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Viewed from the air, the Oki Islands of Shimane Prefecture look like verdant cushions gently sitting atop the Sea of Japan. As our propeller-powered aircraft descends through clouds, more details emerge. Rows of settlements, roads, and waterways hewn out of earth sit in a great valley, connecting one end of the islands’ emerald seashore to the other.

On the ground, the perspective shifts entirely. Signs of human habitation seem few and far between. A number of outbuildings and a two-storied airport terminal stand before us. Heavily forested mountains jutting out of the light blue sea frame the horizon.

As we arrive, our guides Ryuji Miyahara and Teresa Sadkowsky greet us with broad smiles.

A native of the Oki Islands, Miyahara is director of tourism promotion at the Oki branch of the Shimane prefectural government. Sadkowsky, who hails from Australia, is a coordinator of international relations on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. She also works on the Oki Islands Global Geopark Promotion Committee.

Talking to The Journal, Miyahara said, “The vast nature—characteristic of the Oki Islands—and traditional lifestyles that remain here, have been identified by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as something special. I think that visitors can experience this through interaction with the local people.”

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HISTORY
In 2013, the islands became part of the Global Geoparks Network, which defines geoparks as “single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education, and sustainable development.”

Such designated areas, which may include a coastline, forest, or rock formation, “may have aesthetic beauty or scientific importance—or both,” said Sadkowsky.

The Oki Islands UNESCO Global Geopark provides a number of services, such as local guiding, education including fieldwork with schoolchildren, and academic research in partnerships with universities. Located there are the Oki Nature Museum and Oki Islands Geopark Visitor Center, which has exhibits on the islands’ ecological and geological past.

Located 40–80km off the coast, the Oki Islands consist of the Dozen Islands—Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima, and Chiburijima—and Dogo Island, the largest of the four inhabited islands. There are also about 180 islands in the area that are uninhabited.

From the awe-inspiring Sekiheki Red Cliff and the ethereal Dangyo-no-taki Waterfalls to the enigmatic, 800-year-old Chichi-sugi (Japanese cedar), the islands are a living natural history museum.

Anthropological evidence suggests humans have lived in the region for around 30,000 years. By the Middle Ages, the islands had become notorious for hosting noblemen in exile, such as the 14th-century Emperor Godaigo.

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CULTURAL TREASURES
Today, evidence of the islands’ affinity with the sea can still be seen in the fishing towns. One of the islands’ many charms is that small boats, anchored next to homes, line myriad waterways.

Cultural forms of expression—such as the gore-furyu festival, where horses are led to the Tamawakasu-mikoto Shrine on Dogo Island—are also popular features of local life: “One of the things I really enjoy is the variety of cultural events on the islands,” Sadkowsky shared.

In early September, she explained, visitors can enjoy the Dangyo Shrine Festival. “When you get there, you’ll see a bull ring with people sitting around it on the hill. That is where you can see the bull sumo matches, which pit one bull against another. A winner is determined as soon as one bull turns away, at which point they are separated to avoid injury.”

The calendar of festivals on the islands runs between April and November. One highlight is the colorful shara-bune (spirit boats) festival on August 16, when locals say farewell to their ancestors.

Activities are a hit, and include swimming in the sea (June–September), sea kayaking tours of coastal caves (April–October), and diving. There are also a number of immaculate beaches.

Recreational fishing is growing in popularity, and cruises along the Kuniga coast go past the jagged Matengai Cliff and through the Tsutenkyo Arch to the ghostly Akekure-no-iwaya Cavern.

Hiking through primeval forests with the Geopark-led eco-tours, picnicking at the stunning Akao Lookout on Nishinoshima Island, or camping in the idyllic Jodogaura Campground on Dogo Island provide endless wonders for visitors.

“I love being able to jump into the car, drive a couple of minutes, and be surrounded by stunning nature,” said Sadkowsky, who has lived in the area for more than four years.

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TOUR HIGHLIGHTS
The first port of call during our whistle-stop tour was Saigo-misaki Cape Park on the southern coast of Dogo Island.

From a lookout next to Saigo-misaki Lighthouse, we enjoyed a breathtaking view of the rugged coastline as we strained to spy the enigmatic Tokage-iwa Rock, which famously resembles a lizard.

After lunch and a pit stop at the geopark visitors’ center, we drove past Tsuma Bay to the spectral beauty of Dangyo waterfalls. Its kachi-mizu (winning water), which is said to bring good luck to those who drink it, is renowned.

Another highlight was the devastatingly beautiful view from Onimai Lookout on Nishinoshima Island. From there, you have not only splendid views of the Sea of Japan, but also verdant farmland. Enjoying the view, while cows and horses grazed lazily nearby, was satisfaction itself. Rumor has it that these are the happiest cows and horses in the world. It is easy to understand why.

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