Beat the heat in the green hills of Izu

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

Nobody likes Japan’s cities in the summertime — at least not those south of Hokkaido. With heat rising off the tarmac and radiating from the concrete, and humidity that clings like a wet towel, thoughts of escape come readily to mind — and there’s no better tonic than getting up into the hills and mountains where fresh air and cooler temperatures await.

And so it was that I found myself on an abbreviated road trip with my husband, a last-minute escape to explore the surprisingly uncrowded delights of the Izu Peninsula a mere two hours south of Tokyo.

On a previous venture there, we’d circled the perimeter of that beautiful spit of land, scouting the traces of history in tiny Shimoda and panning for gold on the western coast. This time, our outing took us down National Route 414, a well-kept road that traces the spine of the peninsula from landlocked head to coastal toe.

Early in the trip, near the Joren Waterfall — the largest of Izu’s many cascades — we allow ourselves to be sidetracked by signs for a wasabi farm. With a microclimate perfectly suited to the growth of this root some term Japanese horseradish, the Izu Peninsula is the source of nearly a quarter of all the wasabi consumed nationwide. Clear waters and cool temperatures are an absolute must for this notoriously difficult crop, something the shaded Kawazu River can deliver almost year-round.

Initially ignoring the obligatory tourist shop and the enthusiastic vendor in the parking lot selling soft wasabi-flavored ice cream, we pick our way carefully down the cement path to the river.

As the route flattens out, we pass by channels cut into the banks that are thronged with leafy, near-fluorescent-green leaves. Beneath this foliage, knobby roots thirstily soak up the crystalline waters, awaiting their harvesting as wasabi — much of which will end up adding a signature piquance to sushi and sashimi.

Though the farm has kindly taken the time to explain the cultivation process through excellent signboards in both Japanese and English, I’ll admit that more of our time — and camera memory — is spent soaking up views of the nearby thundering Joren Waterfall.

But it isn’t to be the only cascade of the trip. Not too far down the road, with tongues still tingling from a cone of that parking-lot soft wasabi-flavored ice cream, we make our next stop in the hamlet beneath Izu’s famed Nanadaru (Seven Waterfalls).

After a short walk up a narrow lane, we come to a relatively easy trail that hugs the banks of the town’s rushing river (the Kawazu revisited) and leads visitors past a stunning set of seven cascades.

Most tourists only make the ramble on pavement to the base of Shokeidaru (Shokei Waterfall), where statues of characters in 1968 Nobel-laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s renowned short story from 1925, “Izu-no Odoriko (The Izu Dancer),” stoically greet the shutter-happy hordes.

Carry on, however, and you’ll find yourself following a trail that climbs up through the pine forest and away from the summer crowds. Though it’s part of the longer Odoriko Trail, we follow the path only until the uppermost cascade, Kama-daru, where a swaying walkway offers the best vantage point from which to behold the impressive chute.

There, with nothing but the rumble of water and soft leaves underfoot, Japan’s sweltering cities feel a million miles away.

Back down in the village, we check into the unassuming Ryokan Amagiso and deposit our bags in a well-appointed room. There’s no lingering, though; donning our swimsuits, we immediately succumb to the lure of the 28 rotenburo (outdoor hot-spring baths) strung out along the riverbank below our traditional Japanese inn.

Pools of varying temperatures lead bathers progressively closer to the base of Oh-daru, the last and largest of the Nanadaru waterfalls. After the quickest of dips into the nearly scalding baths in a grotto next to the waterfall’s base, we settle in for a long soak in full view of the cascade with the mists washing over our steaming pool.

Afterward, back at the ryokan we find that the peninsula’s pungent wasabi makes a prominent appearance in our dinner, a lavish spread centered around a literal boatload of sashimi. Armed with a personal grater and a chunk of fresh root, I make quick work of my multi-sourced portion. It’s a filling offering, so I’m not prepared when one of the kitchen staff wheels a homemade hibachi to our table. Spears of bamboo sporting fish from the river just below us stick out of the wooden frame and, despite my state of repletion, I just can’t resist.

As we crunch happily on the last morsels of river trout, I query our server on the evening’s “entertainment.” My trip research had turned up the possibility of moonlit walks by the river to the accompaniment of dancing fireflies, but — with an apologetic smile — I’m told we’ve missed the incandescent insects by a little over a week. However, suggests our waitress, if we’d like to come by reception around 7 p.m., she could promise something equally rewarding.

The seven waterfalls of Kawazu may have grown famous for the autobiographical tale of unattainable love penned by Kawabata, but it’s another fraught pair of paramours the region celebrates in the weeks surrounding July 7th’s annual Tanabata (Star Festival).

Intrigued by our server’s pitch, we meet our ryokan hostess Miki Nozawa at 7 on the dot; she offers each of us a delicate paper lantern — lit from within by less traditional battery-powered candles — and we pad silently through the dark streets in the direction of Shokei-daru.

“Tanabata is the story of two star-crossed lovers,” she explains, regaling us with the sad legend of a besotted prince and princess who can only be together one day a year. Nine years ago, the local ryokans began offering “Romantic Waterfall Walk” packages, hoping to capitalize on both the famous fable and Kawabata’s star-crossed characters.

Yet despite the balmy summer evening we’re experiencing, the path is empty save for our small party. I ask if the tourism efforts are succeeding.

“Before ‘The Izu Dancer’ was written,” Miki explains, “Kawazu was a hunting ground for wild boar and deer. After the novel, more people came but only to see sights related to the story.” Today, the area is trying to incorporate a broader approach, with a special emphasis on the natural setting.

And even in the fading light, the setting is spectacular. The waters of Shokei-daru pound incessantly into the churning river as we halt at a table set up next to the trail. Another ryokan proprietor offers us small cups of sake and squid on a stick while Miki steers us to the purpose of our walk.

“Write your wish here,” she instructs, and we carefully pen our thoughts onto damp strips of white washi paper. As the ink begins to bleed, we fold our aspirations into tiny squares and, under Miki’s direction, cast them into the rushing waters beneath Shokei-daru. I won’t tempt the fates and reveal my written desires — but if wishes do come true, I’ll be back in Izu quite soon.

The Izu Peninsula is best explored by car. However, both the Tokaido Shinkansen and the JR Tokaido Line serve Mishima, from there the Izu Hakone Line runs to Shuzen-ji, from where the Joren Waterfall or Kawazu Nanadaru can be reached by bus or taxi. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily the outdoor hot-spring baths at Ryokan Amagiso are open to the public (swimsuits required).