TRAVELLING BACK IN TIME TO IZU

Mt Fuji from the 6th-century Tumulus site near Heda

You get to see it briefly from Atami or Mishima, between the tunnels as you head towards Kyoto on the Shinkansen Bullet Express; a fleeting glimpse of steep forested mountains rising from the sea on the left-hand side of the train, looking rather beguiling and mysterious. For most visitors to Japan that is all they see of Izu as they continue on to the ancient capital, thereby missing an area of extraordinary natural beauty and rich history; a secret haven for writers, artists and escapees.

It lies only a couple of hours away by train or car from the teeming conurbation of Tokyo and Yokohama, yet still today, Izu remains rather secret and little-known outside Japan even though more than a match for the French Riviera, the Long Island Hamptons, or almost all Southeast Asian resorts – and for much of the time without the crowds. Long may it stay so. If anything, Izu is a destination for seasoned connoisseurs of wandering rather than seekers of organised fun – those explorers who can manipulate schedule and take time to absorb atmosphere and the subtle pleasures of nature and changing seasons. Such travellers soon discover that even on holiday weekends when the traffic is maddening and the resorts are packed, one only has to walk a little way from road or rail to be alone with giant trees, or on a rocky cape from which to contemplate the ocean below while listening to the descending trill of sea-hawks.

The peninsula hangs down into the Pacific from the foot of Mt Fuji and, apart from a narrow central valley, consists almost entirely of mountains and almost jungle-like vegetation. Together with Hakone to the north and the Izu Islands off the eastern shore, the area has been a rather loosely-defined National Park since 1936 and now, more recently, has been further designated as a Geopark, subject to more focussed conservation, management and education. This is well-deserved as Izu is so different in mood and nature from rest of the country that it appears as if some exotic island has floated up from southern seas and bumped into Japan.

And in fact that is exactly what it is. Formed from a cluster of volcanoes emerging from the ocean floor a few million years ago and coalescing into a land mass, it floated northwards on the Philippine tectonic plate to collide with the main Japanese island of Honshu around 600,000 years ago – just barely the blink of an eye in geological time. All mountains in Izu were once volcanoes and are now considered dormant – although a brief but alarming undersea eruption occurred in Ito Bay as recently as 1989 and the whole area is seismically active along with the rest of Japan.  Today the area is celebrated for its hot-springs, citrus fruits, superb seafood, and – as Izu is warmed for much of the year by the subtropical Kuroshio current – some spectacular scuba-diving.

If you venture into the peninsula from Atami and head down towards Shimoda,  you succumb to its seductive power almost immediately as headland after headland of lava-rock and black pines come into view, complimenting the shimmering sea, all bathed in a magical light that, especially at the beginning and end of the day, brings to mind distant Mediterranean islands and heroic legends. As you move further south, Izu’s own offshore islands soon come into view: Ōshima with its huge volcano – Toshima, Niijima, Shikinejima, Kozushima, Mikurajima and Miyakejima (another with its own violent volcano) – all offering their own scenes, impressions and memories. During the morning they appear dark, black-grey against the silver sea, enticing like islands everywhere, and at night their village lights glimmer in the distance while the white lamps of squid-fishing boats move to and fro on the ocean in between.

Wending around the peninsula to the west coast facing Suruga Bay, the scenery becomes even more achingly beautiful and wilder still with many parts inaccessible except by boat or serious hiking. Small fishing villages are tucked into those inlets that provide safe anchorage and shelter from typhoons, and as you manoeuvre the serpentine road that so confuses our sense of direction, sudden views of Mt. Fuji appear from time to time just when you least expect them. There is no train access here and as it is difficult to make a return trip from Tokyo during a weekend by any other means, this side of Izu has been far more insulated from development and life seems slower, more traditional.

The peninsula has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Remains of Jomon (circa 16,000-300 BC) settlements have been excavated in various locations, notably along river banks, and just North of Heda Port on the west coast, a cluster of 6th-century burial mounds look over Sagami Bay. As the mountains rise steeply from the sea here, offering almost no chance for cultivation or anything like an economy large enough to support local chiefs, one can only imagine that the site was chosen by those in power on the other, richer side of Suruga Bay, for its splendid view of Mt Fuji.

For much of the historical period however, Izu was isolated; the first railway from Mishima to the Shūzenji hot-spring resort being built at the end of the 19th-century, another line to the Itō resort being completed in 1936, and the extension to Shimoda being opened as recently as 1961. Most of the sealed roads too were constructed since the war and until modern times, apart from coastal boat trips, most of Izu’s natives spent their lives close to where they were born.

Despite its relative isolation, Izu has witnessed two extraordinary events in Japan’s history – and both involved foreigners. The first, during the early 17th century, when a young English sailor, Will Adams (1564-1620) was found shipwrecked off the coast of Kyushu. At first imprisoned along with other survivors, fate brought him to the attention of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), who was soon to be shogun – the all-powerful warlord of Japan. Ieyasu was fascinated not only by Adams’s early training in ship-building, navigation and astronomy, but also in his opinions on Catholic-Protestant rivalry around the world and the jostling for trade advantages by European nations.

