x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Land of the setting sun

Danielle Demetriou travels to Amakusa, a group of remote, little-known islands clustered around the southern tip of Japan, for a glimpse of its most famous attraction - the magnificent sky at sunset.

The images are impossible to ignore. From the moment I set foot in the tiny island airport, they are plastered across guidebooks, postcards and posters, all depicting the same thing - a Technicolor sunset sky streaked with vivid reds, pinks and oranges. But glancing at my watch (sunset time) and looking up towards the concrete grey sky, which at that moment, as if on cue, begins to expel a light drizzle, I have only one question. Where is my promised sunset?

My pilgrimage to witness what is widely regarded one of Japan's finest sunset spots had taken me to Amakusa, a wild and remote archipelago of more than 120 tiny islands scattered off the jagged coastline of the southern Kyushu region. The government recognises that Amakusa's sunsets are worth celebrating, and numerous stretches of west-facing coastline are designated as national monuments; however, it's still one of the least developed destinations in Japan.

Its remoteness also explains why these islands became the hiding place of Japanese Christians after the new religion, introduced by Portuguese traders in the mid-16th century, was quickly banned by the ruling Shogunate. The few who do visit are seduced by the drama of its rugged landscape and the relaxing pace of life in its quiet fishing villages where, today, western-style steepled churches sit beside the traditional, centuries-old wooden houses. Throw into the mix some of the cheapest and freshest seafood in the country, as well as a reputation for fine citrus fruits, pottery and pearls, and it is difficult to understand why Amakusa is not a more famous a tourist spot.

Until, that is, I try to actually get there. I decide to skip the 37-hour ferry ride from Tokyo and instead take a southerly 90-minute flight from the capital to Kumamoto on the western coast of Kyushu island. Here, I transfer onto what must be one of the smallest airline in the country: Amakusa Airlines. A tiny airplane emblazoned with dolphins carries me on a blink-and-you-miss it flight that involves taking off and landing with nothing in between.

Twenty minutes later, I arrive at Amakusa City. The word "city" is deceptive: spanning several islands, it is more countryside than urban, with the dubious distinction of being the fastest depopulating area in Japan. A sense of rural seclusion hangs in the air as we drive along quiet roads lined with nondescript stores, low rise houses and green hills. Despite my friendly guide Shirakura-san providing a medley of facts and figures as she drives (the population of Amakusa City is 90,000; hilly terrain with tallest peaks at 457 metres; the main island, Shimoshima, is 43km long), my thoughts are elsewhere and my eyes are skyward. "It might clear up. Possibly. Maybe," says the ever optimistic Shirakura-san with a slightly worried smile.

On board a small sight-seeing boat, we cruise along a route known as the Amakusa Pearl Line, past five bridges and around 30 islands in an hour. The skies remain stubbornly dour as the clouds refuse to oblige my imagination. With promises of a better sunset the following day, next stop is my hotel on Shimoshima: and it is here that I have the first glimpse of the islands' religious heritage. Gosoku no Kutsu is not a typical ryokan. Asprawling network of secluded villas set among a steep mountainside forest 150m above a perfect blue ocean, the hotel embraces an unexpected aesthetic. There are convent-like candle-lit stone corridors, wooden monastery doors, dimly-lit religions paintings, Gregorian chants humming quietly and illuminated statues of the Virgin Mary. Overall, the effect is more boutique hotel than convent, however, due to the stylish design and presence of more luxurious touches - such as lush red cushioned day beds, white egg-shaped baths, ornate bronze figures and elegant wooden bars. Of course, Japanese influences also pop up: there are private outdoor hot-spring baths, sliding screens, invisibly attentive staff and exquisite kaiseki or banquet using local ingredients.

After a night-time dip in my outdoor stone bath beneath a starless sky, I slip into a green cotton yukata kimono, some wooden geta sandals and shuffle my way to dinner. I am silently led to the spartan confines of a small white-walled room with no adornments other than a chandelier over a square table, upon which a handwritten menu is written in calligraphic kanji symbols on a paper scroll. Sitting alone - bearing in mind that most visitors are privacy-loving couples - the setting is soon eclipsed by the delicious food: around a dozen dishes appear one after the other in classic Japanese-inn style, each as delicately pretty and adorned with leaves and flowers.

Pickled sea cucumber, seabream sashimi, chicken cooked on a volcanic stone and black seaweed feature among other less identifiable delights and I am relieved when the finale arrives: green tea and sweet potato jelly. Such a feast ensures that I sleep well in my mountainside room - before an early rise the following morning as I make my way to the neighbouring island of Goroushu. Arriving through thick fog in a local taxi boat, a statue of a dinosaur greets us at the small harbour - reflecting Goroushu's status as home to some of Japan's oldest fossils. We explore the local fossil museum before hacking at nearby coastal rocks with mini pickaxes - and soon fill our souvenir plastic bags with chipped fossil trophies.

Energy levels are boosted as we head to a tiny local restaurant where we kick off our shoes, kneel on tatami mats and tuck into rice bowls topped with delicious raw fish, following the locals' eyes glued to surreal Japanese ads playing on the corner TV. The afternoon reveals the source of our lunch as we head out on a tiny fishing boat with Morita-san and his wife, an elderly couple in their seventies whose friendly weather-beaten faces reflect more than 45 years of daily fishing. Oblivious to the slashing rain and choppy waves, they move silently beneath layers of hats, gloves and waterproofs to loop a large net into the water.

The hefty task of winding in the net shortly after brings with it a cornucopia of maritime treats - from the bloated face of a fugu (pufferfish) to a brilliant red seabream (which my guide takes home for her mother to cook for dinner). The day is coming to a close - but the island's signature sunset is clearly a write off. "It will definitely be nice tomorrow," says Shirakura-san, with a fraction less certainty, before enthusiastically showing me a another postcard of what I'm missing out on. Despite the washout, a late-night soak in the hot spring bath and another extravagant dinner (this time with only a novel for company), ensure another deep sleep.

My final day is devoted to uncovering the legacy of the island's status as a hiding place for Christians. Beneath a thankfully blue sky, my history lesson starts at the museum Rosario Hall, where the island's history as a refuge is recounted. I learn that at its 16th-century peak, more than half of the 10,000 people on Amakusa were Christians, although few followers remain today, most having been killed or forced to convert during its ban. Artifacts on display range from a sign offering awards for telling the authorities of hidden Christians to a hand mirror disguised with Buddhist motifs that cleverly reflects the image of a cross when held in the light.

It is later as we drive along a road curving smoothly past still waters that a classic white church with steeple shifts into focus. Before me is the grandly named Sakitsu Cathedral, built as a monument to the island's past in 1934, which we approach on foot via a winding lane of small wooden Japanese houses. The entrance feels quintessentially Japanese, as we slip off our shoes as upon entering a home - but inside there are rows of pews, an altar and ornate windows. Another, Oe Cathedral, is a more opulent white 1930s building, with lovely views across the island.

Later, as my visit comes to an end and I am about to board the tiny aircraft back to the mainland, I stop on the runway to look at the sky - and happily, I spy a few faint wisps of pink in the darkening sky. It may not be the Technicolor sunset I was promised - but it is the perfect finale to a visit to a corner of Japan that is as beautiful as it is unpredictable.