“Everyone wants to head west,” an architect friend told me recently. “It’s natural. That’s where the sun sets, and where thoughts of relaxation turn to at the end of the day.”

This may explain why the Itoshima Peninsula, in the west of Fukuoka, has seen a population increase of between 15-27 percent over the last 10 years, and a boom in leisure activities. On summer weekends, cars inch bumper-to-bumper along narrow Route 202, which leads to this peaceful, green pocket of countryside.

Just 15 km from the city, the Itoshima Peninsula has white beaches and a hinterland of lush bamboo forest, rice fields and rolling hills. Farmers have probably been in Itoshima since the Yayoi Period, when the Chinese historic text “Wei Zhi” described a land called “Ito” in northwest Kyushu.

Today, its proximity to Fukuoka is bringing steady doses of city culture to the area. Weekend cottages, reggae cafes and organic farms dot the peninsula, and city folk eager for fresh air and gentle surf (with a well-timed Corona) visit year round.

Itoshima’s growth is perhaps just beginning. The area consists administratively of three towns. Of these, rural Shima and Nijo are curbing development — all coastal land must remain 80 percent green, and building size restrictions apply. But Maebaru City will be one of Fukuoka’s next urban growth zones, following areas along the city’s south and east trunk roads, and landfills such as Momochi, Kashii and the controversial Wajiro artificial island.

In Maebaru, new housing, roads and a revamped railway station are fast changing its laid-back flavor. Construction also began here June 1 on Kyushu University’s giant new campus, to be completed in several stages between 2005 and 2015.

In Shima and Nijo, meanwhile, development has been characterized by holiday homes, craft workshops and specialty farms. Itoshima’s proximity to Fukuoka City and unspoiled nature make it suited for both artistic and agricultural ventures, and urban visitors here are keen buyers of such produce.

One of the first hangouts in Itoshima that met what Fukuoka’s young outdoor types were looking for was Sunset Cafe at Futamigaura Beach, much loved for its spirited “life’s a beach” attitude. Originally a simple shack decorated with a few Balinese hangings, Sunset has grown over the last 10 years to add several extra wings and outdoor sun decks. Sunset’s annual two-day outdoor reggae, rock and soul music concert is expected to attract 4,000 visitors this year, and owner Kenji Hayashi is an enthusiastic supporter of the burgeoning creative scene nearby.

A few minutes’ drive from Sunset Cafe in any direction through quiet green hills are workshops making products such as traditional knives, boutique beer, gourmet food, furniture and pottery. An interesting recent arrival is Hakubun Shibata, whose stunning, sculptural wooden art objects and furniture may be seen at his workshop, Hakubun.

Shibata has won numerous awards for his works — including a Fukuoka City Art Museum prize — in the brief four years since starting woodwork. An Itoshima native, he is positive about changes in the area.

“It’s great to see this area become so popular,” he says. “I get an immense amount of inspiration from the people that visit my studio or attend my woodworking classes.”

Yet Itoshima is not an artists’ commune. “People just do their own thing here,” says ceramic artist Nobuhiro Mizuma of Fuuta’s Pottery, who moved here in 1993 to build a traditional noborigama (climbing kiln) and enjoy the lovely 6-km-long crescent of nearby Keya Beach. “Most people that settle here just want peace and quiet.”

Another growing venture in Itoshima is organic farming, and farming that uses reduced chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Itoshima is considered by many experts to be too warm (meaning insect-friendly) for such farming to be successful, compared to other organic farming areas in Kyushu such as Ichinomiya in the Aso Mountains. However, one group of rice growers, Itoshima Komekome Network, has grown organic rice here since 1988, and recently received an award for its efforts from a Kyushu organization promoting environmentally friendly farming.

Initially faced with low public interest and several nonorganic farms nearby (technically disqualifying them as organic farmers), the group formed their own cooperative and forged sales routes directly. They also set about educating nearby farmers in organic methods (such as using ducks and beetles to eat pests), helping reduce chemical pesticide use at nearby farms from eight times a year to three times. Sales reached a total of 330 outlets in 2000. The rice is available at select shops, at the environmentally conscience-probing cost of 3,500 yen for a 5-kg bag.

Nearby, Yasuko Matsuo’s Honobono Noen is one of the few all-natural vegetable farms of its scale in Japan. An appropriately earthy woman, Matsuo began organic farming about 16 years ago to “improve her family’s health and do something for society.” She began all-natural farming about 10 years ago. No artificial and few natural fertilizers or pesticides are used, no farm machinery is employed and the earth is left untilled. Grasses and flowers run riot, maintaining insects’ natural habitat, which helps spare the vegetables being grown.

Agriculture in Kyushu still accounts for 18 percent of Japan’s total produce. But rural populations are graying, and initiatives for newcomers few. Government and JA representatives agree that organic farming is attracting younger people. Tetsuya Tomita of TNC TV, which runs a shop selling produce from organic and other Kyushu farms introduced on their weekly shows, adds: “These people are helping define regional differences, at a time when agricultural imports are raising public concern about where foods come from.”

With summer just beginning, traffic is picking up again on the sunset road to Itoshima. The area is becoming an ideal model for how contemporary city dwellers can find healthy living, outdoor leisure and environmental well-being in one small pocket of countryside.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.