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Friday, April 30, 2004

HINASE ISLANDS

Get away from it all without going so far


Staff writer

HINASE, Okayama Pref. -- Most people, if asked to name their favorite islands in Japan, might plump for the southernmost and most exotic ones which together comprise Okinawa Prefecture. Others, less enamored of balmy climes, might prefer Niigata Prefecture's Sado Island in the Sea of Japan; while some may opt for Tokyo's remote Ogasawara Islands, which lie a 25-hour ferry trip from the capital.

News photo
The view west from Kakui Island over the green Hinase Islands scattered amid the blue of the Seto inland Sea.

But there are many other islands to choose from -- so next time you feel an attack of islanditis coming on, why not visit the lesser-known Hinase Islands in Okayama Prefecture?

Sprinkled around the Seto Inland Sea of western Honshu, these small islands are neither luxurious resort destinations, nor so remote as to attract those with an explorer's bent. They do, though, offer far more than the natural beauty and fabulous seafood visitors might expect.

For instance, Hinase Town, located on the mainland in the southeastern corner of Okayama Prefecture, is known for its equable climate, which allows massive olive trees to flourish there. The Seto Inland Sea, too -- which in 1934 became Japan's first national park -- is famed for its frequently mirrorlike surface and an emerald-green color often compared with the Aegean Sea in the Mediterranean.

The 13 Hinase Islands themselves vary considerably in size and population -- some are home only to wild animals, while others have a well-appointed tourist infrastructure.

On a recent visit, I toured two of the islands: Kashira and Kakui.

Kashira Island, a 15-minute ferry ride from Hinase Town, is the most populous of the group, with 468 residents, and it also has about 20 inns for tourists. Interestingly, as kashira means "head" in Japanese, local people are fond of recounting with pride that Kashira Island got its name because people born there tend to be natural leaders.

In a similarly assertive way, rather than just viewing the ferry trip as a kind of marine bus ride, the Okayama tourist office likes to promote such hops around the Hinase Islands as "cruises" in the Seto Inland Sea. The beautiful sea and scenery certainly make you feel the word isn't entirely misplaced.

Hiking around Kashira Island, which is about 4 km in circumference, is a good way to glimpse the lives of the islanders -- whether you stroll through hillside orange groves or watch fishing boats bringing in the day's catch. If you ascend the gentle slope to the high point of the island, you will be rewarded with marvelous views over the Seto Inland Sea, with Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands, away in the distance. In the heat of summer, seek out Sotowa Beach, the only one on Kashira Island, which is the perfect place to bask and unwind.

News photo
Visitors to Kakui Island's Mahoroba "prehistoric" park learn how to make fire without matches or a lighter.

When you're done with hiking, musing and sunning yourself, though, there's always the seafood to look forward to. Take fresh oysters, for starters. Here, you can enjoy them every which way -- raw, fried, steamed or boiled. Other marine morsels that don't come much better than on Kashira Island include sawara (sierra), anago (conger eel), sazae (turban shell), mebaru (rockfish) and kuruma-ebi (prawn).

For a contrast to spiling yourself on Kashira, head for the "primitive" delights of Kakui Island -- which has only 13 residents -- offer the lure of a splendid day trip to explore its untouched nature.

Most of Kakui Island, which is the biggest of the Hinase Islands, and some 28 km in circumference, is a designated animal sanctuary that is especially known for its deer. The reason for this goes back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when it was a lord's hunting reserve. From then on, Kakui Island remained inhabited until the late 1940s, and even now its orange-growing human population is far outnumbered by its deer.

Unfortunately, I didn't bump into a single deer during my short stop on the island. That was because, locals explained, the animals like to walk around in the morning and at night but spend most of the day asleep. When they're not doing that, though, it seems they like to take a dip, and are sometimes seen swimming like horses to neighboring islands.

But Kakui Island's attractions don't start and finish with deer and orange groves. The island offers visitors a chance to time-travel to prehistory at a park named Mahoroba, which means "good place" in ancient Japanese. The inspiration for this was broken pieces of ancient earthenware pottery found on the island, which has led archaeologists to determine that it was inhabited in the Jomon Period (ca.10,000- ca.300 B.C.). As a result, visitors to Mahoroba can now try their hand at such "primitive" activities as making fire and creating earthenware pottery -- and, should they wish, they can even stay in the park's "prehistoric" lodges.

Meanwhile, nicely timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Seto Inland Sea's designation as a national park, in December a bridge between Kakui Island and Kashira Island is set to be opened. This will certainly make it easier for visitors and residents to get to these islands, but also, perhaps, for deer to visit, too -- without even getting their hooves wet.

Boats for Hinase Island leave Hinase Port near JR Hinase Station. You can reach Hinase Station by JR Ako Line in 1 hour from JR Okayama Station. For more information, call Hinase Town Tourism Association at (0869) 72-1919.

If you make it to Okayama this year, another must-go place is Oku Town in the southeast of the prefecture, the hometown of Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934), the Taisho Era artist renowned for his paintings of fragile-looking, kimono-clad young women to whom a museum in Okayama City is dedicated.

People in this part of the world are proud of this great painter, illustrator and poet, and this year -- being the 120th anniversary of his birth -- special efforts are being made to attract visitors to view his home, his studio and the museum.

Born the son of a sake-maker in Oku, Takehisa lived there till he was 16, when his family moved to Fukuoka Prefecture in Kyushu. That may have given him itchy feet, because afterward Takehisa came to be known as the "vagabond artist" from the number of times he relocated while always continuing to create his artworks. One such move saw him design and open a studio in Matsubara in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward in 1924. Called Shonen Sanso, this is now restored and relocated in Oku.

For Takehisa fans, however, the most rewarding visit may be the Yumeji Kyodo Museum in Okayama City. Located near Okayama Castle, this showcases about 100 of the artist's masterpieces, including paintings of various sizes and in various mediums, illustrations and designs for magazine covers. One of the outstanding, larger works here is a "byobu-e," painting on a 157 × 167-cm folding screen, titled "Aki no ikoi (Repose in Autumn)."

To commemorate the 120th anniversary of Takehisa's birth, the museum is holding a series of special exhibitions till February next year, featuring a wide variety of his works, including poems and postcard designs. Meanwhile, in Takehisa's studio and home in Oku, exhibitions are also being held till early December, offering visitors the chance to get even closer to the source of his inspiration.

Also this year, the museum (together with Takehisa Yumeji Ikaho Kinenkan [Ikaho Yumeji Takehisa Memorial Hall] in Gunma Prefecture) is staging a major exhibition in Yokohama in October, with some 350 examples of Takehisa's work on display.

Yumeji Kyodo Museum in Okayama City is 10 minutes by car from JR Okayama Station. For more information, call (086) 271-1000.

Takehisa's home and his Shonen Sanso in Oku Town are 10 minutes by car from Oku Station on the JR Ako Line. For more information, call Takehisa's home on (0869) 22-0622 and Shonen Sanso on (0869) 22-3335.


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