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They span an area the size of western Europe, but the Cook Islands may seem like the ends of the Earth when viewed from Japan — an 11-hour flight away south to New Zealand, followed by a four-hour “local hop” to the capital, Avarua, on the main island of Rarotonga.

Home to about 17,000 Maori, this former British colony comprising 15 islands was ruled by Australia and New Zealand from 1901 until independence in 1965. It now hosts around 100,000 tourists per year, mainly Aussies and Kiwis. During my three-week visit in the January high season, I saw only one Japanese traveler, two Chinese, a handful of North Americans and a few Europeans studying or traveling in New Zealand.

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