As you may not have gathered from the rather cryptic, and not misspelled, title, I spent last Sunday and Monday on the Izu peninsula staying at a ryokan with my host family. Our journey started at Tokyo station, where we boarded the train bound for Izu. The journey was probably the most interesting train ride I have ever had, and though I had brought books to help make the two and a half hours go faster, I didn’t open them once. I was too mesmerised by watching the city disappear slowly and open up to beautiful green countryside and deep blue ocean. There were more tunnels than I have ever seen before. We were a bit of a jaunt away from Shimoda station in Umigahama, a quaint spot with a beach, a few restaurants and cafes, and a lot of cats (actually, it’s normally a lot less quaint. I only saw a glimpse of the real Umigahama, as it is normally insanely popular on holidays). Cats and Japan seem to go hand in hand, and I haven’t even been to the places famed for the number of cats in residence.
We bought bento for lunch to eat on the train in the underground mall at Tokyo station. I decided to try unagi, Japanese freshwater eel, but it was rather expensive so my bento only came with three or four small pieces. It was about £15 if you wanted a decent portion of unagi, so I stuck with the sampler. Unagi is delicious (oishi!) and I would like to try a bigger portion.
After a lengthy taxi ride we arrived at the ryokan and left off our things before heading to the beach. The sea was only a minute or two away, so we were in the perfect location. Though it looked like a normal western B&B from the outside, the inside very much reflected old Japan. The ryokan itself had a few different onsen, with water from hot springs. The morning and afternoon were fair game for anyone to use, but in the evening slots for private use could be booked. Onsen, like sento, require you to be completely naked to bathe. Public nudity is just a part of life here, so you have to get used to it quickly and get over any embarrassment and British sensibilities.
Surprisingly, the beach wasn’t too busy. We walked the length of it to find a nice place to swim, and to avoid the masses of seaweed washing up on shore. Wading through seaweed is not a pleasant experience, trust me. When I made it into the water, it was a lot colder than I expected. Warmer than home, but because the outside temperature wasn’t particularly high, the water felt freezing at times. It was great to get swimming though, and quite refreshing, though the water seemed very salty. Being able to get out of the water and warm up rather than freeze was the biggest difference from home. Otherwise, the beach scene paralleled beaches in the UK and Ireland. People playing with beach balls, bodyboarding, surfing, and building sand castles. And smashing melons. Yes, Japan is an odd place. Like a bizarre version of a piñata, there is a game where children are blindfolded and have to try and smash a watermelon. To help them (or hinder), instructions are shouted at them. Meigi! Hidari! And whatever forward is in Japanese, until they are close enough to take a swing. Then the moment of truth. He swings…and misses. It’s surprisingly difficult, but entertaining to watch.
After relaxing on the beach and a quick spell in the outdoor onsen (before a freakishly huge insect ruined it for me), we returned to our ryokan room for dinner. I had heard that eating at a ryokan was a worthy experience, but I hadn’t realised quite what it would entail. About a million courses, plus another when I could eat no more. And maybe another few after that. Seriously though, the food kept coming and coming. The sashimi funamori, or sashimi boat, was chocked full of different kinds of raw fish and would have been more than enough on its own. I’ll let the pictures talk for themselves.
After dinner, the onsen was available for private sessions so I had an hour to myself. I thought it would be easy to pass the time, but onsen water tends to be very hot, and I found it difficult to spend extended periods of time in it. I had to alternate between hot onsen, and freezing cold shower to stay conscious. I do like onsen, and it can be very relaxing for a short spell, but unlike bath water which slowly cools until it reaches the temperature of the surrounding air, onsen water stays hot. Perhaps I was being gently poached for another meal, who knows! It would be interesting to find out male infertility rates in Japan too, as water that hot can’t be great for guys. After bathing, it was straight to bed as Masaco had planned to go out walking at 6 o’clock the next morning, to make the most of the cooler morning. It was a nice walk and I got to see glimpses of a more rural Japan, and one different from the concrete jungle I’m surrounded by on a day to day basis.
I think you can guess what happened next. Another trip to the onsen! A brief one, but relaxing all the same. Even breakfast was a spectacle. Tuna sashimi, poached egg, rice, some other mystery foods, and squid. Yes Mr Squid, we meet again. I quite enjoyed the squid this time. It was cooked in a little burner with some butter, and had a better texture than raw squid.
After finishing breakfast we packed up and headed back to Shimoda station on a rather cramped bus, bound for the train to Tokyo. It was a great little trip, and I highly recommend staying in a ryokan and eating a meal there. It is a uniquely Japanese experience.
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