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On Sophie’s recent return to Japan, she explored the little-trodden but beautiful Izu Peninsula. This coastal idyll is only a few hours outside Tokyo with beaches, waterfalls, history and views of Mount Fuji (on a clear day!)
Returning to Japan – Izu Peninsula
Peering out of the train window as it meanders through familiar rice terraces, twists around the river from Kyoto, and then through valleys I spent two years exploring is very special. Nostalgia fills my mind with memories from my time here; a heady mix of love and homesickness for this tiny corner of Japan. I love arriving in my second home of Takefu.
I was an English teacher in a little-known prefecture called Fukui, and due to the geographical location, I got to know western Honshu and the Japanese Alps very well at the weekends. But although returning to my old stomping ground is lovely, there’s a different kind of anticipation when visiting somewhere new. When I recently returned to Japan, I was excited to head to a completely different part; the Izu Peninsula.
Arrival – Day 1
As the shinkansen (bullet train) slowed to a gentle halt at Shizuoka station I looked out the window for my guide; but having only exchanged emails I didn’t know what Satoshi-san from the Shizuoka Tourist Peninsula looked like. When a man dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, holding a clipboard smiled at me, I realised that I was the only Western girl getting off the train. At least I was easy to spot!
Satoshi is a softly spoken middle-aged man with great knowledge of Japanese history. He also speaks fluent English which is very handy. As I climb into the hire car, the sun is shining and the skies are blue; Satoshi tells me that the Izu Peninsula has much warmer climate than the mainland. The volcanic geography of the area and the warm seas make it feel positively tropical.
Seatbelts on and we were off to our first destination, Shuzenji.
We were only 10 minutes from Shizuoka when, unexpectedly, the head of Mount Fuji poked out from a cloud. I frantically fumbled for my camera, and as I looked up she had disappeared again! Even after living near Mount Fuji for his whole life, Satoshi said he still is in awe whenever he sees the iconic mountain. I can see why.
Satoshi tells me that Shuzenji is one of his favourite places and he often drives over on a Sunday afternoon to walk around the town and pause for a foot-bath. As we draw closer I find out that Kobo Daishi (a great teacher of Buddhism) founded this spa town 1,200 years ago. I had recently returned from Mount Koya where a monk showed me around Okunoin cemetery. Outside Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, he explained in hushed tones just how important he is in Japanese culture; I knew that Shuzenji must be a special place to visit if he founded it.
Having visited many other Japanese spa towns, they tend to have built-up concrete ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), and not much else. While Shuzenji does have a few less than beautiful buildings here and there, the walk through the bamboo grove and along the Katsura river more than made up for it.
We journey on south to the Izu Kogen. There’s a 10km stretch of walkway along this craggy coastline formed by lava flows from the amazingly rotund Mount Omuro. I’d like to climb (or perhaps take the lift) up this 600m mountain. On a clear day I might just spot Mount Fuji.
But even without a view, it would be fun to walk around the edge of this volcano. And run down the 300m wide bowl crater!
Where to stay: ABBA Resorts
After a hearty ryokan breakfast, we drove south from Izu Kogen to Shimoda past the beautiful white beach of Shirahama; an idyll perfect for water-sports (or lazily kicking back for a few days on the sand!). While pausing to breathe in the fresh air, we meet an ex-professional surfer who runs a surf school there.
She tells us that between May and September you can surf most days. But today’s calm conditions make it better suited for activities on the next bay – adventurous types can take paddle boarding lessons or go snorkelling, diving and kayaking further down the coast. I think I’ve found the Cornwall of Japan – with the added views of Mount Fuji on a clear day!
Just another 10-minute drive south is the pretty little town of Shimoda. We stroll down Perry Road and take in the willow-lined lane with its classic gas lamps, traditional houses and stone bridges that cross the canal.
Over an iced-coffee Satoshi regales tales about 17th century Edo Japan when the natural harbour of Shimoda was one of the busiest ports. Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed a fleet of black ships to Shimoda in 1854, and marched along the (now-named) Perry Road to Ryosen-ji Temple to demand Japan open the port to trade with America.
After a few months of negotiation, Perry was successful and signed the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Peace, making Shimoda the very first international port. The legacy of this treaty is celebrated every third weekend in May; the Black Ship Festival sees marching bands, historical re-enactment plays and live music commemorate this friendship.
Where to stay: Shimoda Tokyu Hotel
Our next stop is the Kawazu Waterfalls. In February flocks of Tokyoites take the Izu-Kogen train to admire the Kawazu-zakura cherry blossoms – the earliest flowering cherry blossom.
Satoshi shows me photos of the promenade awash with pink as people picnic under the blossoms and enjoy a taste of spring in winter. The usual Yoshino cherry blossoms are planted along the river, so the lucky people of Kawazu get two sets of hanami parties (as well as seven waterfalls) before spring turns to summer and the hydrangeas bloom.
We have a mid-morning snack of wasabi ice cream and freshly-squeezed orange juice on our way to the first waterfall. The path is wide and tarmacked making it easy for visitors of all ages to make the gentle incline to the first waterfall.
Young maple trees overhang the path lending shade to the path. I can only imagine how beautiful this river-walk is in autumn with shades of red, yellow and gold. It could make this place more magical than a Miyazaki film.
We mosey on to our next stop – a wasabi farm. Not only does Shizuoka prefecture have Mount Fuji, tea plantations, beaches, onsen and great seafood, it also produces the most wasabi in all of Japan.
I was surprised to find a local reporter and photographer there ready to interview me about what I thought of the wasabi! The farmer grated some of plants he grows for me to try. I love the taste of wasabi – I did eat wasabi-flavoured ice cream, after all – but may have taken on a little more than I could handle. My nose and my tongue felt like they were on fire, and my eyes were left streaming for a good thirty seconds!
The farmer gave me some to take home – warning me to “just try a little” next time. There was no doubt I would be doing that.
Where to stay: Amagiso ryokan
Ferry back to the mainland
The final adventure of this three-day trip was hopping on a ferry from Toi Port, across the Suruga Bay, to the mainland. All in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, of course. It took just under an hour and was a wonderful way to end our tour.
Although the snowy cap of Fuji hid shyly behind the clouds, the iconic outline of the base was impressive in itself.
Back at the train station Satoshi and I exchanged gifts, and I thanked him for showing me around his favourite part of Shizuoka. I have to say, the Izu Peninsula came close to taking my number one area of Japan. But my heart is in Fukui prefecture. It comes a close second though.