If there was one sure thing, it was I didn’t want my sabbatical year to be a marathon made of must-do tours, hopping from town to town on every single day and rushing to make sure I had seen everything. I felt so stressed during the last weeks before my departure. I had to prepare and clean my flat for my future tenant, pack while selecting carefully every item, and still, I had to work until the end of the month.
The funny thing is a few months before, I was so excited to have a full month in Japan to do whatever I wanted. I thought I would add to my Izu Peninsula trip a Japan Rail Pass trip of 1 week to see the south of Japan. The closer I got from my departure date, the more the idea of the rushed 1-week Japan Rail Pass trip freaked me out. I was in serious need of rest. So I threw away the idea of the Japan Rail Pass, and I decide that having a charged SUICA card to take cheaper local trains was perfectly fine. I would go on a slow travel retreat discovering more in-depth a region of Japan I liked so much last year.
- An introduction to slow travel
- My 2-week itinerary in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park
- Enjoying tattoo-friendly onsen in the Izu Peninsula
- Take-away from my slow travel retreat in Japan
An introduction to slow travel
At first glance, you might believe that to give slow travel a go you need to have much time on your hands. However, slow travel is more about an attitude towards travels rather than the number of days you have. While being on a sabbatical gives me indeed enough time and the right mindset to slow down, I realised I could tend to slow travel choices even on a short getaway. So different people might see slow travel from a different perspective, but here are the key ideas I now bear in mind:
- It’s ok not to see everything, just follow your intuition of the day.
- Give time to nice people you encounter on your way; they might have secret local insights to share.
- Take that detour you are curious about; there might be something incredible behind that hill.
- Appreciate the landscape as you go, from the window of a train or the deck of a ferry
- Try to learn and speak as much as you can of the local language; people are always impressed anywhere you go, and this is the best way to learn about the culture and make new friends.
My 2-week itinerary in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park
I had registered to 2 scuba diving weekends with Dive Zone Tokyo before my arrival. The first one was in Koganezaki and the second one in Atami. So I built my itinerary between and after these diving events and as a result spent about 2 weeks in the area. Here is the map of my slow travel trip in the Izu Peninsula, Yugawara and Hakone.
Day 1/2 – Koganezaki
The day after my arrival in Tokyo, at 6 am, I was meeting up with my new dive buddies of Dive Zone Tokyo to carpool in the direction Koganezaki on the west coast of the Izu Peninsula. Koganezaki Beach Park is easier to reach by car contrary to the other dive sites where you can easily go by train. The beach park includes a campsite and a dive centre to go shore diving, but you can also go boat diving from the harbour of Arari which is just a short car ride away.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t explore more of the area as we were quite busy diving but I had some time on Sunday for an early morning walk along the beach. I wish next time I could go a bit more south to visit the onsen town of Dogeshima which seems to have splendid sea caves you can visit by boat.
Scuba diving in Koganezaki
To be honest, due to the poor visibility we had on that day, I don’t think I could appreciate the site at its most. On the first day, I did 2 beach dives, and I saw only one nudibranch whereas it was supposed to be the place for macro photography in the Izu Peninsula. On the second day, I went on 2 boat dives around the same 2 pinnacles covered in soft coral, I saw much more fish, but again the visibility was so reduced that I don’t understand how the other buddy team saw those eagle rays!
Shore diving parameters:
#1 max depth 15 m – bottom time 50 min – water temperature 21°C
#2 max depth 18 m – bottom time 37 min – water temperature 21°C
Boat diving parameters:
#1 max depth 21 m – bottom time 33 min – water temperature 19°C
#2 max depth 28 m – bottom time 34 min – water temperature 19°C
Day 3/6 – Yugawara
While the town centre part near the ocean has little to no interest, except maybe the cool hand spa at the train station, the area of Yugawara that is going up in the mountains is stunning and peaceful. I couldn’t find a better place to have a break and rest. I later learnt that Yugawara Onsen was a popular retreat place among Japanese writers for more than a century, what a coincidence!
