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Friday, July 23, 2004

Do the Dogashima

It's a (sea) breeze from the city

Special to The Japan Times

Less than an hour by shinkansen from Tokyo, touristy Atami is no one's idea of a quiet little getaway. From there down to the tip, Shimoda -- of Black Ship Festival fame -- this eastern side of the Izu Peninsula is the busy, developed one. This is where you go to check out such cultural hot spots as Atagawa's Banana and Crocodile Park, which, if you're talking fruit-and-reptile theme parks, is in a class of its own.

News photo

News photo

But the quieter, western side of this peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture is much more attractive and still relatively unspoiled. And along this coast, probably the prettiest section is around the town of Dogashima.

Upon arriving in Dogashima, there are worse ways of spending 20 minutes of your time and 750 yen of your hard-earned cash than by hopping on one of the many excursion craft. The coast here is rugged and scenic, and boats offer the best way of appreciating its arrangement of headlands, islands and beaches set against a lush green backdrop. As is often the case with such trips, the recorded commentary sees to it that you can't sit and enjoy the scenery in peace, but are instead bombarded with a barrage of information, directed, apparently, at those with an undying thirst for details. Not a rock raises its head above water, but it is dutifully logged and named.

One spot covered in every tour is the deep-sea cave called Tensodo. The boat enters as far as a large gaping hole in the ceiling, where you blink up into the sunlight at the people who are standing on the rim, busily photographing you down below. The real highlight of the tour is Zojima, where all the vessels stop for the photo-hungry tourists. As the name indicates, the island's shape resembles an elephant. And here, even those of a less cynical bent would honestly have to concede that with Zojima, it really is uncanny just how utterly dissimilar it is to every pachyderm they have ever seen in their lives.

In the summer most visitors head to little Dogashima to while away their time on its beach. This stretch of sand is a pocket-size affair, which, unlike beaches closer to Tokyo, somehow never gets too crowded, even at the height of the summer season.

But away from the beach and its short row of shops catering to the tourist trade, deep provincial Japan opens up. This is a place where, instead of finding the ubiquitous convenience store and being served by a bored-looking arubaito, I came across a screaky old mom-and-pop store. It didn't offer the same staggering variety of wares as my neighborhood Lawson, but the tiny, silver-haired matron presiding over the place did manage to stock a fair range of goods, from string and chocolate to slippers and porno mags.

Dogashima is also home to a fishing community, centered on the small harbor beyond the headland from the beach. The fishing boats are trim vessels, kept, as is usually the case in Japan, immaculately clean and tidy.

Scattered around the harbor are the homes of the fishing families, the lines, nets and lobster pots slung together in heaps under the week's laundry, billowing out on poles. This part of town is much less used to visitors.

I fell into conversation with one older woman who had a large basket of the red seaweed tengusa ("agaragar" says my dictionary). She was an affable soul, and as she spread the seaweed out to dry in front of her house she told me how her son had gathered it earlier that day. When she asked me what part of America I was from, I replied that I was English, and she was astounded that there could be foreigners roaming around who were not from the United States.

Still, she didn't hold that against me and told me I was welcome to help myself to some tengusa. Courteously, I declined -- partly because I had no idea what the devil I might do with a few handfuls of the stuff, and partly because the smell of tengusa reminded me of a couple of wet mongrels drying out in the hot sun

Just up from the fishing village is one of the most pleasant spots in Dogashima. Izu is famed for its hot springs, and 500 yen gets you into the superb rotenburo open-air hot spring on the hillside. You can slide into the heavenly water and enjoy the view over the bright-blue expanse of the bay dotted with islands. You don't feel like shifting for anyone.

All told, Dogashima is not a bad place for quiet relaxation. At one time Izu was rather remote, and so authorities thought it would make a fine spot for banishing awkward characters, like the 13th-century monk Nichiren.

Even today, the western coast seems rather out of the way: Public transport is so pathetic that if you don't have a car, hitchhiking is the fastest and most reliable way of getting around.

Sadly, development here is starting to make itself felt. Along the coast, I saw various projects in progress, such as the construction of a bridge across a bend in the road, which would probably shave something like one second off total traveling time at the price of a lump of concrete disfiguring the landscape.

When I went on the boat excursion, I spotted the large concrete polyhedrons that local governments love to scatter along their coastlines, ominously lined up on a quay, waiting for some use or other. But for the time being, in Dogashima, the concrete is being held within reason.

This is probably the most attractive bit of coastline in striking distance of the capital. It is still a place where bent-backed pines lean down into small bays of pebbled or sandy beaches, which edge down into the clear green, sometimes vividly turquoise, waters of Suruga Bay.

Getting there from Tokyo: Shuzenji can be reached in just over 2 hours by JR Limited Express Odoriko. From Shuzenji, the bus to Dogashima takes 1 1/2 hours.

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