KYUSHU - In the name of love, Ms Yurina Okubo ditched the bright city lights of Fukuoka for the remote island of Iki, 93km off the coast of Nagasaki prefecture.
"The men from the offshore islands are warmer and friendlier," says Ms Okubo, a 29-year-old former dolphin trainer who uprooted after marriage to an Iki native. She works at Nagasaki's first craft beer brewery.
Aptly named Island Brewery (249 Katsumotoura, Iki, Nagasaki; tel: +81-92-042-0010; open: 10am to 10pm daily; go to iki-island.co.jp), the taproom used to be home to a shochu (Japanese hard liquor) distillery that was founded in 1887.
This was not without coincidence. Iki is where barley shochu was born in the 16th century, and the seven distilleries still on the island continue to reap awards for the robust and complex flavours of their shochu.
But the distillery's fifth-generation owner Tomosuke Harada, 46, decided to switch to craft beer, giving the place a makeover last year while leaving untouched the Edo-era facade that characterises the shopping street which the distillery sits on.
"The thinking was that by doing something different, we could help rejuvenate local tourism and build excitement," Ms Okubo says.
She does have a point.
Japan's offshore islands face serious competition for travellers when the nation eases its Covid-19 border control measures and opens up to tourists.
I meet her on a five-day, four-night hosted trip to Kyushu, with the itinerary focusing on the offshore islands of Iki and Amami-Oshima. I have also visited the Goto Islands on a previous trip.
But if I may be honest, Iki would otherwise not have been anywhere near the top of my list of places in Japan to visit.
Japan has 47 prefectures and, in a recent column, I have noted how most avid travellers have a bucket list to finish visiting all the regions.
The 47 prefectures are located across five "main islands", the largest of which is Honshu, where metropolises such as Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka are situated. Completing the quintet are Hokkaido, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa.
Yet, official statistics show that Japan has more than 6,800 ritou (offshore islands), of which just 416 are inhabited. Many of them are difficult to get to and their lack of frequent transport options means it will take a lot of patience and planning to visit these islands.
A case in point: I have been wanting to go to the Unesco Heritage-recognised Ogasawara Islands located 1,000km south of Tokyo, which do not have an airport and are serviced by just one 24-hour ferry a week, both ways.
But during the pandemic, I have come to realise that these trips are good for introspection and a key reminder to take things slow, that life need not always be a rush with a travel itinerary jammed to the brim.
They are also an opportunity for self-reconnection, with the rural islands often rich in "power spots", a concept that is in vogue in Japan.
These could be spiritual - think shrines or temples - or an untouched spot of nature where visitors can almost sense the flow of invisible energy and the elements coursing in their surroundings.
Beyond this, Iki is a gourmand's dream. I feast on sea urchin, harvested by the island's respected 300 ama (women divers) in what is a sunset industry nationwide, at Watatsumi (201 Katsumotocho Katsumotoura, Iki, Nagasaki; tel: +81-92-042-2345; open: 11am to 4pm daily). The uni is one of the best I have had across Japan, with a rich lingering sweetness.
Then, there is the premium Iki beef. It is far less famous than its cousins from Kobe or Matsusaka and for good reason. The mineral-rich beef is far rarer, with just 900 heads of cattle exported each year.
Be sure to book a table at one of Iki's most highly rated spots, Ajidokoro Umeshima (2604-86 Ashibecho Hakozakinakayamafure, Iki, Nagasaki; tel: +81-92-045-3729; open: 11.30am to 2.30pm and 5.30 to 9.30pm, closed on Wednesdays) for a yakiniku meal of tender Iki beef, paired with Island Brewery beer.
Rejuvenate at power spots
Covid-19 has given a new wind to the notion of "power spots" in Japan, with many seeking self-rejuvenation and a spiritual energy boost from which good luck, mojo and karma will flow.
Pawa suppoto meguri (touring power spots) is an activity that is now popular even among celebrities and politicians.
And there are no lack of power spots on Japan's offshore islands, some of which are also Unesco World Heritage Sites.
My own interest in off-the-beaten-track destinations had taken me to the Goto Islands in Nagasaki prefecture in 2020.
Goto was where many "hidden Christians" practised their faith in secret for over two centuries for fear of persecution, as there had been a ban on the religion during the shogunate era.
This ban was lifted in 1873, after which as many as 50 churches were built, such as the red-brick, gothic Dozaki Catholic Church (2019 Okura-chou, Goto, Nagasaki; tel: +81-95-973-0705; opening hours vary by season; 300 yen or S$3.50 for adults).
