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Sunday, October 4, 2009
Roughly 300 km southwest ofOkinawa, a low plateau sits above the translucent, turquoise sea. This isMiyako, centrepiece of a small archipelago of the same name, and of the coral reefs, raised from the seabed thousands of years ago. Miyako’s fame in Japan’s main islands is based on its gorgeous white sand beaches, its golf courses and its reef dive sites. Two long bridges unit Miyako with its seven satellite islands, making their coral reefs and wildlife easily accessible. The islanders are proud of their status as a mainstream tourist destination.
Most visitors remain oblivious to Miyako’s indigenous culture, a variant developed from ancientRyukyu kingdomcentred in Okinawa. Over 15,000 islanders speak Miyako, a Ryukyu language and four of its settlements have their own dialect, even though they are so close.
They are 15 survivingGusukusites scattered round Miyako, shrines sacred to a history and way of life veiled to beach holidaymakers. During the years, each district conducts its own sacred rite. Shimajiri district’s Pantu rite consists of three local men daubed in grass and mud, and carrying sticks and a grotesque face-mask. They represent gods and chase people to smear them with mud. Being caught and muddied -up guarantees a year of protection by the deities. The Karimata district has its Uyagan rite, a form of harvest festival.In the sugarcane fields not yet claimed for new tourist facilities, these rites are the public face of Miyako’s cultural soul, and like the island itself, they have a rare and profound beauty.
When to go:Year-round.Population:55, 914.How to get there:By air from Naha (Okinawa), Haneda or Kansai, to Miyako.