Justine Tyerman

International Travel

A Japanese fairytale

A Japanese fairytale

Justine Tyerman has a Japanese lesson, discovers a magical bamboo forest and finally sees the world’s most famous volcano in the clear.

It happened when we least expected it. En route by taxi to Mishima Station at the end of our week on the Izu Geo Trail, suddenly, right ahead of us, dazzlingly close and clear, was Mt Fuji. I nearly fell out the window, trying to get a photo of the perfect cone. It was a fitting finale to a fabulous week during which time we explored the Izu Peninsula on foot with Walk Japan.

Our last day began with a stroll around Dogashima and the pumice cliffs above the seashore. As we walked by a stall, a sprightly lady selling jewellery began an animated conversation with our guide Yohei. She was aged 75 and had been a diver since the age of 10. In her younger days, she used to dive 12m in 40 seconds up to 600 times a day. Still diving regularly, she was also a great saleswoman too and managed to sell a few sets of earrings to the ladies.

We climbed up a huge rock to ‘Matsushima of Izu’, a scenic look-out visited by the Showa Emperor in November 1954. Turtle and Snake Islands, topped with green trees, were just a stone’s throw across a narrow channel of clear, turquoise blue-green water. The striations in the rocks told the story of millions of years of volcanic activity. 

A 200-metre-long tombolo or sand bar stretching to the trio of Sanshiro Islands was visible just below the surface of the sea. You can walk to the islands at low tide. Nearby, we peered into a great chasm in the earth where the roof of the Tensodo Sea Cave had collapsed. While we were there, a boat full of excited tourists appeared below us, one of many daily excursions from the wharf at Dogashima that take passengers right into the cave.

Heading for the hills, we drove through a little village where an elderly couple were working on a tiny plot of land, cultivated right up to the door of their house, and further on, a man in a carpark who looked to be at least 95, doing exercises and stretches while cleaning his car — time and space are seldom wasted in Japan.

The Izusanryosen Trail to the summit of Mt Daruma, 982m, an extinct volcano in the west-central highlands of the Izu Peninsula, was the focus of our hike for the day. After scaling many, many steps on a warm afternoon, we were rewarded with another tantalisingly-hazy glimpse of Mt Fuji.

After a picnic lunch at the summit... and a chat with six well-equipped Japanese women hikers who had climbed all the way from the village of Heda... we descended Daruma and ascended 890m Kodarumayama meaning small Darumayama. The signpost sparked a language lesson with Yohei who explained the meaning of the Japanese characters — ko means small and yama means mountain so Kodarumayama means small Daruma. The things you learn while hiking with Walk Japan.

The track down from Kodarumayama was probably the most difficult of the whole week —  seemingly never-ending steps where the soil had eroded away leaving just the wooden support structure. It required a high level of concentration to make sure you planted your feet in exactly the right place. I was relieved I was wearing my heavy-duty, trusty TBs (tramping boots) that day. I sure needed their ankle support.

We had a bus with us the whole day so some took the option of going down by road, rejoining the group for the last part of the hike, an amble along a wide, grassed pathway that looked like the fairway on a golf course. We stopped for refreshments at a restaurant with a magnificent elevated view of Izu’s volcanic landscape including the Tanzawa Mountains in the distance.

A short time later, we arrived at Shuzenji in the hilly centre of the peninsula. Our accommodation for our last night on the Izu Geo Trail was Arai Ryokan, a graceful 140-year-old historic Japanese inn. Before checking in, we explored Shuzenji Onsen, an exquisite town with the Katsura River running right through the centre. One of the oldest and most famous hot spring resort towns on the Izu Peninsula, Shuzenji was named after the Shuzenji Temple founded by a Buddhist monk, Kobo Daishi, about 1200 years ago. The oldest of the original onsens, is now a public foot bath by the river.

Magic in the air

Wandering along the river and across picturesque bright red bridges on a glorious mild afternoon, we discovered little cafes and boutiques selling pretty umbrellas, crafts and pot plants. Our pathway took us through a bamboo forest. The play of light and shade through the tall spindly trunks of the bamboo was mesmerising. We lay on our backs on a platform at the centre on the forest and gazed skyward at the impossibly-high tops of the trees swaying in the breeze. The sunlight and shadows played tricks with my eyes. There was magic in the air.

My room at Arai Ryokan, overlooking the river, was one of the loveliest and most spacious of our six nights on tour. Sliding windows opened wide, bringing the sound of the river into the room. I loved looking out at the historic Japanese buildings with the turned-up corners on the roofs.

The main indoor onsen baths, Tenpyo Dai Yokudo, were built from cypress wood in 1933, in the 8th century Nara Era architecture style. They are registered as a National Cultural Asset. There are indoor family baths that can be booked for private use, and outdoor baths surrounded by gardens.

Strolling around the ryokan’s beautiful gardens with their arched bridges over ponds full of colourful fish, and lush green foliage interspersed with the vivid crimson of maple trees, I felt like I was in a Japanese fairytale. It’s a place I’d happily return to.

Arai Ryokan specialises in kaiseki cuisine with fresh local seafood and vegetables. By now we were well-versed in traditional Japanese dinners and the 10-course menu (in English and Japanese) was mouth-watering. Knowing the following day I’d be heading home to Kiwi fare, I made the most of the exotic flavours and artistic presentation. It was a fitting feast for our last night together which ended with speeches and a presentation to our excellent tour leader and guide, Yohei.

Next morning, it felt odd to be dressed in street clothes and footwear. Everyone looked so different after a week of hiking gear during the daytime and yukata in the evenings. Yohei accompanied us to Mishima Station where he helped us buy our train tickets to various destinations. I always find railway station farewells quite emotional but as we bowed goodbye, I had a sense our paths would cross again sometime, probably walking somewhere.

Walking, the purest, simplest form of transportation, was the bond that had united our enthusiastic, energetic international group of 12. Walking was the focus of every day, enabling the gradual discovery of new terrain, a slow unravelling of landscape allowing the senses to absorb the sights and sounds and smells. The experience was enriching, deeply satisfying, and more than a little addictive.

Snowshoeing in Hokkaido’s remote eastern region with its abundant wildlife, shimmering crater lakes and onsen thermal hot spring baths surrounded by glistening white snow looks tempting...

Fact file:

  • The Izu Geo Trail is a 7-day, 6-night guided tour starting in Tokyo and finishing in Mishima. The trail explores the Izu Peninsula in the Shizuoka Prefecture, one of the most unique geological areas on Earth. The mountainous peninsula with deeply indented coasts, white sand beaches and a climate akin to a sub-tropical island, is located 150km south west of Tokyo on the Pacific Coast of the island of Honshu, Japan.
  • An easy-to-moderate-paced hiking tour with an average walking distance of 6-12km a day, mostly on uneven forest and mountain tracks including some steep climbs and descents.
Justine Tyerman was a guest of Walk Japan.