Then soak up some natural energy from the sea breeze and clear waters at the Takahama Beach (Miirakumachi Kaitsu, Goto, Nagasaki), which is recognised as one of Japan's top 100 beaches.
Another "remote island" World Heritage site is Amami-Oshima in Kagoshima prefecture. The island, not to be confused with Izu-Oshima off Tokyo, earned its Unesco recognition last year for its pristine sub-tropical rainforests with a high biodiversity value, being home to many rare species.
Amami-Oshima has a tropical climate not unlike Okinawa's. Think humidity, sudden thunderstorms, rows of palm trees, and the carefree island atmosphere.
Get closer to nature and spot wildlife at the Mangrove Primeval Forest (478 Sumiyo-cho Ishihara, Amami, tel: +81-99-756-3355), one of Japan's largest mangrove reserves.
I go on a canoe tour through rows of mangroves before disembarking and wading through knee-deep water in low tide, as my guide explains the ecology.
Travellers from Singapore may also feel some affinity with Amami-Oshima for its local speciality is keihan (chicken rice).
In the local, healthier twist, strips of chicken are placed on a bed of rice, along with slices of omelette, ginger, mushrooms and green onion. Chicken broth is then poured over the ingredients.
While most of the island's restaurants serve the dish, you can interact with the locals - and the resident dog - while seeing how the dish is made at the Kuninao Community Centre (105-2 Kuninao, Yamato, Oshima, Kagoshima; tel: +81-99-757-2828; reservations necessary three days in advance).
Then explore the nearby tunnel of sacred centuries-old Fukugi trees that protect locals from the seasonal typhoons that batter the island.
Book a guide through your hotel to visit the ultimate power spot: a "killer tree" in a dense forest that requires some hiking to get to.
Known as the shimegoroshi (literally, to kill by strangling), this ako (Japanese sea fig) entwines and devours other plants around it, with their trunks intertwined like lattice-work. It is for good reason that many believe the tree is sacred and a source of vitality and strength.
Island of the gods
Iki, which perhaps is best known to video game fans as a backdrop in Ghost Of Tsushima (also a real island), is worth a pilgrimage for its rich power spots and history.
One theory has it that Iki, dubbed the Island Of The Gods, is the birthplace of Shinto. The island is highly spiritual with 150 registered shrines - and hundreds more unregistered - across 138.5 sq km.
Hiroshima's Itsukushima Shrine (incidentally, also a Unesco site on an offshore island) may be more famous for its "floating" torii gate, but Iki has its own Kojima Shrine (1969 Moroyoshifutamatafure, Ashibecho, Iki, Nagasaki) that is regarded as the Mont-Saint-Michel of Japan.
The sacred shrine is accessible only at low tide, when the waters part to reveal a pebbly path to the torii gate. Enshrined there are the ancient gods of love, marriage, prosperity and good luck. It is said that only those who get the blessings of a higher power can visit.
Iki was also where the oldest remains of the Yayoi civilisation (300BC to AD300) were excavated.
Go to the Ikikoku Museum (515-1 Ashibecho Fukaetsurukifure, Iki, Nagasaki), which not only gives a glimpse of how people lived during ancient times, but also houses an archaeological centre with an extensive collection of relics including Eastern collections as Iki was once Japan's gateway to China and the Korean Peninsula.
What has also weathered time are the stunning natural rock formations such as the Saruiwa (Gonouracho Shindenfure, Iki), literally "monkey rock", a 45m rock on the tip of the Kurosaki Peninsula that gets its name from its shape.
Also, take a 40-minute pleasure boat tour to the uninhabited Tatsunoshima, an island with towering geological formations.
In Saga Prefecture, cat lovers will delight in a visit to Takashima, where there are more cats than its sparse human population of 360 people. The island is accessible via a 10-minute boat taxi ride from the city of Karatsu.
It is also famous for the Houtou Shrine (523 Takashima, Karatsu, Saga; tel: +81-95-574-3715; go to houtoujinja.jp) that comprises the Chinese characters for "treasure" and "strike". Legend has it that good fortune - or a lottery windfall - will follow if you pet the cats on the island before praying at the shrine.
The friendly locals, who are used to the presence of visitors, will also wish you well.
Back on the mainland
You may need to stop over on mainland Kyushu, depending on your island destination.
Visiting Takashima will involve a stopover in Karatsu, which is unique for the numerous canals coursing through the city.
