Shore ’nuff

By on February 27, 2010
Photo © Elena Derevstova
There have been few places in Japan that could really satisfy my family’s often irreconcilable definitions of a “good vacation”. The mountainous Izu peninsula, a few hundred kilometers from Tokyo, did exactly that.
Tight on money and short on time, my wife, eight-year-old son, and I decided to drive down to the popular peninsula for a half-week breather, and we wished we’d made it a full week.

We began by driving down to Shimoda at the southernmost tip. The drive down was pleasant. The traffic was light; it only took about four hours. The last half was all winding shoreline roads with steep cliffs on our starboard and surfers on the port side. As an avid motorist, I recommend driving it, but take a bucket of coins for the toll booths that seem to splash up around every bend. If you want to train it, it will take about 2-3 hours from Tokyo.

At Shimoda, we checked into one of the many comfortable little cliffside cottages for the night. We picked up some food and drinks at a supermarket near the station and grilled dinner under a starry sky overlooking the sea below and a diligent little lighthouse in the distance off the Irozaki coast. We finished off the night together in one of the countless private sento (hot spring bath) for which the area is famous. Many hotels and cottages have their own private sento. There’s nothing as nice as relaxing with the family together in a private bath overlooking the ocean. But with the hot, bubbly water, my son suggested that if we tossed in some veggies, we’d be “Johnson Soup”.

You can easily spend a whole day in central Shimoda alone, and if we hadn’t been on a schedule, we would have; harborside curiosity shops, art galleries and some great seafood. We worked up our appetite for seafood at the Shimoda Aquarium, one of the few in Japan which offers live dolphin-fondling.  After that, we got in some time on the beach, which was clean and uncrowded, as it was off-season.

For anyone who needs cultural justification, Shimoda is important historically as one of the two ports at which Commodore Perry opened Japan to the West in 1854. Naturally, the town is rife with Perry memorabilia and sightseeing points. For a better view, take the cable car up Shimoda Peak.

From Shimoda, we continued along the scenic coastal highway, around to the western side which is, by stark contrast to the eastern side, sparse and undeveloped. From some points we could see Fuji, which made the gorgeous view even gorgeous.

Along the way, we stopped often for short hikes along the cliffs. At the Dogashima coast, we took a little boat tour of the honeycomb of caves. All along the coast, there were so many stacks (platforms or columns of rock in the ocean near the beach). The nearer, less-dramatic stacks were serving as fishing piers for fishermen who waded out at low tide.

From there, we left the coast and climbed up into the mountains and snaked our way to the Shuzenji forest where we got a radical change of scenery, air and climate. There we took another private sento cottage, cooked dinner, and called it a night.

We got up in time to watch the sun climb over the ridge, and enjoy the fresh mountain air. After some coffee and rolls, my wife curled up in bed with a book while my son and I went exploring.

More driving: We toured the mountainside shrines and waterfalls in the area. It was just one “neat” little stop after the next. There was the Cycle Sports Center amusement park, which had a collection of bizarre bicycle-like attractions, as well as mountain bike rentals. We ended up atop a neighboring mountain at the oddly named Niji No Sato (Rainbow Village). It’s a striking replica of a Tudor-period British village with galleries, stores, workshops, several elaborate playgrounds, bad food, and a “miniature” train that visitors can ride from one end of the park to the other. In all, a good anglophilic effort weirdly located on top of a Japanese mountain.

On our to-do-next-time list is the Izu Teddy Bear Museum, mountain biking, the Shimoda Botanical Park, and the Izu cactus park with that strange, dome-shaped, dead volcano.

According to one of the cottages’ caretakers Mr. Sugiyama, about half of their guests are families and a number of them return regularly. Between barbecuing, jacuzzi-ing and ambling, the time flew by too quickly. My son commented, “This place is sooo relaxing. Can we just live here?”

About TF Tribe