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Friday, Aug. 10, 2007

ATAMI — THE REBIRTH

A playground by the sea


Special to The Japan Times

Naughty Atami is the Shizuoka resort with the beachfront soaplands and other salacious establishments. It's got the fraying Hihokan (literally: House of Secret Treasures), likely the world's least scholarly sex museum, with its holographic strippers and a Marilyn Monroe mannequin that exposes itself on demand. Enjoy "Carry On" movies or pens with pictures of girls whose bikinis fall off when you tilt them? You'll love Naughty Atami.

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Bayside resort Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture boasts an Hawaiian hula festival staged on the beachfront in summer (below); more geisha than Kyoto's Gion district (geisha Matsuchiyo pictured bottom) NICHOLAS COLDICOTT PHOTOS
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News photo

But then there's Serene Atami, the Izu Peninsula idyll that sits in what was once a volcano's crater, and still enjoys enough bubbling sulfuric water to warrant a place on the nation's Three Great Hot Springs list.

Serene Atami offers dreamy outdoor baths with views across Sagami Bay. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) used to frequent this one with his children, and legend has it that the old shogun ordered his poor underlings to haul barrels of water back to Edo Castle.

There's also Cultural Atami: the town with more geisha than Kyoto's hallowed Gion district, possessor of four national treasures, and home to historic shrines with delightfully improbable claims (Izusan Shrine is Japan's second most propitious shrine for romance; Kinomiya Shrine's 2-millenium-old camphor tree — one of those official national treasures — has the power to extend your life by a full year each time you circle it).

Once a playground of such literary legends as Osamu Dazai, Yukio Mishima and Naoya Shiga, Cultural Atami boasts the 25,000-sq.-meter MOA Museum of Art, displaying the collection of eccentric tycoon Mokichi Okada, founder of the Church of World Messianity.

The exhibits include three more national treasures, 65 designated Important Cultural Properties, 45 Important Art Objects and over 3,000 other Not So Important Items including a Rembrandt, a couple of Monets and some Henry Moores. And perhaps because the Church of World Messianity's mission is to elevate civilization via the appreciation of beauty, it's all housed in a dramatic piece of architecture whose 200-meter entrance escalator, bathed in a cycling spectrum of colors, seems more like a Spielbergian spaceship than a modern art museum.

In the MOA's vast grounds, meanwhile, a pair of sedate tea houses could easily steal your afternoon.

And finally there's Time Warp Atami, where everything would benefit from a lick of paint. Time Warp Atami is a town of boxy, white architecture freckled with olde-worlde coffee shops and "smart ball," the low-tech precursor of pachinko that's fiendishly difficult, but with perseverance and plenty of ¥500 coins might reward you with a 3-inch plastic baby or a pen.

Time Warp Atami has gotten the most attention of late, shouldering the blame for the decline in tourism that's been hurting the town since the end of the Bubble years. The ex-honeymoon hot-spot and resort of choice for corporate fat-cat excursions now lures just over half the number of overnight guests that Hakone manages.

"In the past, they say, you couldn't sleep in this town for the 'karang karong' of tourists' geta (wooden sandals) on the street each night," says Sakae Saito. The 44-year-old is the unlikely mayor of Atami: a dapper, bilingual MBA-holder who at 188 cm tall towers over most of his electorate. The native Tokyoite moved to Atami two years ago and, with impressive speed, unseated the longtime incumbent town leader.

Now it's Saito's job to boost the numbers. Sitting in his favorite cafe on a Sunday afternoon, the mayor pours out his ideas for his town. He wants to turn day-trippers into weeklong guests; he wants people to know that Atami's waters are scientifically proven to aid skin and immune systems; and he wants to exploit his sandy beach and science-endorsed springs to create a modern healing resort offering the kinds of therapies that would baffle Time Warp Atamians.

Even with 80 percent of the workforce employed in the tourism industry, it's not always easy to foster changes, says Saito. "Atami used to be too lucky and nobody made any effort to attract visitors."

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The simple joys of the pachinko-like game "smart ball".

And so says Matsuchiyo, one of Atami's leading geisha: "People who live here are just so satisfied with their lifestyle — the great weather, the sea, the hot springs — that they become complacent. But Atami is such a wonderful place that the locals should make an effort to attract people to the area."

And so for the last 10 years Matsuchiyo and seven fellow members of her Hana-gumi geisha clan have been treating tourists to Nihon buyo (traditional dances). Guests at the Hana-no-Mai weekend morning shows pay ¥1,300 for the performance, a cup of green tea and a traditional sweet.

The eight dancers range in age from 23 to . . . well, it would have been rude to ask, but they are selected from the town's 250 or so geisha as the ones best able to keep pace with the monthly changing routines.

"We want people to realize that you don't have to go to Kyoto for geisha," says Matsuchiyo, another reformed Tokyoite, who landed in Atami 53 years ago.

Geisha shows for less than the price of a cinema ticket are just part of a calendar of attractions designed to tempt Tokyo's masses back to the beach town. There is also a phenomenally popular seafront firework show with 5,000 rockets and almost as many viewers (taking place on Aug. 19, 22, 26 and Sept. 17); there's noh drama performed by bonfire light on the balcony of the MOA each summer; and regular beachfront festivals, such as the Hawaiian hula festival, usually staged directly in front of a commanding soapland sign.

Truly, Atami has an eclectic array of attractions, most of them jumbled together just strolling-distance from the station. So Tokyo residents can be soaking in sulfuric waters, browsing cultural treasures or peering up Marilyn Monroe's skirt within an hour of leaving the capital.

Atami is 46 minutes from Tokyo Station (38 minutes from Shinagawa, both ¥4,280) by Hikari bullet train and 2 hours 14 minutes from Shin Osaka (¥12,260).


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