Japan's Oki Islands, an archipelago of 184 volcanic extrusions in the Sea of Japan – four of them inhabited – give new meaning to the phrase "back of beyond." In the nine hours since I've left Tokyo, I've travelled by Shinkansen, or bullet train, an express train and a very local one-car locomotive with squid emblazoned on its seat upholstery. Now I have to take a two-hour ferry before I'll reach Nishinoshima island.
How disappointing, then, after all this strenuous getting away, to be stuck in a rush-hour gridlock my first day here. Eleven, no, make that 12 large black cows block the two-lane blacktop. My friend, Nicola, who's lived here for three years, attempts to ease our van between their flanks, but the cows hold firm. "Usually they move by now, but these girls are … Look!" The creatures part to reveal a small brown calf, ears back, front hooves tucked under, the mother's big head hanging solicitously over it as the rest of her bovine companions crowd round.
Cows are free range on Nishinoshima. The island's basically all mountain, so livestock graze diagonally, sometimes vertically.
What kind of new-found parallel universe have I wandered into, where the air, instead of being sulphurous and chewy (are you with me, Toronto?), is so pure it gets you high? Where tap water, instead of needing to be boiled five minutes before drinking (shout out to Montreal!), pours sweet and clear? A universe where trees, instead of succumbing to disease, grow to be thousands of years old? Where dinner, instead of getting trucked in from thousands of kilometres away, comes from your guesthouse's back garden, your traditional inn's side paddy or from the lapping bay across the road from your low-rise hotel?
After a night of heavy rain, I head up Mount Takuhi to see the island's oldest shrine. I'm following Shinto priest Michihito Matsuura, but the path is more mud than pebbles. With every breeze, the great cedars shed the rainwater they've gathered throughout the night. Hundreds of small butterflies – umber, blue, dappled gold – play chicken with darting iridescent dragonflies. I use the golf umbrella the priest gave me as a walking stick; he suggested it will also make an awesome weapon against mamuki, small but lethal snakes, the thought of which keeps me quite nimble.
We round a dripping bend and Takuhi Shrine rears up, an intricately carved and richly weathered structure smelling faintly of incense, built into the rock face as long as a thousand years ago.
Inside his private, austere quarters, Matsuura whips us up bowls of frothy green tea and hands me a black sugar nodule to suck on before drinking the bitter liquid. He lights a cigarette, pulls out his iPhone and on its small screen shows me a woodblock print from the 1850s showing Nishinoshima and the shrine, by Hiroshige, one of Japan's greatest artists. The tatami rustles as I try to find a comfortable position for my big feet under the low table. We lapse into silence as the sea, a distant island and a small village veil and unveil before us.
I don't know this man at all – our hike was arranged by the Nishinoshima Tourism office – and yet, as sometimes happens in Japan with total strangers, companionable silence extends into something more remarkable: an hour or two of contemplative serenity where time's suspended, your heart rate slows and you think you catch a glimpse of perfect harmony. But then, inevitably, you have to go back down the mountain.
Nishinoshima is so elementally beautiful – the transparent sea, the salty air, the mountain, the ancient cedars – that you want to be out in it at every possible moment. The next afternoon, Nicola decides I should hike the verdant cliffs of the Kuniga Coast, even though the wind today knocks me sideways each time I step out of the van. At the head of the path she hands me a walking stick and points the way – she has errands to run and will meet me with the van at the far end of the trail.
I tramp across spongy turf and emerald highland pastures. Mist swirls over the crest of a hill and follows me all day. It also skews perception – for a moment, the shape that looms before me looks purely mythical: A roan stallion with golden mane and enormous, tufted hooves grazes nearby his foal and its mother, blond tails streaming in the wind.
As I reach the headland, the sea sprawls out far below me, crashing round a chain of fantastically shaped rock formations. Carved by wind and water, they're banded in different coloured layers – beige, grey, burnt orange – that mark each successive volcanic eruption that formed them.
I fight the wind back to the van. "The stone figures are called Tenjo-Kai," Nicola shouts as I wrestle open the door, which translates, she tells me, into "heavenly world."
In the distance, I see Mount Takuhi has been rubbed white by the fog, and looking out to sea, more mountains on other islands are also nearly effaced. This is a heavenly world indeed.
The writer visited courtesy of Nishinoshima Tourism. It did not review or approve the article.