Salt-stained and steamy: life in Izu’s lush torrid zone

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

The Izu Peninsula, just two hours from Tokyo by train, is cherished for the slightly higher temperatures it enjoys compared to the capital. Mild winters and picturesque vacation homes attract the wealthy, brightly lit sanatoriums and retirement complexes draw the elderly, and white-sand beaches draw the surfers and sun worshippers.

The train ride from Tokyo to Atagawa, in the heart of Izu’s torrid zone, follows the peninsula’s eastern coastline, between mountain slopes and the Pacific Ocean. Atagawa is one of many small stops along the route, a town built on a narrow, rather steep declivity between rock landforms that have limited its expansion. Rows of phoenix palm, flowering bougainvillea and cactus growing in the forecourts of hotels make this hot-springs resort feel almost subtropical. Adding southern warmth to the location are the surrounding slopes planted with orchards of mandarin oranges and an indigo-colored sea below.

Just off the narrow road that descends from the station to the seafront, gouts of sulfuric steam rise from vents surrounding a small shrine, its wooden gate discolored and slightly warped by the heat. Behind the shrine were pools of boiling spring water and people were lowering baskets of coins into pools of scalding water. A plaque explains that cleaning money in mineral water promotes wealth.

Local manners dictates that the spoils of imminent good fortune be shared with the gods: Visitors pocket half the coins and toss the rest back into the bubbling pools.

Jets of steam spurt into the air throughout the town, releasing air pressure from below ground — and intensifying the heat. The hot air rises through towers that resemble small versions of Texan oil derricks. It carries minerals that are deposited, dried into crystallized powder called Yu-no-hana, then packaged and sold to visitors as bath powder.

Atagawa’s mineral-rich hot springs also appear to have a visible effect on the plant life: Lush bamboo fronds and tumescent clumps of fatsia japonica grow over the embankment beside the railway track, their glossy leaves outlandishly healthy, as if fed on super-nutrients and fertilizers.

The town’s subtropical character is reinforced by the Atagawa Tropical & Alligator Garden, close to the west exit of the station. The reptiles — 25 alligators in total, woman at the ticket office informed me — are raised in thermal waters fringed with jungle-style flora.

I wonder whether I have been shortchanged when I arrive at the enclosure and find shabby plastic alligator models, floating motionless in shallow pools. Alligators, it seems, spend a lot of time trying to look harmless by imitating stuffed animals. Their eyes, as glazed as boiled sweets, give little indication of the life behind them. It’s only after one of them moves, and I hear a blood-curdling scream from a young woman hanging over the enclosure’s protective rail, that I realize that the creatures are made of flesh and blood. Their eyes may be staring into the reptilian version of an existential void, but they can transform from plastic models to killers very quickly. Less confrontational are the lettuce-munching Aldabra giant tortoises from the Seychelles that have their own nearby enclosure.

Tickets for the alligator compound cover entrance to an excellent botanical garden just across the road and a related garden a short walk up the hill.

Built in 1958, the gardens consist of paths and walkways connected to hot houses heated by the natural springs. The thermal waters nourish great masses of orchids, lotuses, tropical trees and fruit-bearing mango, papaya, star fruit, banana, guava and faintly lemon-tasting Miracle Fruit. One greenhouse is dedicated to a single plant, a gigantic South American lily known as Victoria amazonica. The species can grow to a whopping diameter of 2 meters.

Atagawa’s highly compressed sights — all within walking distance of each other — make the resort ideal for visitors wishing to stay for even just a single night. But with few restaurants or souvenir shops, and only a modest beach, Atagawa is in danger of languishing — of becoming another faded seaside resort. Evidence of economic decline is visible on the fringes of the seafront, where two or three hotels have already closed down and a number of shops are boarded up, their facades suggesting few chances of reinvigoration. Some of the abandoned buildings, with their disfigured surfaces, salt-rusted bolts and worm-eaten wooden doors, reminded me of the locked-up seafront trading houses of Zanzibar — but that may have been taking the tropical analogy a little too far.

A statue of the warlord Ota Dokan (1432-86), in full battle dress, firmly situated me back in temperate Japan. Ota, founder of a military encampment in Edo (present-day Tokyo), is credited with first noting the curative qualities of Atagawa’s springs after watching an injured monkey soaking itself in the mineral waters. The name Atagawa, meaning “warm river,” dates from this period.

It is only a few steps away to Hotto Park, which has a nicely designed public footbath. In the name of promoting good circulation you can remove your shoes and socks, and walk — “hobble” might be a better word, it’s a painful exercise — along a number of paths embedded with small, protruding stones. This free footbath is open 24 hours. I return when it’s dark, soaking my feet and listening to the sea swell lapping the promenade wall. The next day, we soak in another free open-air bath a few hundred meters walk up the coast called Takaisou no Yu. This bath can accommodate 20 to 30 people and is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

My much-thumbed 1998 edition of Fodor’s Japan guide — one of only a few books mentioning the spa — notes, “East Izu has a number of hot-spring resorts, of which Atagawa is the most fashionable.”

Today, the town’s heyday as a stylish resort has clearly passed, but there is a particular southern charm to this unfashionably quiet, botanical spa that more crowded hot-spring destinations, like nearby Atami, have lost. It may be just what you’re looking for.

Izu-Atagawa Station is two hours and 20 minutes by train from Tokyo. There are slower all-station trains and other routes with stops at Atami, another hot-spring resort. For more information on the Atagawa Tropical & Alligator Garden, visit The Atagawa Onsen Hotel Ohruri is a mid-priced accommodation five minutes’ walk from the station.