Timeworn Coast

When evening falls on Miyazaki and its ubiquitous scarlet and indigo evening sky drops behind the phoenix palms that line many of the city’s roads and boulevards, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are strolling through a middle-class quarter of Cairo or Marbella.

The city reminded travel writer Will Ferguson fleetingly of Miami, but one “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.”

Like Miami, Miyazaki is said to have one of the highest per capita number of gambling establishments in the country, a hangover perhaps from its heyday as one of Japan’s top honeymoon spots. Modern Japanese couples, finding Miyazaki too provincial for their taste, its locally grown mangos and palm fronds a poor shot at exotica, have since moved on but not the casinos and pachinko establishments that still attract a hardcore of serious gamblers and local enthusiasts, as well as growing numbers of Chinese and Koreans who descend on the city from Beppu and Mount Aso.

Miyazaki’s attractions are very much in the eye of the beholder. Its main draw card, the Phoenix Seagaia Resort, is by any standards, a daring project. Containing luxury hotels, a hot spring, spa, golf course and zoo, much of the publicity it has received comes from its man-made indoor beach called Ocean Dome. Although it’s only a few minutes walk from a real beach, its temperature controlled, unsalted water attracts thousands of vacationers, drawn by its simulation of a tropical paradise replete with a wave machine sending 3.5-meter-high breakers pulsing across the water at regular intervals.

More manageable for the casual traveler is the Miyazaki Prefectural Museum of Nature and History, a digest of local history and geography in the best of presentational taste. Archeologists work here on pottery shards and there is another tangible link to the past in the small collection of old thatched houses on the same grounds that form the Minka-en. The city also boasts an excellent Science Center where, among the displays of robots and satellite imagery, you will find the world’s largest planetarium.

At the center of Peace Park, the Haniwa Clay Figurine Garden is a curiosity worth visiting, with its replicas of fourth-century haniwa models that were discovered in a nearby burial mound. The original statues were probably made to protect aristocratic tombs. Representing dancers, animals, houses and ordinary country folk, the models stand on damp, moss-covered earth under a cops of trees. A self-mocking humor marks the expressions on the faces of many of these Japanese ancestors. Models of cuddly animals with cheerful, comical expressions stand beside figures strongly suggestive of Grecian statues, vases and urns balanced on their heads or shoulders. If some of the facial expressions are engaging, others disturb. Models with mouths agape in soundless horror are like figures from butoh, Japan’s avant-garde dance theater. Artist Edvard Munch, you feel, may well have seen a photo plate depicting one of these figures while he was leafing through a book of Oriental art, resituating the face onto that of a man crossing a bridge somewhere in Europe.

The Tower of Peace is also here, Miyazaki’s most hideous structure, built, strangely enough, in 1940. A mix of then prevailing Teutonic ideas, the structure is a now badly stained column topped with mythological gods clothed in contemporary, quasi-military garments. It’s astonishing to think the building has managed to survive the war, the American Occupation and post-war 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 Uriuo Hachiman Jinga; and a gnarled, white wistaria at Miyazaki Shrine.

If Miyazaki city is pleasant but unprepossessing, a place for atmospherics rather than major sightseeing, more interest can be added to the mix along the Nichinan coast that stretches south of the city. The delightful Nichinan Line train follows the shore, taking a slightly inland route. This is most definitely a rural line. When the two orange and yellow carriages, with their period ceiling fans and lumpy upholstery, stop at country stations further down the track to pick up locals and school children, the scenes are strongly evocative of stills from an old Ozu film set in the Ô60s.

The crowds where they exist at all along this part of western Kyushu are reserved for Aoshima, a seaside resort with plenty of action and animation of the modern kind at its beaches, cafes, hotels and amusement arcades. Patronized by sun-worshippers and weekend surfers, Aoshima’s principal attraction is its tiny subtropical island of the same name. The islet is 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 gun-metal gray of a capsized war ship; a barrier reef of takoyaki molds.

By now, a less advanced, or more mystical people than the Japanese would surely have claimed an extra-terrestrial foundation myth for these striated lines. Similar but smaller suppurations of rock can be found further 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 sub-tropical character to this coast, covering the area in a jungle of green tuft and luxuriant plants. Aoshima Jinga, an attractive vermilion-colored shrine, stands at the center of the island.

Further down the coast, the Grand Shrine of Udo Jinga is dedicated to Ninigi-no-Mikoto, whose grandson, according to the convolutions of Japanese mythology, was the father of Jimmu, the country’s first emperor. This shrine, located about 30 kilometers south of Aoshima, 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, carrying visitors into the grotto’s damp air. Forms take a moment to emerge as the eyes adjust to the dim light, and one slowly becomes aware of the sound of dripping water, the dull tinkle of coins dropping into the offertory box and the rattle of a prayerbell. 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, what look at first like hanging coils of vipers, are shimenawa ropes, indicating the presence of gods.

Emperor Jimmu is believed to have been washed in this cave at birth. Besides its dedicatory functions, the shrine serves as an augury 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 vaguely 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 farther south, Ishinami Beach is one of the finest stretches of unspoiled white sand along the Nichinan coast. Kojima, situated at the southern end of the cove, is inhabited by wild monkeys. A cluster of rustic farmhouses, doubling in the summer months as minshuku (guesthouse), lie within a short stroll of the beach. Toi Misaki, a scenic but over-developed cape marred by tacky hotels and other resort facilities, marks the southern tip of this extraordinary and timeworn coast.


Travel Information

Miyazaki has a serviceable airport, railway station, and long-distance bus and ferries, making it relatively easy to get to from anywhere in Japan. There is a good tourist information office in the station, offering maps in English and other help.

The super luxury Sheraton Grande Ocean Resort (tel: 09855-21-1133) is expensive but will pamper you. Cottage Himuka (tel: 0985-21-1111), part of the Luxze Hitotsube condominium hotel, has units in a beautiful garden setting for between ´7,900-12,100. Even more reasonable is the Hotel Kensington (tel: 00985-20-5500), a comfortable business hotel right in the center of town. Suginoko, a traditional restaurant along Tachibana-dori Nishi, offers tasty local cuisine. Aoshima is located just five kilometers down the coast on the JR Nichinan Line from Miyazaki Station.

Story & photos by Stephen Mansfield
From J SELECT Magazine, November 2007