To be honest with you, Ito is the last place I thought I’d ever write about. Not because I am unfamiliar with the town or its surroundings, but because I am selfish and, for a long time, wanted to keep this place as my getaway spot. But what fun is that? I am a photographer by profession and delight in showing people the world around me, and honestly, I would never have known about Ito had it not been for a friend extolling its virtues to me, so I figure that it is time for me to pay-it-forward.
Ito, just south of the bubble-era resort town of Atami and roughly two hours by train from Tokyo, is located on the western side of Sagami Bay in Shizuoka Prefecture and has long been known for the ubiquity of its onsen hot springs and its breathtaking coastal views. Owing much to its proximity to the sea, it was here in 1604 that the Tokugawa shogun ordered the English navigator William Adams, known in Japanese as Miura Anjin, to build Japan’s first Western-style sailing ships. This charge clearly suited Adams well, for his shipbuilding prowess impressed the shogun so much that the title hatamoto, or bannerman, was bestowed upon him, making him one of the country’s first non-Japanese samurai.
With its rich history, relative ease of access from Tokyo and abundance of hot springs, Ito has been my go-to spot for the past three years when I seek some respite from the hyper-hustle of Tokyo city life. Its population of 68,000 makes it an ideal trade-off between city and nature, the latter of which can be found in abundance.
To decompress from Tokyo as quickly as possible, my usual routine upon arriving at Ito Station revolves around dropping off any excess luggage I have at my accommodation, before heading out to the Jogasaki Coast. Located just 15 or so kilometers south of Ito Station, the rugged coastline offers sweeping views of the surrounding Izu Peninsula and can be accessed either by bus or, ideally, by riding the Izu Kyuko train line. The kurofune trains that run on this line are named after Commodore Perry’s famous Black Ships — which landed in what is present-day Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1853 and, in forcing the country into trade with the U.S., ended Japan’s 200-year self-imposed isolation.
While the Izukyu Corporation’s trains won’t force anyone into unwanted international trade — save for a few hundred yen for a seat — the measly monetary exchange is more than worth it. Upon boarding, passengers can choose from plush seats that face out toward expansive windows that provide unimpeded views of the shoreline as the train makes its winding journey down the Izu Peninsula.
From Jogasaki-Kaigan Station, a peaceful 20-minute walk along a cherry blossom tree-lined street will take you to the entrance of a car park, which opens up to the coast. It is here, camera in tow, that I finally relax, breathing in the salty Pacific air. I listen to the rhythmic sound of the waves as they crash against the jagged cliffs below and search the lush environment for ideal locations to take photographs.
After a good few hours spent exploring the coast, walking over the Kadowakitsuri suspension bridge and burning some calories by climbing the flights of stairs belonging to the nearby lighthouse, I return to Ito. Back at the station, I make the short walk through the shōtengai arcade that leads to K’s House Ito Onsen. This hostel has been, and always will be, my lodging of choice in Ito.
K’s House, which operates several other hostels throughout Japan, took over a 100-year-old Japanese ryokan (Japanese inn) in Ito and opened it as a hostel in 2010. The facilities and rooms are stunning, decked out in golden tatami, and extremely reasonable. Anyone from a solo traveler looking for a cheap bed in a dormitory-style room to a family of four wanting a private room overlooking the river that runs below, can find something here. I often choose the private room with a river view, which, if you opt for the shared bathroom facilities, runs to just over ¥5,000 per night.
After a quick refresh at the hostel, I head back out to dinner at a nearby izakaya tavern called Kunihachi that is run by a dynamic husband and wife duo and has a real mom and pop vibe. Not only is the food here a notch above your standard izakaya fare — with dishes such as an extra-large okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) and an excellent assortment of some of the freshest sashimi around — but the busy and kitschy details in the restaurant are fodder for amusing conversations with the jovial owners, who will be sure to indulge you, should you feel like a chat, in either English or Japanese.
After dinner, sated and sufficiently buzzed from the locally-produced sake, I make my way back to K’s House for my favorite part of the evening, the onsen. The hostel’s onsen — and, for that matter, most of the onsen in Ito — is classified as a gensen kakenagashi under Japan’s Hot Spring Law, meaning it is sourced from pure spring-fed water and, while a type of heat-exchange system is used to control the final temperature output, the water is not recirculated in any way. Technicalities aside, what matter at the end of a long day are not the governing regulations, but the mood and atmosphere, and the onsen has those in plenty.
When I wake up the next morning, an early, low light streams in through my room’s shoji-screened doors and the sounds of the river running below slowly become audible. In that moment, I am reminded why I keep coming back here, year after year. Ito is not only extraordinarily picturesque and welcoming but, while being so geographically close to Tokyo, it feels worlds away in regards to the flow of time. And that allows you to forget, even if just for a day or two, that you live in one of the busiest metropolises in the world.
Ito is easily accessible by train from Tokyo. Direct trains between Tokyo and Ito Station leave once an hour and take 100 minutes (¥4,500/one way). Local trains from Atami Station to Ito Station take just 20 minutes (¥320/one way). Local buses and trains can be used to navigate the Ito area. The Izu Kyuko train line runs down the Jogasaki Coast between Ito Station and Izukyu Shimoda Station and provides access to the southern part of the Izu Peninsula.