With all there is to see and do in Japan, first-time visitors will likely follow a popular track known as the “Golden Route.” A travel course offered by most of the nation’s inbound tour operators, it encompasses many of Japan’s most familiar destinations, such as Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto and/or Nara, Osaka, and Hiroshima and/or Miyajima.
The onsen at Atami Taikanso // © 2009 Monica Poling
Visitors wanting to immerse themselves in Japan’s traditional culture however, would be wise to limit their time in the larger cities and make a trek to the lesser known Shizuoka prefecture. Although Mount Fuji is partially located in Shizuoka, much of the area remains somewhat unknown, even by some locals. In Shizuoka’s Izu Peninsula, Western faces are as common as Japanese travelers’ in rural Pennsylvania.
Much of Izu’s history can be traced to Japan’s turbulent Heian Period (794-1185). During this time, nobles who had fallen from grace would flee to southern Izu. Today, the area still feels like a royal retreat. It is home to some of the finest ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) in the country and is also known for its abundance of hot springs.
In the southernmost part of Izu lies Shimogamo Spa, a city known for its Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival. Nearly hidden among Shimogamo’s trees and blossoms is the riverside Ikona Ryokan (www.ikona-spa.com). As the only Japanese property to be listed in the 2006 edition of The World’s Finest Spas, this hideaway feels almost too good to be true. With buildings that date back nearly 400 years, clients will be hard pressed to find a more authentic Japanese experience. The inn takes advantage of the area’s hot springs and has numerous onsen (hot spring) baths. In Japan, the onsen are usually designated as all male or all female, and clothing inside the pristine waters is a cultural no-no. At
Ikona, several private baths afford shy visitors a little more privacy and also make a perfect retreat for honeymooners.
The inn’s full-service restaurant may also prove to be popular with Americans who are unaccustomed to eating their multicourse meals while sitting cross-legged at low tables. Yoshida-san, the proprieter, speaks English and goes out of her way to make sure guests feel like family.
Not far from Shimogamo Spa is Matsuzaki, home of the Osawa Onsen Hotel (www.osawaonsen.co.jp). Osawa’s buildings also date back 330 years and travel agents in the know will book the hotel’s Tempo-no-ma guestroom for their high-end clients. The two-story room once served as a storage place for tools and antiques. Today, the room’s entire ground floor remains a living museum, with guests spending most of their time upstairs in the sleeping area. During my stay, a history of the inn was detailed in the evenings, followed by a traditional mochi (rice cake) making class. Again, the inn’s hot springs are worth the trip, and Osawa has what is likely to be considered one of the loveliest indoor hot springs in all of Japan. The cuisine there wass excellent and draws heavily upon local seafood. Be warned, however, if your clients are picky eaters; this may not be the location for them. Also, little English is spoken there.
As travelers head back to the northern part of the Izu Peninsula, they will begin to catch glimpses of Japan’s icon, Mount Fuji. There is simply no better place in Japan to see Mount Fuji than at the Awashima Hotel. This island retreat is not a traditional inn, but rather a full-service, luxury property. It was designed so that every room has a waterfront view of Mount Fuji. Even the hot springs are designed to maximize Fuji viewing. The restaurant offers a variety of international cuisines, including an American-style breakfast, making this the perfect alternative for American travelers with more sensitive palates.
Clients short on time may elect to take the 35- or 40-minute Shinkansen (high-speed rail) ride to Atami City, located in the very north of the Izu Peninsula. Although not as rural as southern Izu, Atami offers a higher energy experience. Still, the Atami Taikanso (www.atami-taikanso.com) inn is a lovely retreat, perched high atop a hill overlooking Atami and its surrounding area. Although this is a traditional ryokan, with the obligatory floor sleeping setup, there are a few rooms with “real” beds available. Plenty of modern touches are sprinkled throughout the property, including a massage chair in every room and some rooms feature flat-screen televisions hanging above the in-room bath. Throughout the inn, city views are maximized, and a nighttime soak in the onsen, with the city lights twinkling below, provides the perfect romantic getaway.
Agents who are reluctant to have their clients navigate rural Japan on their own will find an excellent alternative at Tokyo’s Royal Park Hotel (www.rph.co.jp). The hotel is located adjacent to the Tokyo City Air Terminal — making transportation to Narita International Airport a snap — and is not far from the popular Ginza and Marunouchi shopping districts. Although it is primarily a business hotel, it has introduced numerous programs for leisure travelers, including a one-night exchange program in one of Izu’s traditional inns.
Getting to the Izu Peninsula from Tokyo is an easy train ride. Atami City, in the north, takes just 35 minutes by high-speed rail, and getting to Shimoda City in the south takes less than three hours on specially designed sightseeing trains known as the Super View Odoriko. The area is also serviced by the new Mount Fuji Shizuoka Airport, which opened this past June.