While walking around the village, I found the incredible Manyo Park by chance, by being curious to climb a stair which was the entrance of the park. First, you’ll see two beautiful small waterfalls, and as you climb up in the park, you’ll find gazebos, shrines, torii gates and at the end of the park the foot spa park of “Doppo no Yu”. The entrance is only 300¥ (2,50€ / £2), and you can also get a 15-minute massage for 1000¥ (8€ / £7), such a good deal!
Where to stay in Yugawara?
The Ryokan Tokyo: I was so lucky to find this Japanese boutique guesthouse in the mountains of Yugawara. The hotel has both private traditional Japanese rooms and one dormitory, all perfectly stylish and clean. I loved all the time I spend soaking in hot water at the onsen and watching the green mountains from the café in my pretty yukata. It wasn’t an issue for me, but you need to know that the street going to the hotel from the bus station the is steep, really steep. I took a taxi on my arrival as I missed the fact they had a free shuttle twice a day, I paid 1500¥ (12€ / £10). Then every ride I took with the bus was about 250¥ (2€ / £1.50). In June, for my bed in the dormitory and unlimited access to the onsen, I paid 25€ / £22 a night.
Day 7 – Hakone
Thanks to the direct bus line between Yugawara and Hakone, I decided to go on the last of my stay in Yugawara for a day trip in this popular sightseeing place in Japan. The price of the ride was about 1100¥ (9€ / £8) and the route goes through the mountains between Yugawara and Hakone. As it was still early morning I enjoyed a clear view of Mount Fuji over Ashinoko Lake from the top.
The difference with Yugawara was dramatic as Hakone is all about touristy attractions, souvenirs shops and overpriced food. Yet, by taking my time I spent a lovely time especially around the Hakone shrine. After a lovely walk in the park surrounding the shrine, I found a tiny restaurant serving cold soba noodles and matcha ice cream; it pretty much made my day.
I decided to walk back to the main bus station to check the Cedar avenue and the Onshi-Hakone Park, a quiet park that seemed to be forgotten by most tourists for the better. There were flowers everywhere and a stunning viewpoint of the Ashinoko Lake (if lucky you might see Mount Fuji in the background).
Day 8/9 – Atami
The city of Atami is the gateway of the Izu Peninsula coming from Tokyo. It is quite a popular place for people coming for a relaxing hot spring weekend but it is only due to its convenient location rather than its views. The city itself is not very interesting nor beautiful, but spending 2 days and 1 night there is an excellent opportunity to scuba dive 2 interesting dive sites.
Scuba diving in Atami
With a short 5-minute boat ride, you can go wreck diving from Atami harbour. If you are in love with soft corals in yellow, purple, pink and orange, you have to know the shipwreck in Atami is entirely covered in them. There are many exciting features to check on this 81 m long shipwreck, especially its bow and its winch. By following the hull you can reach the part which broke when it sank allowing you to see inside with a good torchlight.
As you can see on the video below, the visibility was low with many particles in suspension like snow in the water. Yet, it remains of my favourite dives in the Izu Peninsula and maybe one of the my favourite wreck dives too.
Boat diving parameters:
#1 max depth 24 m – bottom time 35 min – water temperature 19°C
#2 max depth 28 m – bottom time 34 min – water temperature 19°C
Scuba diving in Hatsushima
Only 25 minutes of ferry from Atami, the tiny Hatsu Island offers a rocky shore in the shallowest part where many eels and nudibranchs are hiding. On my first dive, I saw a big sea hare of about 30 cm. As you swim further away, some cage structures were installed on the sandy bottom to create an artificial reef attracting many fish. On my way back, I saw a guitar shark and many dragon moray eels.
Shore diving parameters:
#1 max depth 19 m – bottom time 46 min – water temperature 20°C
#2 max depth 23 m – bottom time 38 min – water temperature 20°C
Day 10/13 – Shimoda
Located at the south tip of the Izu Peninsula, I totally fell for Shimoda. Either in the town centre or its surroundings, there is something for everyone but especially for outdoor sports and nature lovers. I, unfortunately, missed the opportunity to organize a dive to Mikimoto Island from there which is famous for hammerhead sharks, but as the peak season is July/August, apparently I didn’t miss much.
