Formed by Mount Fuji’s ancient lava flows, Izu Hantō protrudes like an arrowhead into the ocean southwest of Tokyo, a mountainous spine whose tortured coastline features some superb scenery and a couple of decent beaches. It takes at least two days to make a complete circuit of this region, taking in some intriguing historical sights and stopping at a few of the peninsula’s estimated 2300 hot springs.
Direct train services from Tokyo run down Izu’s more developed east coast, passing through Atami, with its stylish art museum, to the harbour town of Shimoda, a good base for exploring southern Izu and one of the places Commodore Perry parked his “Black Ships” in 1854, as well as the site of Japan’s first American consulate. Over on west Izu, Dōgashima is another famous beauty spot, with a crop of picturesque islands set in clear, tropical-blue water. The only settlement of any size in central Izu is Shuzenji, whose nearby onsen resort has long been associated with novelists such as Kawabata and Natsume Sōseki.
Izu’s mild climate makes it a possible excursion even in winter, though it’s close enough to Tokyo to be crowded at weekends, and is best avoided during the summer holidays. If you haven’t got a JR pass and want to explore the whole peninsula, check out the various discount tickets available, of which the most useful is the four-day “Izu Free Q Kippu”, which covers the Shinkansen from Tokyo as well as local transport by train and bus. Renting a car is a good idea, as public transport is slow and only really covers the main coastal settlements.Read More
Situated on the Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Ōsaka, the hot-spring resort of ATAMI (熱海) serves as the eastern gateway to Izu, and one of the jumping-off points for Ōshima. The main reason to come here is to visit the outstanding MOA Museum of Art (ＭＯＡ美術館), carved into a hillside above the town. Though it takes a bit of effort to get to, the museum’s remarkable architecture and collection of mostly ancient Oriental art easily justify a visit. You can buy slightly reduced tickets at the tourist information desk inside Atami Station before hopping on a bus from the station concourse up to the museum. Buses drop you outside the museum’s lower entrance, from where you ride four escalators that cut through the rock to the main exhibition halls. Each room contains just a few pieces, of which the most famous – only put on show in February of each year – is a dramatic folding screen entitled Red and White Plum Blossoms by the innovative Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716). The most eye-catching exhibit is a full-size replica of a golden tearoom, lined with gold leaf and equipped with utensils made of gold, and built in 1586. The museum’s well-tended gardens contain teahouses serving macha and sweet cakes.
In 1600 a Dutch ship washed up on east Kyūshū. It was the lone survivor of five vessels that had set sail from Europe two years previously; three-quarters of the crew had perished from starvation and the remaining 24 were close to death.
One of those rescued was the navigator, an Englishman called Will Adams (1564–1620). He was summoned by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the future shogun, who quizzed Adams about European affairs, religion and various scientific matters. Ieyasu liked what he heard and made Adams his personal adviser on mathematics, navigation and armaments. Adams, known locally as Anjin (“pilot”), later served as the shogun’s interpreter and as a diplomat, brokering trade treaties with both Holland and Britain. In return he was granted samurai status, the first and last foreigner to be so honoured, along with a Japanese wife and an estate near Yokosuka on the Miura Peninsula.
Adams’ main task, however, was to oversee the construction of Japan’s first Western-style sailing ships. In 1605 he set up a shipyard at Itō, on the east coast of Izu, where he built at least two ocean-going vessels over the next five years. His fascinating life story is told in Giles Milton’s Samurai William and also forms the basis for James Clavell’s novel, Shogun. Each August Itō’s Anjin Matsuri celebrates Adams.