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Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012

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Fruit of the sea: The Izu Peninsula is rightfully famous for its seafood, which is best eaten raw as sashimi or sushi. SKYE HOHMANN PHOTOS

Flashback to the sandy beaches of Izu


By SKYE HOHMANN
Special to The Japan Times

Once, after the wet, green month of June — which every year waters the newly planted rice, turns the landscape lush, and makes us long for sunlight and clear skies — my boyfriend and I drove all night just to swim in the ocean.

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Sun worship: The beach at Yumigahama on Umi-no-Hi (Marine Day).

At the time, we shared a single day off each week, and long weekends offered us rare overlapping holidays. We left in the dead of night: a couple of hours sleep after our evening classes, and drove the dark, nearly-deserted roads from Nagano down towards the coast.

I spent much of my childhood by the sea, and though I love it where I live in the landlocked, mountainous heart of this country, in summer I long for buoyant, briny waters, for blue waves. Every year when the heat warps the landscape, humidity lofting the hills high into the hazy summer sky, I feel the pull of the ocean, tidal, drawing me to the coast.

It's years ago, now, and time, like a heat haze, distorts thing. This is what I remember. We drove through the dark, snacking on convenience store food, bicycles in the back seat, drinking too much cold coffee through straws, sweet and milky and strong. I remember the intensity of night bleeding out of the sky as early dawn slowly drew details into the landscape. Sometime around daybreak, we crossed the border of Yamanashi, and drove into Shizuoka Prefecture. It was full daylight by the time we skirted Mount Fuji, and hot air came in the windows with the smell of asphalt and exhaust. We played the music loud and held shouted conversations as we joined the growing stream of traffic that flowed toward the sea.

Arriving in the summer heat of late morning, we skirted Numazu, a low, boxy city that on the road that we took through it has nothing to differentiate its outskirts from those of any other Japanese town, and then we were suddenly on the Izu Peninsula. I remember beaches and palm trees, and the feeling of every part of me relaxing. Parts of me I hadn't even known were tense unfolded.

It was noon by the time we reached the ocean. The first beach was a narrow strip of sand blocked from the road by cement sea walls, but there were families splashing in the small waves. We were in the water within moments, washing off our weariness before we headed on.

Following the narrow coast road, we wound up above villages and into the forested hills, and stopped for coffee at a place on a steep slope with a view out to Mount Fuji across the water.

Eventually, we came to the beach at Yumigahama, where the sleepy town of Minato meets the sea in a curved sweep of sand, found parking in a crowded lot, and settled down on the equally crowded beach. Although I grew up on the wild, nearly empty expanses of sand that form Australia's southern coast, I didn't care. A small surf tugged at the shore. The ruffled Pacific stretched out infinitely between the buttressed headlands that form the bay. There was sand between my toes, and I was happy.

We spent the afternoon on the beach, in and out of the water, swimming and reading, caught between waves and words. Evening found us in a beachfront pub, drinking chilled beer and watching families set off fireworks down on the sand. The air was dense, humid. Later, we lit our own sparklers and wrote messages to each-other in the dark, spinning till we were dizzy. That night, we slept on the beach with only the sound of waves for company.

Day broke pale grey and clammy against my skin. We biked into town and drank canned coffee outside the convenience store. When we returned to walk along the shore, an ancient aviator who had flown in World War II stopped his impressive morning exercises to talk with us. Jumping rapidly to his feet from a low kneel on the sand, he asked if we could do the same, and laughed when we showed poor form. It seemed a skill that took some practice.

In the afternoon, we explored the area by bicycle, nervously edging through narrow tunnels with the holiday traffic, winding up and down coastal roads above coves, across cliffs, and through tile-roofed villages. In the heat of the day we found the water again, and spent the afternoon snorkeling in a rocky bay, looking down on the waves making patterns on smooth stones. Schools of fish flitted away into aqua depths, dappled with underwater sunlight. I floated, breathing in rubber-scented air through the snorkel, watching the fish and the light. The water was just cool enough to balance the heat of the day, which was by then covering the scrubby cove in waves of shimmering heat. Reading on the beach, and returning to the water, time dissolved, and I lost track of what was past and what was present.

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Green fields: A typical Izu landscape in July with paddies full of ripening rice.

Years later, I call to mind how we came out of the water in the late afternoon, as the light was beginning to turn golden-warm across the land, and bathed in the salty hot springs that were tucked back in a shabby building behind the beach, but I can no longer remember, exactly, where they were, nor the name of the place. Western Izu is dotted with hot springs, far smaller and often more interesting than the famous springs at Atami on the other coast of the peninsula.

We biked back along the high cliff roads that overlook the rust-colored roofs of tiny fishing villages, happily letting the hot afternoon sun slope toward the ocean.

At dusk, after one last swim, we packed the bicycles back into the car, and, before we left, found a sushi restaurant set amongst green paddies, backed by Izu's characteristic landscape: mountains worn down to fragile bone structures, forest-clad.

We ate, and a little girl in Japanese summer pajamas drew our picture and chatted with us while her grandfather prepared sushi. Somewhere, I still have the drawing. In it, we're simplified down to our outlines, wide smiles across our faces.

The southwest of the Izu Peninsula can be explored by bus (Tokai buses run a service throughout the peninsula), or, for those with more time, exclusively by bicycle, though lights are essential for getting through the narrow tunnels with the motorized traffic. As a resort area, there's plenty of accommodation available for all budgets, from luxury ryokan (Japanese-style inn) and hotels to campgrounds.


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