus, the shrine's gray roof is revealed as copper green, its gargoyles turn out to be curved dragons, and hanging shimenawa ropes indicate the presence of gods.

Emperor Jinmu is believed to have been washed in the cave at birth. Besides its dedicatory functions, the shrine offers auguries for propitious marriages and successful births. At the bottom of the cliff, couples make a wish and try to throw pieces of clay pottery into a circular rope decorating a turtle-shaped rock, in the hope that it will ensure harmony in marriage.

Milk sweets are sold at a nearby shrine shop to those entering the cave to see formations similar in shape to female breasts. The water dripping from the rocks is compared to mother's milk.

Proceeding southward, Ishinami Beach is one of the finest stretches of unspoiled white sand along the Nichinan coast. Kojima, at the southern end of the cove, is inhabited by wild monkeys.

A cluster of rustic farmhouses, doubling in the summer months as minshuku, lie within a short stroll of the beach. Toi Misaki, a scenic but overdeveloped cape marred by tacky hotels and other resort facilities, marks the southern tip of this extraordinary, timeworn coast.



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