Japan's Shiraishi: That Was Zen

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005

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 we 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.

The Shiraishi villa has five double-occupancy rooms, designed for about 10 adults to live together in airy comfort. My wife, our three children (ages 7, 4 and 2 months) and I easily fit into two rooms. To our delight (and, I admit, our relief), the others staying at the villa that week were an interesting, friendly bunch. A Japanese-American English teacher, his Okinawan girlfriend and their friend, a Canadian woman, made up one group; another consisted of a Dutch woman, her Japanese university professor husband and their two sons. After a day or so, we were cooking and eating together and relaxing on the beach like old friends.

One of the items we shared was a gizami, the tasty, rainbow-hued fish my son plucked out of the sea while angling with his new Dutch Japanese friends. If you're so inclined, you can also dine at one of the home-style restaurants along the beach.

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 Ohioan Amy Chavez, of all people. 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. If not yet tipsy, you can 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.

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