Picture the French Riviera west of Cannes or St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands: colorful seaside villages against emerald hills, with windsurfers and fishing boats off the beaches.
You can get the same view off Japan’s Izu Peninsula, just two hours southeast of Tokyo by train. The hilly peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean between Sagami Bay and Suruga Bay.
More than 75% of the 500,000 Americans who went to Japan in 1986 visited Tokyo. The government says 37% went to historic Kyoto, 23% to bustling Osaka.
Few Americans visit Izu, however, so few that the government doesn’t know how many. Figures show that only 2.5% of the 2 million foreign visitors reached Atami at the top of the peninsula.
In all, about 2,000 foreigners a year get to Ito, a good base from which to see Izu. Fewer still reach Shimoda near the tip of Izu, where Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s ships opened feudal Japan to the West in 1854.
Izu has outdoor hot spring baths called rotenburo, beautiful mountain and shore scenery, temples, spas, wild boar and crocodile parks, golf courses, quiet streams, fishing, scuba diving, sailing, skyline drives and little out-of-the-way seafood restaurants.
At Izu, most beaches are of brown sand rather than white and the architecture is strictly Japanese. That means tranquillity, graceful architecture and few foreigners.
Attractions range from the Ikeda 20th-Century Art Museum to the Atagawa Banana and Crocodile Gardens. The museum, a 25-minute car or bus ride from Ito, has about 600 paintings and sculptures by Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Dali and others. The gardens at Atagawa Spa boast about 500 crocodiles of 25 species, all ugly.
In Shimoda, with its palms and beaches, there’s Hofukuji Temple, erected for the soul of Tojin Okichi, a mistress of Townsend Harris, the first American diplomat to Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate. The temple is a five-minute walk from Shimoda station; entry is about 200 yen.
Amagi Boar Park, where animals roam freely, is a 15-minute drive from the Yugashima Spa near Mishima in central Izu. Boar meat, boiled or roasted and seasoned with bean paste, is served at ryokan at Amagi Hot Springs and is eaten with mushrooms, onions, radishes and mountain herbs.
Izu has a little fish house between Ito and Shimoda, on the sea side of Route 135, just past Shiradaonsenkyo. The restaurant has a long burl-wood table, stools and, by windows overlooking the sea, tatami and three low tables.
For 3,500 yen (plus 500 yen for a big bottle of Sapporo beer) you can get steamed lobster, delicious sashimi, sea snail (not worth the trouble), rice and seafood custard. In Tokyo a meal like this costs twice as much.
It’s best to come to Izu by train; highways and local roads can get jammed in the summer season. A fast, comfortable Japan Rail electric train from Tokyo Station--the Dancing Girl--runs southeast past Yokohama, Odawara, Yugawara and out of the metropolis that extends to Sagami Bay. The fare to Ito is 1,300 yen for a regular train and 2,100 yen for an express.
A few minutes before the 9 a.m. train to Ito left, I ducked out to a platform concession stand to bring back a boxed breakfast for 600 yen--breaded chicken pieces, flavorful rice, a bit of salad and custard, along with chopsticks, salt, washcloth and salad dressing.
As you head to Izu, the offices and apartments fade, sharply rising mountains appear on the right and the sea is on the left.
Odawara is the final industrial town, about the last of greater Tokyo, Sony signs and factories. Once you reach Hayakawa you’re in the country. But even in the suburbs you’ll pass garden after garden with hoop-supported clear plastic over the rows. Solar panels seem to be on every fifth roof.
Out to the Mountains
At Odawara station bright futon hang airing from apartment balconies. From there the train goes into a tunnel for 10 seconds and then into storybook Alps. On the left, beyond little houses, is blue ocean. Two tunnels later the route runs along the shore, with more mountains in the distance and white, gaff-rigged fishing boats, nets and pine trees at the steeply falling shore.
At the Yugawara elevated station at 10:20 a.m., you’re almost surrounded by mountains, their steep sides manicured for terraced farming.
When you reach Ajiro at 10:45 a.m. you can see the perfect seaside town. Mountains rise from the bay with colorful houses at the base and in places up the slopes. Usami, separated from Ajiro by a mountain and just north of Ito, seems Caribbean, smaller, with a higher mountain. Surfboarders ride off the beach despite minimal waves, and teen-agers lounge by a surf shop as wet suits dry in the sun.
The new cabs from Ito station cost an initial 460 yen; the ride up to our hotel was 2,060 yen. The white-gloved cab drivers spoke no English; we handed the driver the name of our hotel in Japanese.
The cab goes up, past the fish and seafood stalls and the Ito Youth Hostel, and climbs into the Amagi Mountains. Thank goodness Japanese roads have mirrors at blind curves. On the switchback roads, they’re absolutely necessary.
