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Friday, Jan. 23, 2004
BEAT THE CROWDS
Izu reveals its 'silver lining'
By YOKO HANI
For most Japanese, mention of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture conjures up an image of a coast lined with onsen (hot-spring) resorts and blessed with good seafood, drawing hordes of visitors from the Tokyo area.
However, speak to the okami-san (proprietress) at any of the area's many old ryokan (Japanese-style hotels), and you will come away with a revised view of those "hordes." In fact, with Izu facing a slump in visitor numbers in the stagnant economy, its okami-san are now banding together in a bid to reverse the trend.
"Compared with the 1980s' bubble era, the number of people coming to the Izu region has decreased dramatically," said Ikuko Uda, the okami-san of Shirakabe-so, a ryokan in Amagi Yugashima in the central part of the peninsula.
"This is partly because companies have cut their recreation trips, and partly because individuals have cut down on their holiday budgets. As a result, our businesses have been badly affected."
But as they say, "Every cloud has a silver lining" -- and according to Uda, the silver lining in Izu is that those in the tourism sector have had to learn the need for more aggressive public-relations efforts. So, instead of just relying on the region's established reputation, the prefecture's approximately 300-strong okami-san association has begun organizing events to boost their business.
Famed local produce
Last month, for instance, they organized a trip for foreign visitors to several parts of the Izu Peninsula, showing off not only its picturesque scenery but also famed local produce such as wasabi (Japanese horseradish).
In the tour, guided by a group of the association's okami-san, water played a key role in revealing Izu's charms -- indeed, it started with a visit to a spring . . . in heavy rain.
Kakitagawa Yusui is on the west side of the neck of the peninsula, about a 20-minute drive from JR Mishima Station (which is about an hour by shinkansen from Tokyo). Although the whole Mishima area is known for its pure, clear water sources, originating from the melted snows of Mount Fuji and percolated down for centuries through the strata, Kakitagawa Yusui is especially famous for the million tons of water a day that gushes out -- making it, as the okami-san explained, one of the largest in Asia.
Geologists believe that Kakitagawa Yusui -- named by the Environment Ministry in 1985 as one of Japan's "100 Most Famous Springs" -- first began flowing about 8,500 years ago, but nowadays its mineral-rich water is said to be both health-giving and a boon for beautiful skin. The pure streams of abundant spring water throughout the peninsula also provide an ideal environment for plants such as wasabi, which is widely cultivated in fields in the central mountain valleys.
One famous wasabi-growing center is Amagi Yugashima, where it has been cultivated since the 1850s, and where the bright, fresh-green of its leaves, especially in heavy rain, is the stuff of photographers' dreams. But to get beyond the visual and down to the all-important taste of wasabi, the okami-san had arranged for visitors to make wasabi-zuke (chopped wasabi stems preserved in sake-kasu, which are the grains left after brewing sake) at Sekitei Wasabi-en in Naka Izu.
Though chopping wasabi stems and mixing them with sake-kasu gave visitors a tearfully memorable experience, their wasabi adventures were not yet over.
"I hope tourists will enjoy our local cuisine," said Uda back at Shirakabe-so to those of us who were at her ryokan for dinner. Soon I realized what she meant, when she served wasabi-sake -- a glass of sake with freshly ground wasabi at the bottom and a wasabi stem in it as a swizzle stick. Not only did this taste very nice -- similar to melon or cucumber -- but Uda added, "You never get a hangover from this -- believe me -- because of the special wasabi effect."
Other dishes she then showed us included wasabi sandwich, wasabi tofu, wasabi pasta, wasabi sushi and wasabi ice cream -- all of them beautifully presented on plates decorated with fresh wasabi leaves.
Clear and crisp
The next morning dawned clear and crisp (and, as promised, I didn't have a hangover). Thanks to the heavy rain the previous day, Joren-no-taki waterfall in Amagi Yugashima -- one of the biggest on the peninsula -- had a huge volume of water roaring over its 25-meter-high lip. "This is amazing," said an okami-san from neighboring Hamamatsu, who had visited the waterfall several times before. "I have never seen so much water splashing down here."
Meanwhile, hiking in the Amagi mountains is another delight. The route we took included the famous 446-meter-long Kyu-Amagi tunnel, which was opened in 1905 and is often cited in novels, including the famous "Izu no Odoriko (The Izu Dancer)" by Yasunari Kawabata. After that, nearly two hours traversing mild slopes, admiring the views and listening to the sounds of streams as the way was strewn with yellow, orange, red and green leaves made everyone feel refreshed and relaxed -- not least the okami-san, who reminded us that they are usually working from early morning to late at night.
Finally we arrived at Toi -- which is renowned as the best sunset-viewing area in western Izu -- having seen many wonderful aspects of the peninsula in addition to its well-known coastline and hot springs.
And sure enough, just as the okami-san said, we all agreed that though there are lovely hills, fields, springs and rivers in many parts of Japan, there's something about those in Izu that makes the whole peninsula special.