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Aya

This is my kind of theme park! Called Shusen no Mori (Spirits Forest), 1800-19 Oaza Minamimata (tel. 0985/77-2222), and located in the town of Aya, it bills itself as a "Fine Spirits Theme Park" and lives up to its promise with a variety of facilities open free to the public, including a shochu distillery (with free tours Mon-Fri 9:30am-noon and 1-4pm; advance reservations required); a refined sake plant and a tasting table; a winery where visitors can observe the winemaking process (90% of the grapes are grown in Miyazaki Prefecture; the rest come from elsewhere in Kyushu) and sample the results in a tasting room. There is also a glass-blowing factory, ateliers where woodworkers and potters practice their trade, shops selling locally made crafts, and the delightful Kotto-no-Yakata Antique Pavilion (admission: ¥300/$2.50/£1.25), crammed full with local folk art and antiques, including hair pins, mirrors, store signboards, tobacco pouches, glassware, lacquerware, tea pots, and much more; don't miss the nice garden out back. Top off your day at hot-spring indoor/outdoor baths, open daily 10:30am to 9pm (fee: ¥1,050/$8.75/£4.40). Otherwise, most facilities are free and open daily 9am to 5pm, except for four restaurants -- offering everything from Miyazaki beef and freshwater fish to organic vegetables -- which remain open to 6pm.

To reach Shusen no Mori, take a bus from Tachibana 3-chome in downtown Miyazaki (Discovering Miyazaki has a map with bus stops) once an hour (at last check, 29 min. past each hour), with the trip to the Shusen no Mori stop taking about 50 minutes and costing ¥1,000 ($8.35/£4.20).

Nichinan Coast

South of Miyazaki city is the Nichinan Coast, famous for its beautiful scenery, beaches, and a coastline of exposed and eroded rock sea floor, which is weirdly shaped like rippling waves. Known to Japanese as Oni-no-Sentaku Iwa, or The Ogre's Washboard, it resembles just that.

Here, too, is one of the most famous sights associated with Miyazaki -- Aoshima, a tiny island less than a mile in circumference and connected to the mainland via a long walkway. Surrounded by rippled rock in low tide, it is covered with Betel palms and subtropical plants. It takes only 15 minutes to walk around the island. In its center is a small vermilion shrine, Aoshima Jinja, dedicated to first Emperor Jimmu's grandparents. According to legend, the grandfather, a hunter, was a young man when he and his brother, a fisherman, decided to trade chores. The grandfather, while fishing here on Aoshima, lost his brother's hook and dove into the depths to retrieve it, only to end up on a turtle that delivered him to an undersea Dragon's Palace, where he met a fair princess. When he finally found the hook and returned to land, the princess came with him, later bearing him a son. Because of the legend, Aoshima Shrine is considered fortuitous in matchmaking; those wishing for marriage come here to be blessed. The shrine is open daily from dawn until dusk.

You can reach Aoshima in about 30 minutes from Miyazaki Station on the JR Nichinan Line; the fare is ¥360 ($3/£1.50) and trains depart about every hour. Aoshima island is about a 5-minute walk from Aoshima Station. More frequent are buses departing from Miyazaki Station every 15 to 30 minutes, taking 45 minutes to reach Kodomo-no-Kuni/Aoshima and costing ¥620 ($5.15/£2.60).

Farther south on the Nichinan Coast, about 24km (15 miles) south of Aoshima and 40km (25 miles) south of Miyazaki, is Udo Shrine (tel. 0987/29-1001). Dedicated to the father of Emperor Jimmu, this vermilion-colored shrine is actually located in a cave beside the ocean -- an unusual setting for a shrine, but one boasting an exhilarating view. According to legend, it was here that Emperor Jimmu's grandparents came for the birth of their son. As delivery drew near, the soon-to-be mother asked her husband not to watch. Naturally, he couldn't resist, and to his surprise, his wife turned into a dragon. Ashamed, she fled back to sea, leaving breasts on the cave ceiling to feed her newborn son.

Throughout the ages, Udo Shrine has been famous among newlyweds, who come to pray for harmony in marriage and successful childbirth. In the cave behind the shrine are formations thought to resemble breasts; the water dripping from them is lucky "milk," considered beneficial for pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing mothers (milk candy is a specialty here). If you want to make a wish, purchase some clay pottery pieces at the shrine and try to toss them inside a rope circle that adorns a turtle-shaped rock; if you manage to land one inside the circle, you've got your wish. Women are supposed to throw right-handed, men left-handed.

You can reach Udo Shrine, open daily 7am to 5:45pm by bus from Aoshima or Miyazaki (it takes 70 min. from Miyazaki Station). Get off at Udo Jingu Iriguchi, from which it's a 1-minute walk to the first torii gate, followed by a 20-minute walk along a narrow road to the shrine itself. Note: It takes a lot of time and effort to get to Udo Shrine; go only if you have time to spare.

A Beach & an Amusement Park -- Near Aoshima you'll find Aoshima Beach, Miyazaki Prefecture's most popular swimming and windsurfing beach, open July and August (jellyfish make it impractical other months of the year); and Kodomo-no-Kuni (tel. 0985/65-1111), a small amusement park known also for its year-round flowers and nightly fireworks during summer vacation. The park's kiddie rides and paddle boats are good for younger children. It's open Wednesday to Monday 9am to 5pm (but closed irregularly for cleaning) with varying extended hours on holidays (to 9pm during summer vacation). Admission is free (except during Flower Festival, mid-Mar to May, when admission is ¥800/$6.65/£3.35 for adults and ¥400/$3.35/£1.70 for children). Rides cost extra.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.