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SOUTH IZU

The birthplace of a famous novel is still inspiring visitors today

by Stephen Mansfield

“I had spent three nights at hot springs near the center of the peninsula,” Yasunari Kawabata wrote in his short novel “The Izu Dancer,” published in 1925. “And now, my fourth day out of Tokyo, I was climbing toward Amagi Pass and South Izu.”

In Kawabata’s story, a high school student on a walking tour of the peninsula is captivated by a young dancer he espies among the members of a traveling troupe. The boy follows the dancer and her companions through the Amagi Tunnel until they reach Yugano Spa.

Without referring to the spot by name, the writer describes the approach to Fukudaya Inn in the Amagi Pass in a passage that holds true even today: “We climbed down over the rocks and stone steps 100 yards or so from the road,” he says. “There was a public hot spring on the riverbed and just beyond it a bridge led to the garden of the inn.” The narrator, it seems, was able to catch glimpses of geisha bathing in the public bath he describes.

The inn and the baths, looking as worn and rustic as in Kawabata’s day, face each other across the river. It was at Fukudaya, in a modest, second-floor tatami room overlooking the Kawazu river, that the author wrote his story, and his affection for the place was such that he often returned over the years to work on other projects.

Visitors prepared to pay the small surcharge can stay in the author’s two-room quarters. There is even a small museum of memorabilia, where the Nobel laureate’s personal effects are displayed. These include examples of hanging scrolls of calligraphy in the author’s spidery but vigorous hand. There are also stills from the many films inspired by “The Izu Dancer” and comments from the movie crews, who seem not only to have shot on location here, but to have stayed at the inn itself — drawn, no doubt, by its atmosphere. Even the old, square-shaped kaya (Japanese nutmeg) bathtub that Kawabata soaked in is still there, carefully drained and brushed each night as it has been ever since the dawn of the Meiji Era in 1868. Other writers, such as the late Osamu Dazai, as well as contemporary writers like Tomomi Muramatsu, have also stayed at the inn.

Although an early work, Kawabata’s semi-autobiographical story supports a lucrative microtourism industry, its influence evident even in the name of the Izu Odoriko (Izu Dancer) express train that brings scores of travelers to Shimoda on the east coast of the peninsula and the popular Odoriko hiking courses.

This shouldn’t put you off venturing into Kawabata country, though. Even during national holidays, there always seems to be enough space to go around. Although the train is packed with travelers, curiously enough, the place never seems crowded where you get off.

The southern section of the Amagi Pass joins the Shimoda Highway, a road that feels more like a rustic country route than the vector for east-west traffic that it is. As the local bus from Shimoda climbs and descends through the hot-spring valleys that dot the southern interior of the peninsula, unmistakable images of the region come to the mind of anyone familiar with the book — or one of the six film versions that have been made since 1953. The wandering performers, charcoal-makers and peddlers noted by the writer have long since vanished, but much else, including the more than century-old cedars Kawabata mentions, a variety called sotaro suginamiki, have remained remarkably unchanged.

Cedars and other trees line the gorges leading to hot-spring resorts like Kawazu Onsen-kyo and nearby Kawazu Nanadaru (the Seven Falls of Kawazu). The latter are in a scenic gorge, linked by an attractive hiking trail. The southern fall, called Odaru, is the most popular. This has a perfect waterfall and a swimming hole and hot baths beside the stream. Shokei-daru, with its bronze Izu Dancer statue beside the waterfall, remains the favorite of literary pilgrims, though.

The bus from Shimoda to Matsuzaki, a fishing port on the west coast of the peninsula, passes through a landscape of lumpy green hills, random conical shapes resembling giant topiary. There is ample proof of the region’s southern climate in the small orange groves, riverside trellises of wisteria and odd outcropping of cactus. A striking feature of this region is its namako-kabe — a crisscross plasterwork design in gray and white used to decorate walls. The appealing harlequin patterns also fortify buildings against the typhoons that lash the peninsula from its two coasts.

In the unassuming port of Matsuzaki at the very end of the highway, there is a museum dedicated to Chohachi Irie, the prominent Edo-Period exponent of koto-e, or plaster-work art. Irie took the simple exterior designs a step further and produced pictorial works of great detail and range. Many can be seen hanging like plaster medallions in the museum.

A nearby bridge crosses the town’s main river, and visitors can enjoy a stroll along willow-lined banks dotted with succulent plants and banana fronds. The bridge, which itself bears plaster-work decoration in high relief, leads to Nakasetei, an elegant Meiji-Era home and former kimono-and-tea shop purchased by the government as part of its national heritage program and now open to the public.

Matsuzaki, with its modest beach, plaster walls, old storehouses and quaint quayside fish restaurants, or nearby Osawa Onsen, a 400-year-old converted samurai villa, are ideal places to spend a night or two, teasing out the aches and pains of a day’s sightseeing — before settling in with a good Kawabata novel at the end of the day.