On my first day to Shimoda, I went to the town centre as I needed to purchase food and a few personal items. It took me 30 minutes from my guesthouse walking along the inner bay of Shimoda to reach the train station where most of the shops are. I would then use the local bus for about 220 to 300¥ a ride.
I took the opportunity to discover Shimoda Park and the history of the Commodore Perry at the same time. He ended the 220 years of the self-isolation of Japan by signing a trade treaty with the USA in Shimoda in 1853. This is how a lovely alley along a canal now wears his name. It’s the perfect place to stop for lunch or an iced coffee.
I was so lucky to visit Shimoda in June because it’s when the hydrangea gardens are in full blooms. I had never seen so many of these flowers even if they are quite common in the area where I’m from in France. As Shimoda Park is on a hill, it’s quite a hike to the top through the hydrangea gardens, but the view of Shimoda town centre through the flowers and surrounded by green hills (actually volcanoes) is breath-taking.
When I arrived at my guesthouse, I was kindly handed a brochure about what to visit around Shimoda. I quickly noticed a gorgeous picture of a torii gate with the ocean and the Izu Islands in the background. However, I had to first wait for the end of the small typhoon which started on the day of my arrival in Shimoda. Two days later, I had fantastic weather, warm and perfect blue sky. I took the bus in the direction of Shirahama which was luckily stopping near my guesthouse.
I first visited the shrine and bought a talisman to protect me at sea while diving (it comes in a waterproof sleeve so I could attach it to my BCD). I finally found the torii gate behind the shrine, on the very left side of Shirahama Beach.
I walked all along the beach in the water while watching the surfers taking the best waves. After an iced coffee break at the Hana Café, a Hawaiian themed café with the best view of Shirahama Beach. I walked back to my guesthouse in about 30 minutes.
Ebisujima & Tusmekizaki
With the Jogazaki Coast, the Suzuki Peninsula is the other location where you can see traces of the submarine volcanoes which shaped the Izu Peninsula a few millions of years ago. Today you can still see layered rocks formed by the ashes of these underwater volcanoes in Ebisujima or basaltic columns in Tsumekizaki.
Tsumekizaki and Ebisujima can be done by using the same bus line in a half-day. The bus line has only 1 to 2 buses an hour, so if you miss your outbound bus like me, I reached Suzaki in 40 minutes of walking from Shimoda. Around Ebisujima and Tsumekizaki you can see old ladies in wetsuits freediving and “fishing” seaweed. As I had packed my scuba diving mask, it inspired me to go for a dip as well from the beach of Tsumekizaki.
Where to stay in Shimoda?
Shimodasou Guesthouse: What an excellent surprise when I arrived and was shown my room, a large Japanese style room just for me! It had everything I needed for my 3-night stay, including a fridge and a kettle, so I could easily take my breakfast and dinner there with the food I bought at the supermarket in town. The bathroom is shared, but I didn’t mind as I loved too much going to the onsen every day. By the way, this is a tattoo-friendly place mostly run for surfers, so the atmosphere is excellent and relaxed. In June, I paid only 34€ for my private Japanese style room. (Get 25€ off your first stay with Airbnb).
Day 14 – Jogazaki-Kaigan
I already knew Jogazaki Kaigan as the home of the Izu Ocean Park, where I scuba dived for the first time in Japan the previous year, but I never had the occasion to explore the Jogazaki Coast Park. So as I had to go back all the way from Shimoda to Tokyo by train, on my last day, I put my bag in a locker at the train station and made a stopover as it is approximatively halfway between Shimoda and Atami.