Naturally protecting their turf, Portuguese and Spanish priests resident in Japan at the time did their best to influence officialdom, suggesting that Adams was a spy who should be executed. Nevertheless, Ieyasu astutely appointed Adams to build a fleet of modern ships on the banks of the River Matsu in present-day Ito City, honoured him with the rank of samurai, and bestowed him with property and a generous income. Later he became much involved with British-Japan trading, married a Japanese wife (even though he had a family back in England), and eventually died in Hirado near Nagasaki where his grave can still be seen.

The second event was responsible for the greatest change in Japan’s history, that saw it open up to international trade after some 220 years of seclusion, and its rapid emergence as a modern, industrialised nation. The American Commodore Matthew Perry had visited Japan in 1853 to demonstrate the superiority of Western technology, rattle sabres a little, and demand that Japan cease its policy of isolation and allow foreigners to enter. He left a letter with a list of demands and returned the following year, sailing into Shimoda Harbour with seven warships and landing to sign a trade agreement with representatives of the shogun at the nearby Ryosen-ji Temple. A painting of the event can still be seen hanging just inside the building, showing the uniformed American soldiers all lined up in formation, accompanied by a military band and facing the Japanese officials with their swords and topknot hairdos. The temple is now famous for its Brazil raintrees (Brunfelsia pauciflora, known as ‘American Jasmine’ in Japan), thickly planted in its garden and forecourt. In May – and often for a second flowering a month or two later – they are covered with heavily-perfumed, rather unusual flowers that are purple on first opening,  but then turn white a few hours later.

One of the other passengers on Perry’s expedition was Townsend Harris – a New York trader with political interests – who was left behind to handle the paperwork details and establish the first United States consulate in Japan. At the time there were almost no English/Japanese interpreters  and he had to rely on an associate and fellow-passenger, Hendrick Heusken (1832-1861), a Dutch-American who could translate from Dutch to English. There were a number of Japanese who had picked up a smattering of Dutch from traders in Kyushu but, seeing how difficult it is even today, (try Google Translate), it is easy to imagine that communication would have been a far more formidable obstacle during the consul’s early days.

No suitable accommodation was available in the town and both Harris and Heusken  were billeted in Gyokusenji, a Zen temple on the North side of Shimoda harbour. The temple is still there, showing a patched-up hole in the wall where a chimney emerged from Harris’s stove. Apparently failing to be seduced by Japanese cuisine he demanded a constant supply of meat and milk, and a monument erected by the Japan Butchers’Association in the front court, marks the first slaughter of an ox. This was unprecedented in Buddhist Japan where diet consisted mainly of rice, fish and vegetables (although the common description of wild boar as ‘mountain whales’ provides a clue that the unfortunate ox was not the first four-legged animal destined for dinner) – the start of a change in taste and diet that led to cattle farming and the peerless Japanese beef of today. Another nearby stone is engraved with a thought-provoking note from Harris’s diary: ‘Grave reflections. Ominous of change. Undoubtedly beginning of the end. Query: if for real good of Japan?’

On the hill behind, several stones commemorate sailors who died in the course of the American expedition, now surrounded by the numerous graves of local citizens. Damaged by nationalists during WWII they were carefully restored and during the past year or so, a new roof had been installed to protect them from typhoons. The inscriptions are worn, but one sadly recalls ‘GW Parish, USN sailor who died in a fall from rigging while serving on the USS Powhatan d. 5 May 1854, aged 24’.

The Russians too were competing for trade access and in turn their representatives were housed in Gyokusenji after the Americans had moved their consulate to Tokyo. Vice-Admiral Euphimy Vasil’evich Putiatin was head of mission and achieved a trade agreement allowing his countrymen to operate in the ports of Nagasaki, Hakodate and Shimoda, that was signed at the Chorakuji Temple in 1855. While in the course of his negotiations his fleet was destroyed by a tsunami, leaving him and his staff stranded in Japan while new ships were built at Heda on the other side of the peninsula. Three members died while stationed in the mission and their graves too can be seen in a narrow shaded valley to the right of the temple.

Nowadays Izu is a destination for Japanese and foreigners as each seasons has its attractions, festivals and celebrations. For a while it looked as if Izu faced the kind of blight that has ruined other areas around the world, thoughtlessly developed with mass-tourism in mind, but fortunately the early 1990s saw the end of what we now see as a bubble economy and development stopped in its tracks. Subsequently there are now abandoned houses in resort developments along with dated hotels, most so poorly-designed that resurrection is unlikely. Nature no doubt will absorb them as it always does.  However, the economic standstill has proved both salutary and beneficial as newer hotels cater more for couples than groups, and employ more sensitive architectural design to blend with and compliment the surrounding nature.

The past decade or two has seen a different kind of visitor more interested in Izu’s outdoor life as there are now excellent facilities for scuba-diving, fishing, ocean-kayaking, para-gliding, and hiking over the many trails, in addition to golf and other traditional sports. Hot-spring baths complete each day along with some of the best seafood dishes to be found anywhere and there are plenty of hostelries catering for all budgets. Local information is available at railway stations and hotels but if visitors really wish to explore Izu properly, it is best to rent a car. Agencies can be found online and are usually located in front of the major stations.

BY MICHAEL DUNN