Go to the Niji-no-Matsubara (Kagami, Karatsu, Saga), which translates as the Rainbow Pine Grove. The 360-year-old forest with a million pine trees acts as a natural seawall and is one of Japan's three largest pine forests.
In its midst is the Karatsu Burger Main Store (4 Kagami, Karatsu, Saga; tel: +81-95-556-7119; open: 10am to 8pm daily) which, contrary to its name, is a trailer kitchen in the middle of a carpark in tribute to its humble beginnings, though it has branched out across Kyushu.
The Karatsu Burger (520 yen) is, for good reason, deemed one of Japan's top burgers for its succulent patty doused in sweet-spicy barbecue sauce.
And Itoshima, just half an hour from the Fukuoka International Airport, may be a good way to bookend your trip. The city was ranked third in British magazine Monocle's Small Cities Index last year, for its rich quality of life with very accessible mountains and beaches.
Incidentally, the city is also famous for its tribute to love. The Sakurai Futamigaura (Shimasakurai, Itoshima, Fukuoka) are two giant "married couple rocks" joined by a sacred rope, before which a torii gate stands on a sandy beach.
* The writer's trip was hosted by the Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organisation.
* Regular flight schedules have been disrupted due to Covid-19, but All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan Airlines and Singapore Airlines ordinarily have regular flights between Singapore and Japan.
* While the offshore islands in Kyushu are of a tropical climate, be ready for temperature fluctuations at night, especially during winter.
* It is highly advisable to rent a car, especially on the larger islands of Iki, Goto and Amami-Oshima, unless you follow a guided tour. Motorists with a Singapore licence must present an international driving permit to drive in Japan.
Due to the remoteness of the islands, be sure to check boat schedules and other local transfers.
Takashima, Saga: A 10-minute boat ride from Karatsu (220 yen an adult, 110 yen a child each way; go to Houtoujinja's website or take a sea taxi (500 yen a person).
Iki, Nagasaki: Kyushu Yusen operates a 65-minute express jetfoil that connects Hakata in Fukuoka to Iki (4,800 yen an adult, 2,400 yen a child each way) and a 105-minute ferry ride that connects Iki to Karatsu (1,840 yen an adult, 920 yen a child each way). Reserve your tickets at here.
If travelling by air, budget carrier Oriental Air Bridge operates two 30-minute flights a day from Nagasaki Airport to Iki Airport. Go to Oriental Air Bridge's website.
Goto, Nagasaki: The Kyushu Shosen operates a jetfoil that connects Nagasaki to Goto Islands in 90 minutes for 8,040 yen each way. Go to Kyusho Yusen's website.
Or fly via ANA, with three 30-minute flights a day from Nagasaki Airport and four 40-minute flights a day from Fukuoka Airport.
Amami-Oshima, Kagoshima: A ferry ride from Kagoshima takes at least 11 hours, making flying the most convenient.
Domestic flights connect the island to key nodes such as Tokyo's Haneda Airport, Osaka's Kansai Airport and the Fukuoka Airport.
On Iki, pamper yourself with a stay at Hotel Stellacote Taiankaku (760-1 Gonouracho Honmurafure, Iki; tel: +81-92-047-3737; go to Hotel Stellacote Taiankaku's website) for a luxurious experience. Book a room with a dinner plan for about 20,000 yen, replete with a full-course meal featuring local seasonal delicacies including Iki beef, oysters and fresh seafood.
At the Goto Islands, I had a memorable glamping experience at Nordisk Village (1233 Tomiemachi Tao, Goto, Nagasaki; tel: +81-95-986-3900; go to Nordisk Village's website). The Danish outdoor label teamed up with a group of Japanese entrepreneurs for the site, which took over the premises of a disused school.
The tents - each of them furnished like a hotel room complete with an air-conditioner for summer and a heater for winter - are on the field while meals are had at what was once the school canteen.
On Amami-Oshima, the rooms at Amami Resort Basyayamamura (1246-1 Kasaricho Oaza Yoan, Amami, Kagoshima; tel: +81-99-763-1178; go to Amami Resort Basyayamamura's website) have a tropical Bali resort-like feel. Here, you can feast on a lobster hotpot full of fresh seafood and vegetable ingredients for 4,400 yen a person - a price one cannot get anywhere else in Japan.
• For updates on Japan's entry requirements, go to the website of the Embassy of Japan in Singapore.
• For daily updates on the Covid-19 situation in Japan, go to the website of Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.
• Strict Covid-19 protocol was observed at all destinations on the trip, including social distancing and temperature checks.