It’s a 20-minute walk from the train station or a 1100¥ (9€ / £8) taxi ride to get to the Jogazaki Coast Park. The entrance is free, and you get a fabulous view of the volcanic cliffs formed by the lava from the eruption of Mount Omuro about 4,000 years ago. Talking about Mount Omuro, by climbing up the lighthouse, you’ll be able to get a view of its perfect shape and green colour. The highlight of the visit is the suspended bridge which is 23m above the water. You can keep exploring the Jogazaki coast after the bridge by going down with care to one of the creeks.
Enjoying tattoo-friendly onsen in the Izu Peninsula
If you are not aware yet, tattoos are a big taboo in Japan. Unfortunately associated with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia), wearing tattoos is still seen as a bad thing. As you can see from the picture above, my tattoos are not something I can easily hide. So if like me you have tattoos (big or little doesn’t matter), should you give up in indulging yourself in one of the best experiences you can have in Japan?
The answer is no! Things are slowly changing, and some Japanese people get that is about “fashion” as I once was kindly told. However, don’t be over-enthusiastic, you’ll need to do your research because the majority of places is still very conservative (outside of my guesthouse in Yugawara, I went to check around, and no place would accept me except if I would take a luxury room in a ryokan with a private bath).
How to find them? They are now websites listing the tattoo friendly places. A rule of thumb is always to check if anyone left a comment about tattoos. Here are a few links that will help you searching for the one:
- Tattoo Spot (only in Japanese but use google translate to go around, this is how I found my guesthouse in Yugawara)
- Tattoo Friendly Map
Once you found your happy place, make sure you follow the onsen etiquette. My best onsen experiences were in Yugawara at the Ryokan Tokyo and in Shimoda at the Shimodasou Guesthouse. As June is low season, I had the entire onsen for myself every time. They are usually fully equipped facilities with lockers and all the soap, shampoo, conditioner and hairdryer you may need. I enjoyed so much taking my shower and resting in the hot spring bath after that I would use it morning and evening. We’re never too clean, right?
Take-away from my slow travel retreat in Japan
- About slow travel: I have no regret. Yes, sure I could have visited Hiroshima, Himeji and Nara which I never saw by rushing the 2 first weeks of my big adventure. Well, no thank you. I could live in each place I visited, I took the time to meet people and make new friends, and I took time for me, breathing, living and just being amazed at the beauty around me without any pre-decided to-do list.
- About diving in the Izu Peninsula in June: It is the beginning of the wetsuit season, so I could dive in a 7mm wetsuit with a hood and gloves as the water was between 19 and 21°C. However, because this is the moment water is suddenly warming up, this is also the time algae grows and reduce the visibility dramatically. I cannot wait to go back at Fall with still warm water and excellent visibility.
- About meeting with a local diving group: I will never say it enough but solo travel when you are a scuba diver is not the same. As you go from dive centres to dive centres, you also meet along the way like-minded individuals just passionate as you are. It feels so nice to have a new scuba family here in Japan in only 2 scuba diving weekends in Izu and a night out in Tokyo. I have to honestly recognise that without this group the 2 incredible scuba diving weekends I spent in Koganezaki and Atami, including minshuku stays (shared Japanese room), delicious Japanese food served in our room and even a private Jacuzzi on top of our hotel in Atami wouldn’t have been possible. I feel so grateful to be now part of the team!
- About my Japanese language skills: I still hadn’t found the time to open the Japanese book I used during my class when I lived in Scotland. It will come eventually. Just being in total immersion is already making miracles. My brain is in constant learning mode, remembering all the vocabulary and grammar I learnt a few years ago thanks to all these daily stimuli. So far, I’m not able to stand an elaborate conversation, but I’m able to introduce myself, order food and drink, count and explain what I’m doing and where I’m going. My target? Being able to book and go on a scuba diving trip on my own in more remote places in Japan where you can’t go if you don’t speak Japanese… Challenge Accepted!
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Photo credits: Drone pictures of Koganezaki by Yijie Gu and half of the underwater pictures of Koganezaki by Oleg Dyachkin, both team members of Dive Zone Tokyo.
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