She was on a train from Tokyo to Atami in the summer of 1959 when the English travel writer Ethel Mannin “saw what I had read about and been told about but felt unable to accept until I had seen it for myself.”
What the mortified Ms. Mannin beheld was the passenger in the seat opposite her stand up, remove his trousers and shirt, and then settle down for the rest of the journey in short underpants and a singlet.
Though the days of blithely peeling off layers of clothing on trains may have gone, shedding garments is what Atami is all about. And, given the countless opportunities it offers to soak in its scalding waters, a stay at this major hot-spring resort in Shizuoka Prefecture presupposes a degree of exposure.
The town some 70 km from Tokyo stands on the neck of the geologically friable Izu Peninsula, above the upper half of the crater of an extinct volcano. The other half of the canted cone is submerged beneath the Pacific waters of Sagami Bay.
First impressions of Atami, a once-affluent spa resort where you would have had to book weeks in advance for a room, do not speak of great culture or prosperity.
Ms. Mannin found the station area “as garish a place as it is possible to imagine … almost blinding in the neon-sign vulgarity of its massed advertisement signs.”
That, of course, was in the days before Japan really got into its commercial stride. The remark brought to mind an observation made by Mitsuko Uchida, one of the world’s most eminent pianists, in a recent (Oct. 14) interview with the Financial Times in which she observes: “Japanese culture has two extremes — utter simplicity and over-the-top vulgarity.” Uchida, coincidentally, was born in Atami.
In essence, the town has not changed a great deal since it became a popular way station for travelers on the old Tokaido road that was made between the Imperial capital of Kyoto and the new political capital in Edo (present-day Tokyo) after the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate was founded in 1603. So, in a sense, Atami has been a tourist spa town for some 400 years.
Nowadays, along with hotels, Atami’s streets are lined with souvenir shops offering everything from pickled shiso (perilla) leaf and sachets of onsen (mineral spring) powder, to character amulets and coasters. Dried fish is a specialty of Atami, but during my stay I sought out a bottle of the peninsula’s orange wine which, when chilled, makes for a refreshing aperitif.
Mary Crawford Fraser (aka Mrs. Hugh Fraser), an American author who was the wife of a British diplomat, came here in the summer of 1889, seeking relief from her rheumatism. Wilting in the stupefying August heat, she was delighted to find an old temple in a wood above the town in which to take refuge during the days. Indeeed, it may still be possible to come across such special spots above the modern high rises of the seaward slopes, where traces of the forests of fern and camphor that Fraser praised, can still be seen.
Walking around the crowded holiday streets, Fraser spotted an Englishman, dressed in the native cotton dress sitting on the step of a teahouse, “laughing and chattering in fluent Japanese with a swarm of Atami girls … probably one of the harmless maniacs who travel everywhere without passports and try to see the country from the Japanese side of life.”
These days, the number of admirable expatriates of the kind Fraser so snootily mocked have surely increased, but the ranks of “Atami girls” have equally surely thinned as the economy has declined and visitor numbers show no sign of returning to their 1960s peaks. Back then, more than 1,000 registered geisha called Atami their home — though a spirited number do still remain.
According to the U.S.-born anthropologist and novelist Liza Dalby — an authority on the subject, having herself once having been a geisha in Kyoto — “There are more geisha in the seaside resort town of Atami than in any other hanamachi (geisha quarter) in Japan.”
Many of the women, including those associated with Atami’s more prurient reputation, who are fondly known as “onsen geisha” — or the even more euphemistically nominated “pillow geisha” — are affiliated in some way with hotels. However, the continuing fall in their numbers is also due to the fact that younger Japanese are generally not very interested in the dance, banter, shamisen playing and other services provided at considerable cost by Atami’s female performers.
Nonetheless, the town’s reputation for illicit, or extra-marital affairs is hardly new. The great film auteur Yasujiro Ozu has some telling scenes in his classic 1953 film “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)” set in Atami — including one in which two maids talk flirtatiously about an unmarried couple staying at their inn.
