A taste of the good life in Izu

by Andrew Rankin

SHIMODA, Shizuoka Pref. — There is no shortage of ryokan in Izu. The hot springs run unbroken down the coast from Atami to the tip of the peninsula, and some towns seem to have more onsen than houses.

The Seiryuso ryokan in Shimoda is one of the best known. Seiryuso advertises itself as “purely Japanese,” but the facilities combine both Japanese and Western comforts. There is everything that you expect to find at a traditional Japanese inn: tatami rooms, sculptured gardens and maids in kimono serving guests in their rooms.

But the building curves around a 25-meter heated swimming pool lined with palm trees, deck chairs and a cocktail bar, giving the place the feel of a tropical resort. Only the pine-covered hills in the distance and the worker-bee cleaners reminded us we were in Japan. In mid-June there was a light rain and the cocktail bar was shut, but it is easy to imagine how wonderful it would be here in summer. Other nontraditional features include a game center, massage machines, a coffee lounge and a more formal bar.

Our room was larger than average, with 25 mats altogether, plus a good-sized wooden bathroom. The communal hot springs in the main building look out onto a bamboo-fenced corner of the garden containing several beautiful outdoor bathing pools. Male and female baths are separate, but swap over at 10:30 p.m., a discovery I blundered upon in true gaijin style. Our maid told us 30 guests were staying that day, but we had the baths and swimming pool to ourselves nearly the whole time.

We stayed two nights. Dinner on the first evening consisted entirely of local fish and vegetables. Spiny lobsters and fried bream were especially good, as was a sweet liqueur we thought was plum but turned out to be a sweet tomato. There was one dish we couldn’t cope with. The maid was already chuckling as she served us the green sauce to go with another plate of fish. It was made from tade (knotweed), as featured in the Japanese proverb “Some insects even eat knotweed” — there is no accounting for taste. We put on a good performance for the maid, scowling and groaning and threatening to spit it out. The proverb is right: Knotweed is revolting.

Buses stopping opposite Seiryuso take you into town in under 10 minutes. Feeling obliged to do some sightseeing, we spent one afternoon in “historically interesting” Shimoda. A cable car took us to the top of the hills for a fine panorama of the bay, although, as is so often the case in Japan, the view was marred by the ugly colors and shapes of the buildings. Later we took a stroll through Shiroyama Park where the hydrangea were in bloom, all 3 million of them.

The service at Seiryuso was highly efficient, but not quite as impressive as at the most exclusive ryokan. I asked for chocolate cake at 11 in the evening (well, I was on holiday). The same request at another ryokan earlier this year sent the staff scurrying out to buy chocolate bars. At Seiryuso, they directed me to the nearest convenience store. We asked for breakfast at 8, but when we overslept by 10 minutes the maid brought a porter to roll us out of our futons. For those who can’t face pickles and fish first thing in the morning, Seiryuso offers a perfectly acceptable Western-style breakfast of toast, salad, ham and eggs and plenty of coffee.

Before we could settle in our room on the first evening we had to deal with a titanic cockroach who had occupied the veranda; a swarm of mosquitoes avenged his death during the night. We gave the inn the benefit of the doubt on the insect problem. It was probably our own fault. We were on the ground floor facing the garden and had not properly closed the windows during the day.

In any case, all was forgotten on the second night when we were served one of the finest meals I have ever had in Japan.

None of the dishes was less than excellent. A plate of long crab legs accompanied an assortment of sashimi — thick slices too, not the tantalizing slivers you get in Tokyo sushi bars. A turbo was chopped into pieces and set aflame in its shell. This was followed by beef shabu-shabu style. The strips of raw meat are dipped into a pot of boiling water for a few seconds, just long enough for the surface of the beef to turn color, then flavored with a drop of sauce.

The second course began with a glass of apricot wine. This is a nice touch also found in some French restaurants. The wine’s sweetness clears the palate and prepares you for the different tastes to come.

A series of superb dishes followed. The cooked head of a madai (red sea bream), two crayfish each and several strips of fried eel. Finally, a dessert of fresh papaya and the chocolate cake I had pestered them for the previous day. Completely satisfied, after the meal we slouched in the veranda chairs and merrily drank a whole bottle of shochu without realizing it wasn’t sake.

The bill for two people staying two nights came to 184,000 yen including dinners, breakfasts and plenty of drink. Seiryuso was the highlight of our trip to Izu. If I had the money I’d stay there all summer.