Japan's Shiraishi Island: natural, rural yen for zen

SHIRAISHI ISLAND, Japan — So I'm sunning myself on a chaise longue, when suddenly it hits me: I'm on the perfect Zen vacation. This is Japan, the country that brought you the sound of one hand clapping. And at the moment, I am engaged in the act of inactivity — making the sound of one man napping, you might say. How calm, how relaxing, how blissfully unexpected in a country better known for its urban techno-bustle.

A superficial epiphany, to be sure, but I was on Shiraishi Island, a place where both mind and body tend to wander down roads less traveled. On this one unspoiled chip of the Far East, you can hike to the top of a forested mountain and gaze upon a sea dotted with islands like the backs of so many green whales; you can walk the sandy beach at night and marvel at the luminous phytoplankton glowing in the waves; or you can wind through the streets of the local village and admire magically cultivated miniature trees.

You can do all of this and never feel rushed, never feel pressured. For the time being, you are one with rural Japan.

And this remarkable experience, so much greater than the sum of its simple parts, is also one of the best bargains in otherwise pricey Japan. Thanks to an innovative program designed to attract foreign visitors to this little-known corner of the Japanese countryside, you can spend a night on Shiraishi for about what you'd spend on sushi for two in Tokyo.

Shiraishi (population 800) is in Japan's Seto Inland Sea, which separates two of the country's four main islands, Honshu and Shikoku. To get there from Tokyo, you take a fast, comfortable bullet train for about four hours to Okayama, then switch to a local commuter train for the 45-minute ride to the port town of Kasaoka. There, you catch a ferry (they run frequently) for the half-hour ride to Shiraishi.

If you start early in the morning in Tokyo and travel straight through, you'll reach Kasaoka in plenty of time to make an afternoon ferry. And the trip is eased considerably by the fact that you can ship your luggage ahead with one of Japan's affordable and efficient delivery services, known as takkyubin. Everything will be waiting for you at the dock when you arrive. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the scenery as modern Japan slips away behind you and a sleepier, less ostentatious countryside makes its presence felt.

When my family and I got to Shiraishi, English-language signs pointed us in the direction of our accommodation, the International Villa, a modern wood-and-concrete beach house overlooking the shore and sea beyond.

The villa is one of six places built in the early 1990s as part of a government-business effort to promote tourism around rural Okayama Prefecture, to which Shiraishi belongs. Billed as "Japan's only country-style inns for international exchange," the Okayama villas are reserved for the exclusive use of non-Japanese (and their Japanese guests). They are not hotels. The management supplies twice-a-week maid service, linens, kitchen equipment, a washer-dryer and other basics. You do the rest, in cooperation with your fellow guests. The price: about $30 per person per night, or $25 if you purchase a $4.75 two-year "membership" in the villa network.

And by the way, most of the time you won't have to fight off crowds. High season on Shiraishi seems to be relatively brief, coinciding with Japan's short summer school vacation — 40 days, starting about July 20.

Probably the peak comes during the Shiraishi Odori festival, a colorful nighttime folk dance event that attracts large numbers of visitors Aug. 14-16. Those are the days of obon, Japan's annual pilgrimage of urbanites to the rural homes of their ancestors.

Otherwise, you can sidle up to the Moooo! Bar, a rustic establishment operated during the summer months by, of all people, Amy Chavez from Ohio.

Sipping one of her $4.75 margaritas, you can appreciate the lovely contrasting pattern formed by blue sea water, white sea foam, ocher shore boulders and the dark green trees marching up Shiraishi's steep slopes.

For more energetic pursuits, rent a kayak from one of several laid-back proprietors along the beach and paddle out to a tiny islet with a Shinto shrine. For about $70 per person, a local sailboat operator will take you on a two-hour trip to natural hot springs on nearby Sensui Island.

Well-marked hiking trails lead you all the way around Shiraishi in a couple of hours — longer if you stop for a picnic. Among the sights you can see as you wander from hilltop to hilltop (maximum elevation about 500 feet) is the golden spire of the island's Buddhist monument. The tall, needle-like structure is actually a Thai import, the first of its kind in Japan. They say it houses some of Buddha's ashes and a statue more than 1,200 years old. Shiraishi's population is mostly elderly, and many of them practice the art of bonsai, the uniquely Japanese way of growing miniature potted versions of pines and other large trees. I don't know exactly how they do it, but the effect is enchanting — like something from a J.R.R. Tolkien story come to life. The road into the village was lined with gorgeous gardens.

After six days, departure time arrived — too soon. But Shiraishi held one last surprise for us. My children and I heard a sound like people screaming in unison, coming from somewhere in the distance. Following the noise, we arrived at the local recreation hall, where we found 100 or so high- school students from the surrounding area practicing the ancient martial art of kendo, or "the way of the sword."

We could have watched all day. But we didn't. Alas, the modern world was calling us back from Shiraishi.

If you go

Visiting Shiraishi


To reach Shiraishi by train from Tokyo, take any regularly scheduled train to Okayama city, then transfer to the Sanyo Honsen Line for the 45-minute ride to the town of Kasaoka. The Sanyo Kisen ferry runs local (40 minutes, $4.75 one way) and express (20 minutes, $8.60) trips from Kasaoka to the island.


Reservations for the International Villa on Shiraishi Island, or for any of the other five villas throughout rural Okayama prefecture, can be made through the Okayama International Villa Group, 011-81-86-256-2535 or www.harenet.ne.jp/villa. Cost is $35 per person per night, or $25 with a two-year, $4.75 villa membership.

More information

For more information about Shiraishi Island, consult Moooo! Bar owner/resident Amy Chavez's Web site, JapanLite, www.amychavez.addr.com. The site includes an e-mail address for making boat and restaurant reservations on Shiraishi.