While the idea of Japan has recently become synonymous with either the vision of bustling streets, like the iconic scenes at Shibuya scramble, or the ancient temples of Kyoto, it is still nice to be surprised by something unexpected and new. That is exactly what a recent trip to explore the scenic coastal region of Higashi-Izu, located along the coastal peninsula of Shizuoka prefecture, delivered. Here lies a slice of Japan that almost feels like it has been frozen in time, a time when life wasn’t dominated by robot restaurants, maid cafes and smartphones. A simpler time that still feels steeped in traditions, perhaps slowly being forgotten by modern Japan, this elusive and at times romantic atmosphere offers a side of Japan that many still long to find and experience.
Stepping off the train and onto the station platform at Atagawa-Izu, we were immediately greeted by the sight of an old wooden drilling tower with steam pouring out into the air. These old drilling towers were once a common means for drilling deep underground to pump out hot water for the onsens but now they act as a beautiful, almost stoic reminder of the traditional craft of creating a Japanese hot spring.
Leaving the station, we found yourself greeted by the local tourist information center, which boasts its very own drilling station, free foot spa and what I would describe as an outdoor onsen hotpot. It is here that we were first introduced to the local cuisine with an onsen tamago. The onsen tamago is a traditional Japanese slow-cooked egg, gently heated in the low temperature of the hot spring waters of Japan. This unique style of cooking produces a unique texture that is difficult to explain and a definite must-try. Usually, the process takes 30-40mins at a temperature of approximately 70 °c however, the hot spring waters of Atagawa-Izu are hotter than usual and it only took 15 minutes.
After a busy morning of tatami building and sightseeing, we were ready for lunch. We arrived at Yama Momo Chaya and were immediately transported back in time, entering through Shooji sliding doors to a room lined with the same tatami that we had just spent hours learning about and making, this was a teahouse steeped in tradition.
For lunch, we enjoyed a warming pot of nabe with local produce consisting of wild boar and deer, mixed with mushrooms, noodles and vegetables. The sight of the hotpot stewing was enough to have us all hungrily anticipating the flavours to come. Before eating we all raised a glass of homemade umeshu (Japanese plum wine) and exclaimed “kanpai” (cheers), in celebration of the meal and the experiences to come.
After an amazing lunch, our second stop on this journey into traditional Japan required a stop off at the Tokiwa tatami shop. Tatami is a traditional mat that has been used as a flooring material in Japanese rooms dating back to the 8th century. The shop owner, who is affectionately known as “the Professor” by locals took the time to explain the rich history of tatami and how it progressed through the centuries, and finally arrived at the realization, that the practice of using tatami in Japanese homes are becoming less and less common. After our brief lesson, it was finally time to experience making our very own small tatami mat, for me this moment was what I had been most excited for, as I love the opportunity to make something with my hands and to take it home, this is the ultimate souvenir. Traditional covers made with Isuga straw were available, what begins as a light green colour, slowly over time morphs into the yellow that many may be accustomed to seeing on the floors of traditional ryokans. We then selected our colourful fabrics, heri, to decorate the edges of our tatami and carefully attached them, making ever so sure to align them correctly; it was during this moment you can appreciate and understand the time and craft that has gone into this art form over the centuries. What at first glance may appear as a simple floor mat takes careful and deliberate focus to successfully craft, and while we were shown that machines can now create the tatami much faster, it was nice to experience a craft that for centuries was solely crafted by hand.
After a few hours spent indoors, it was time to break away and explore the sights, after a short drive we arrived at the Hosono Kogen (Highlands). Upon arriving we were immediately struck with awe at the size of this vast mountainous highland, covered with beautifully golden Japanese pampas grass, and the sight of paragliders skillfully navigating the currents of the wind that surround the mountain, it was truly a sight to see. (pic) Once we reached the summit, we were witness to the panoramic views of Hosono Kogen covering mountain ranges, pampas grass and finishing with a view of Sagami Bay.
Another activity steeped in history and tradition is that of the hina dolls, this tradition is said to date back as far as the 8th century and during the Edo period became synonymous with the celebration of Girls Day / Doll’s Day on March 3rd. Hinamatsuri as it is known ranges from paying tribute to the emperor and empress, celebrating the first year of life for a baby girl, and to bringing good fortune to a girl in finding a future husband. The museum houses a vast collection of hina dolls, which ranges from; people, flowers, animals, fish and food.
Our final morning was filled with a trip to the local Inatori farmers market, where we enjoyed the aromas of freshly cooked fish over open flames, as well as a complimentary bowl of miso soup, that every visitor receives. Local produce lines the shelves of the Inatori market, with early morning shoppers vying for products made from the region’s speciality, new summer orange, such as local jams, dressings, cakes and desserts are all definitely worth the early wake-up time.
Ninja Reporter : Luke