There are many reasons to visit Miyazaki, especially when the weather further north is still wintry. Miyazaki is semi-tropical, with plenty of sunshine and swaying palms. It has some beautiful beaches and wave action that attracts surfers. But it also has attractive rocky coastlines that have contributed to some of the legends that comprise Japan’s origin myths. A visit to Aoshima, just 30 minutes south of Miyazaki city, combines all these attributes.
From the moment you step off the train (or out of your parked rental car), you feel the beach resort atmosphere. Even as you are determined to head immediately to the shoreline, souvenir shops, cafes and ice cream stands beckon. Whether you choose to linger over these distractions now, or return to them later, may depend on the tides.
Aoshima, the teardrop-shaped island just 100 meters offshore that has given its name to this entire area, is most dramatic at low tide. A pedestrian bridge connects the island to the mainland. The island, covered with lush tropical vegetation, is basically sand that has collected at a high point in the coastal rock formations known as the Devil’s Washboard. The rocks, which are nearly submerged at high tide, are alternated beds of sandstone and mudstone that have been pushed into position by geologic upthrust and then eroded by the waves into eerily straight rumble strips of stone.
The island is about 1.5 kilometers in circumference, an easy walk along the sandy beach to enjoy the sight of waves crashing onto the Devil’s Washboard and fishermen battling wind and waves to cast in their lines. If you’re lucky, you might even spy a few brave surfers, hoping to catch good waves without getting caught themselves on the rocks. In fact, these washboard rock formations extend for several kilometers up and down the coast.
Yet, there is another reason to visit the island. It is home to Aoshima Shrine, one of the must-see sights of the area. Aoshima Shrine is especially associated with the legend of Yamasachi-hiko, grandson of Ninigi, the god who descended to earth at Takachiho to bring rice to humans, and his wife, Princess Toyotama, a daughter of the god of the sea. Yamasachi-hiko and Princess Toyotama are the grandparents of Japan’s mythical first emperor, Jimmu. Theirs is a particularly romantic tale leading to the shrine’s traditional associations with happy marriage, healthy childbirth, and safety at sea. The shrine is a popular wedding site even today, according to a priest at the shrine, with French couples who, in pre-coronavirus times, would journey to Japan to be wed at Aoshima Shrine.
It is unclear just when Aoshima Shrine was founded, but there are records of its existence dating back to the early ninth century. The legends associated with it are much, much older, going back around 3,000 years. The details are well explained in the Mythology of Hyuga Museum near the entrance to the shrine (open daily 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.; admission 600 yen). The museum has a number of life-sized dioramas explaining various key episodes of Japan’s origin myths. Most significant to Aoshima is the tale of how Yamasachi-hiko lost a precious fishhook borrowed from his brother and, upon entering the sea to try to retrieve it, met Princess Toyotama, fell in love and married her. Alas, as the bard tells us “the course of true love never did run smooth.” You’ll need to visit the museum for details of the slings and arrows suffered by this particular couple.
Like many of Japan’s sacred islands, historically only priests were permitted on the island. From around the 17th century, samurai class individuals could also visit, but commoners were not permitted on the island until modern times (ie, the late 19th century). Even today, no one is permitted to stay overnight on the island except the head priest, whose presence is required for the performance of various ceremonies throughout the day.
The main shrine and its cloister are lavishly decorated in vermillion and gold, particularly striking since it sits in the middle of a lush tropical jungle. To the right of the main shrine, nearly in the center of the island, sits Moto-miya, a smaller shrine on the site of the original Aoshima Shrine. It is said that this is an auspicious site for casting fortunes. Visitors frequently perform a number of rituals here for good luck, including bringing a shell from the sea to add to a designated pile with a prayer, throwing small bisque plates to break them on a boulder (to “break” a pattern of bad luck), or tying bits of colored string to a dangling rope with a prayer for success (each color provides for a different type of success: academic, monetary, health, love, etc).
Even visitors who don’t bother with any of these cannot fail to be impressed by the dense green foliage that surrounds Moto-miya, especially since this is a “desert” island with no source of fresh water other than rain. Because the island is home to many unique plant species, access is limited to the paths inside the shrine and the island’s perimeter. If you need a stronger dose of the tropics, or want to get up close and personal, take a stroll through the Miyako Botanic Garden back on the mainland near the road leading to the island. The garden is home to various tropical plants, including in two glasshouses. The larger of the two has a catwalk that allows visitors to get close-up views of climbing plants and tropical flowers.
Aoshima’s main sights can be thoroughly explored in just a few hours, making it an easy day trip from Miyazaki city or a stopover if traveling around the area by car. At the same time, the surfing and beach activities on the mainland as well as the changes to the scenery based on the tides can make an overnight stay worthwhile. There are a few onsen hotels in the area, as well as hostelries popular with surfers.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today