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. So I registered to 2 scuba diving weekends with Dive Zone Tokyo, and between and after, I stayed for almost a week in one place. This is how I discovered Yugawara and Shimoda.
Here is the map of my incredible slow travel trip in the Izu Peninsula:
You can find a full description of how to go to the Izu Peninsula from Tokyo in my first article about scuba diving in Japan.
A definition of 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.
- 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.
Best of diving in the Izu Peninsula
I’m still far from having done all the dive sites of the Izu Peninsula, but here are the sites where I dived so far in order of my preference:
- IOP (Izu Ocean Park / Izu Kaiyo Koen): South of the Jogazaki Coast lies what is my favourite dive site so far. It starts from the beach with a shallow part first where you can find many sea anemones and damselfish. Then by following a rope, you can swim along a deep wall inhabited by stingrays, flounders, butterflyfish and dragon moray eels. I dived there last year, here is the blog post I wrote back then.
Beach diving parameters:
#1 max depth 24 m – bottom time 50 min – water temperature in February 15 °C
#2 max depth 20 m – bottom time 66 min – water temperature in February 15 °C
- Hatsushima Island: Only 25 minutes of ferry from Atami, the dive site of the closest of the Izu Islands offers a rocky shore in the shallowest part where so many eels and nudibranchs are hiding. On my first dive, I saw a big sea hare of about 30 cm. Sorry, no pictures as I was on Divemaster duty and decided not to take my camera. As you swim further away, some cage structures were installed to create artificial reefs where you can see many fish and soft corals. On my way back, I saw a guitar shark and many dragon moray eels.
Beach diving parameters:
#1 max depth 19 m – bottom time 46 min – temperature in June 20°C
#2 max depth 23 m – bottom time 38 min – temperature in June 20°C
- Atami Shipwreck: Only 5 minutes of boat 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. Many exciting features to check on this superb wreck dive with the bow and its winch, the hull and especially the part which broke allowing you to see inside with a good torchlight.
Boat diving parameters:
#1 max depth 24 m – bottom time 35 min – temperature in June 19°C
#2 max depth 28 m – bottom time 34 min – temperature in June 19°C
- Koganezaki: There is a beach park with 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. Located on the wild west side of the Izu Peninsula, Koganezaki Beach Park is unfortunately only reachable by car contrary to the other dive sites where you can easily go by train. The surroundings are stunning, but unfortunately, due to the poor visibility, 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!
Beach diving parameters:
#1 max depth 15 m – bottom time 50 min – temperature in June 21°C
#2 max depth 18 m – bottom time 37 min – temperature in June 21°C
Boat diving parameters:
#1 max depth 21 m – bottom time 33 min – temperature in June 19°C
#2 max depth 28 m – bottom time 34 min – temperature in June 19°C
My next target: Mikimoto Island for the schools of hammerhead sharks! A little regret is I should have maybe tried to contact dive centres in English as chartered boats are leaving close to Shimoda where I was staying. I’ll make sure to update this article when I come back to Japan!
My favourite visits around the Izu Peninsula
Koganezaki Beach: Unfortunately, I couldn’t explore more of the area as we were quite busy with scuba diving with Dive Zone Tokyo, but I had some time on the Sunday for an early morning walk along the beach. I went also boat diving from the harbour of Arari which had its charm as well. I wish next time I could go a bit more south to visit the onsen town of Dogeshima which seems to have extraordinary sea caves you can visit by boat.
Manyo Park & Doppo no Yu foot spa: 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 features the incredible Manyo Park. I found it 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 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.
Jokasaki Coast: Halfway between Atami and Shimoda, 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.
Jogazaki Kaigan is also the home of Izu Ocean Park, where I did my favourite dive so far in mainland Japan.
I might have missed organising a dive to Mikimoto Island with schools of hammerhead sharks (peak season is July/August), I still fell for Shimoda’s beautiful landscapes. Either in the town centre or a little bit outside, there is something for everyone but especially for the outdoor sports and nature lovers.
Shimoda Park & Perry Road in the town centre: 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. Going in the direction of Shimoda Park, I discovered the history of the Commodore Perry which ended 220 years of the self-isolation of Japan in 1853 by signing a trade treaty with the USA. 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. Gosh! I’ve 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.
Shirahama Beach and Shrine: 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. I first visited the shrine and bought a talisman to protect me at sea while diving (it comes in a waterproof sleeve so I can put it on my BCD!). I finally found the torii gate behind the shrine, on the very left side of Shirahama Beach. The weather was perfect; I knew I had the cover picture for this article! I then spent my time walking in the sea while watching the surfers taking the best waves. I ordered an iced coffee at the Hana Café where I found with great surprise and pleasure Hawaiian culture, coffee from Kona and the best viewpoint of Shirahama Beach. I decided to come back walking to Sotoura Beach and my guesthouse, which only took me 30 minutes.
Ebisujima & Tusmekizaki in the Suzaki Peninsula: With the Jogazaki Coast, Suzuki Peninsula is the other location where you can see traces of submarine volcanism which shaped the Izu Peninsula. It was formed by underwater volcanoes with a slow process which started 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 similar to the Giant Causeway in Northern Ireland 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, for information I reached Suzaki in 40 minutes of walking. Around Ebisujima and Tsumekizaki you can see freediving old ladies in wetsuits “fishing” seaweed, mainly agar-agar.
Where to stay in Shimoda?
Shimodasou Guesthouse: What an excellent surprise when I arrived and was shown my room, my own Japanese style room! 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 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!
Enjoying tattoo-friendly onsen in the Izu Peninsula
文身はだいじょぶですか / Irezumi wa daijobu desuka?
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 2-week 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 grow 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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