Hotels abound. Rates at ryokan range from 8,000 to 30,000 yen per person a night with two meals. Minshuku, private houses that take in guests, are cheaper, but usually found only in fishing villages in south and west Izu. The Japanese Tourist Office by the Hybia subway station in Tokyo or in major American cities should be able to make arrangements.
After renting a car and adapting to driving on the left, we stopped to walk on the beach at a fishing village on the way to Shimoda. There couldn’t have been more than 20 houses, most stucco or rough wood, with traditional tile roofs.
Life in the Village
Near the beach, children played with white plastic kites and young men in a white-and-blue Jeep unloaded windsurfers and wet suits. Five scuba divers, older men, were climbing out of the ocean as the children arrived. Later, one of the men soaked in a hot outdoor pool just off the beach. Steaming water ran to the sea.
On the rocks a woman and two young children searched for shells. A fishing boat lay at anchor about a quarter of a mile offshore, nets strung out. Trays of fresh-caught fish were drying nearby under screens propped up to the sun on Coca-Cola boxes.
Streets were narrow. Birds sang from an elderly pine; there was no other sound. The houses were open to the street, with rows of shoes inside open doorways, and several upper windows were draped with full clotheslines. Pools of beautiful flowers formed haphazard gardens.
Later that evening, after missing dinner at the hotel, I drove a few miles to find that Izu closes early. But two small dogs outside the open door of a restaurant on Route 135 drew my attention. The menu and wall signs were in Japanese and no one spoke English, but the old woman there understood my request for sashimi, kudasai.
A tray with slices of fresh tuna, other fish and bits of a spiral-shell mollusk, miso with seaweed, veggies, rice and tea cost 1,500 yen. There were low, polished tables and cushions. The restaurant, with sliding paper doors, was tasteful and simple.
We drove in the other direction the next day, north along the coast on Route 135, past the Ito train station toward Tokyo. Giant jagged rocks bulge from the ocean a few hundred feet offshore.
In Usami we stopped in the Seaside Resort Pension for lunch. It looks like New England, all white with bay windows and a white porch. From those windows we could see fishing boats coming in and men drying nets.
A woman on the radio introduced a record by Paul Revere and the Raiders, but the 20-ish waitress spoke no English. I asked for ahi. Then meguro. Then tuna. Nothing. We wrote it down. Nothing.
Elayne, my wife, said: “Hamburger?” The waitress’ eyes brightened. “Feelin’ Groovy” came on the FM station from Yokohama.
On a small lake near the hotel we rented a rowboat for 90 yen and went out to tiny islands, past fishermen and families in other rowboats and paddle boats made up as white turtles and yellow swans.
Later, at a lake-shore souvenir shop, we were looking at cards when I found an old folder of pressed leaves. When I asked how much, the woman didn’t understand my accent. She called over a girl about 16.
“It’s old; it’s a present to you,” the girl said and smiled when she learned we were from Chicago. She had spent a year in Racine, Wis.
Riding back to Tokyo after the weekend, we knew we were leaving the country when little houses gave way in Takada to a giant factory and high-rise apartments.
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Hotels on Izu include the Naoya, 1-1-18 Sakuragaoka, Ito City. It’s five minutes by taxi from Ito station. It costs $250 to $333 U.S. on Saturday and holidays a night, weekdays from $208 to $250.
Atami Sekitei, 6-17 Wadacho, Atami City, is five minutes by taxi from the station. Cost is $375 to $458 a night on Saturdays and holidays, weekdays from $333 to $417.
Seiryuso, 2-2 Kawachi, Shimoda City, costs $204 to $326.
Yagu-no-sho, 1116-6 Shuzenji-cho, is five minutes by taxi from the train station, and costs $285 a night.
Sanyoso, 270 Izu-Nagaoka-cho, is five minutes from Izu-Nagaoka station and runs $375 to $408 a night.
These hotels can be reserved in the United States through Pacific Select reservations at toll-free (800) 722-4349.
Less expensive hotels on Izu are the Youkikan, 2-24 Suehiro-cho, Ito, Shizuoka, at $120 to $184 per person with breakfast and dinner; Yubatakan, 273-2 Rendaiji, Shimoda, from $80 to $200 per person with breakfast and dinner.
Most hotel employees speak limited English. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can get help from the English-language travel phone of the Japanese National Tourist Office, toll-free in Japan any day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In Izu call 0120-444-800.
More than 10 youth hostels dot the peninsula. An inexpensive hotel of the Japan Inn Group caters to foreigners. One on Izu, in a beautiful hot springs resort is Matsushiro-kan, 55 Kona, Izu-Nagaoka, Tagata-gun, Shizuoka.
A single without bath is $32; with bath $40. Twin with bath is $80, triple with bath $110. Breakfast ($5.60 to $8) and dinner ($24 to $64) are extra.
For more information on travel to Japan, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 2640, Los Angeles 90017, (213) 623-1952.