Ozu famously used one main camera shot for each scene in his films, often taken from a low angle as if filmed by someone sitting on the floor. The elderly central couple in “Tokyo Story” are filmed from a similar perspective, sitting on the concrete sea wall at Atami and allowing us to see the surrounding hills gloriously free of condos and high-rises. But sadly, the dissolution of the Japanese family foretold in this and almost every other Ozu film, could also almost be a metaphor for Japan’s collapsing seaside resorts.
Undeterred by any such social upheavals, though, the unmarried couple in Fumiko Enchi’s 1958 novel “Masks” decide on impulse to alight from their train at Atami, after seeing its lights “in the evening dusk, spilling down the hillside toward the sea like a scattering of jewels.”
Daytime Atami is a little different. Indeed, standing on the scruffy patch of beach here, with its tetrapods, that breakwater and litter, it’s not immediately clear why this coast is sometimes dubbed the “Japanese Riviera” — though, in fairness, the town still does have its charms.
Among those charmed was clearly the noted long-term Japan resident and author, Donald Richie, in whose short, 1962 film “Atami Blues,” the promenade exudes a sultry, semi-erotic air, its seductive breezes a heady compound of salt and sulphur.
Efforts have been made along the waterfront, where there is a rather smart marina, to create a quasi-Mediterranean through planting handsome phoenix trees, cycads and flower beds. And the wooded hills, in reality the uptilted wall of the crater that forms the backdrop to the bay, retain their green, sinuous beauty.
But this hustling, sometimes seedy resort, has another aspect that’s less widely appreciated. As such, for visitors expecting to do little more than soak in its in springs, it often comes as a surprise to find the place is bubbling with culture, too.
Appropriately, then, there is something almost mystical about the manner of access to the MOA Museum of Art. Sited in landscaped grounds atop a steep rise overlooking Atami Bay, the museum’s inner sanctum of galleries are reached via a series of escalators inside the body of the mountain — and on which the eerie sci-fi lighting and distant echo of voices in the galleries, suggests an ascent to a place of almost cultish or occult dimensions.
There is something to this first impression. The mastermind behind the museum, the late Mokichi Okada, also founded the World Church of Messianity, which he said was inspired by a profound belief in “the spiritually elevating properties of great art viewed amidst an ideal natural setting.”
Among the museum’s many fine pieces is Ogata Korin’s magisterial “Red and White Plum Screens.” Less subtle, and entirely consonant with Atami’s mix of the urbane and tacky, is an ostentatious reproduction of the famous and fabulous portable tea room of the warrior-diplomat Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98), which is called The Golden Chamber.
Though Atami is no longer a fashionable retreat for the wealthy, there are still fine residences on the slopes of the bay, some now maintained as second homes. A few of these are also of literary or cultural interest.
The house of tanka poet Sasaki Nobutsuna (1872-1963) commands fine seaward views, and is open to the public. However, the Kyu-Hyuga-Bettei (Hyuga family second house) on a steep hillside above the station can be seen by appointment only. After viewing the two-story house above ground, visitors descend to its magnificent Bach, Beethoven and Mozart rooms beneath the yard that were designed in 1936 for a wealthy trader named Rihei Hyuga by the famed German architect Bruno Taut.
More accessible is the Kiun-Kaku residence, built in 1919 for the railway giant Nezu Kaichiro. This is one of those rare meetings of wealth and good taste that actually works. The landscaped gardens here, though not extensive, are skillfully laid out. Combining Japanese, European and Chinese interior decor, the house was converted into a Japanese inn in 1947. The spacious rooms, favored by writers such as Shiga Naoya, Yamamoto Yuzo, Tanizaki Junichiro and Funabashi Seiichi, each have a fine view of the grounds. Visitors can enter the suites and marvel at just how civilized the place is.
Despite such cultural credentials, though, Atami is primarily about hot water. Ms. Mannin felt that as a foreigner in Japan, an object of intense interest in any case, clothes were her only protection. Accordingly, she never made it into the waters. Thankfully, today’s traveler need feel no such inhibitions. And despite the cooling effect of the economy, the town is far from gasping its last breath.
And when the next hot-spring boom comes along, Atami will be ready.
Atami is 55 min. by shinkansen from Tokyo Station, or 90 min. by Odoriko express. For an appointment to visit the Kyu-Hyuga-Bettei, call Atami City Office on (0557) 86-6232 or visit www.city.atami.shizuoka.jp.