Living like a local in Japan

I looked down at my slippers and my heart skipped a beat. I had stepped outside in my inside footwear. No one saw me but I felt guilty all the same. The process had only taken 24 hours but I was already thinking Japanese... like the song.

A day earlier, fearful of getting lost en route, I arrived at Tokyo Station ridiculously early, so I had plenty of time to play spot-the-Walk-Japan-hikers. The hiking poles, backpacks, sturdy boots and outdoor attire were a dead give-away at the busy train station - it wasn’t too difficult to pick out the people with whom I was to spend the next week on the Izu Geo Trail.

There was a flicker of recognition from a fit, outdoorsy-looking couple standing nearby so I introduced myself and met Robin and Nathan from Oregon in the United States. Then along came Elizabeth and Bernard, originally from Canada but living in Hong Kong, Glenn from Australia, five young women from Singapore – Ferlin, Rachel, Rachael, Aiwe and Felicia - and our excellent tour leader and guide, Yohei. One of the highlights of the trip turned out to be the friendships that formed amongst this group of 12 from vastly different countries and cultures.

The talk on the Odoriko Express bound for the Izu Peninsula was about the other Walk Japan trips people had done. The Izu Geo Trail was the third for some and would not be the last.

Two hours later, we disembarked at Izu Kogan Station on the eastern side of the Izu Peninsula.

Our first stop was a small museum with a wealth of information about the geology and volcanism of the region, and the fascinating tectonic process by which the landscape here was formed.

Around 20 million years ago, Izu was a collection of volcanoes located 800 kilometres south of Japan’s main islands. With the northward movement of the Philippine Sea Plate, Izu eventually collided with Honshu and the Eurasian Plate, forming a peninsula.

After the collision about 600,000 years ago, many eruptions occurred giving birth to large volcanoes like Mt Amagi and Mount Daruma.

Then about 200,000 years ago, a different phase began with the eruption of the Izu Tobu monogenetic volcano group, a range of 700 volcanoes on the eastern side of the peninsula, activity which continues today. Monogenetic volcanoes erupt once only.

Even now, the Philippine Sea Plate continues to thrust Izu against Honshu and the Eurasian Plate resulting in the peninsula’s ever-changing, dynamic landscapes.

Such knowledge placed the entire trip in context and enabled us to recognise and appreciate the unusual terrain we witnessed in the days to follow.

We set off with Yohei in the lead and walked through the little fishing port of Yawatano before reaching the rugged Jogasaki coast where the information gathered at the museum suddenly and dramatically came to life.

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Spectacular columnar jointed rocks on the Jogasaki Coast

Four thousand years ago, great tongues of lava oozed into the Sagaminada Sea when nearby Mt Omuro erupted. On contact with the cold water, the magma cooled rapidly and contracted forming columnar joints in the shape of hexagons, pentagons and squares. The rocks are so symmetrical, they look as if they have been carefully chiselled into shape rather than fashioned by natural forces – it’s astonishing to see. 

I stood motionless watching frothy lace-edged turquoise waves smash against perpendicular cliffs that looked like rows of square organ pipes of varying lengths, and wash over coal black lava rock outcrops arranged in neat hexagons.

Crossing the 60m-long, 18m-high Jogasaki or Hashidate suspension bridge strung between two headlands offered one of the finest views of the deeply indented coastline and the striations in the volcanic rock.

A side track with steep steps led down a cliff face to the Oyodo-Koyodo tidal pools where we could inspect the columnar rock phenomenon at close range. 

Foamy waves surged in and out of narrow fissures and caves with a booming thunk where the sea had undercut the land.

Hardy vegetation somehow found sustenance to put down roots and eke out a meagre existence on the ancient lava flow. 

The sun was low in the sky by the time we arrived at our accommodation for the first night on tour, Suiko ryokan, a Japanese inn high above the seashore in Atagawa Onsen.

We were greeted by ladies in kimono who helped us out of our hiking boots and into slippers before we stepped into the hotel lobby. Outside footwear is never worn inside a Japanese house or ryokan. After a couple of days it became second nature – a ritual I found myself looking forward to. Extricating my feet from my heavy tramping boots which were whisked away to a drying and cleaning room, and slipping into soft slippers before entering the lobby made my tootsies blissfully happy after a long day’s hiking.

After a short welcome and introduction, we were invited to choose a yukata from a wide range of colours and sizes. The yukata is a casual, light-weight form of kimono which hotel guests wear to dinner, breakfast and the onsen baths. Had I known this, I could have cut my luggage in half. I had no need for evening attire for the entire duration of the trip.

Yukata and sash in hand, I was ushered to a beautiful ocean-facing room by one of the kimono-clad ladies who gestured for me to remove my slippers before walking on the tatami matting floor. Only bare or stocking-ed feet are permitted on the tatami. She seated me on a legless chair at a low table and performed a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. I watched her precise and graceful movements with great interest and felt very privileged to have participated in such an ancient ritual.

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Justine in her yukata off to dinner

My lady showed me another set of slippers that were to be worn only in the toilet cubicle and a wardrobe of futons, pillows and duvets that would be laid out on the tatami while I was at dinner.

The formalities over, I donned my pretty yukata and comfy slippers and set off for the onsen baths, making sure I entered the women-only one with the red-pink curtains. Thanks to a full briefing on onsen etiquette, I knew to completely strip off in the changing room before entering the bath area, sit on a little wooden stool at one of the washing stations, and soap, scrub and thoroughly rinse every part of my body before dipping even a toe into the water. This is a traditional hygiene routine that must be followed to the letter. As polite as the Japanese are, if you transgress, someone will correct you. After overcoming my initial Kiwi modesty about appearing in my ‘birthday suit’ as Yohei called it, I looked forward to the relaxation of soaking in the hot mineral waters and chatting to the other ladies in our group after a day of hiking. At Suiko, there were inside, outside and private baths, all with magnificent views overlooking the sea.

The onsen changing rooms were equipped with hairdryers, shampoos, conditioners, brushes, combs, body lotions, oils, moisturisers and all manner of beauty products... so there’s no need to bring any of those items either.

With no decisions to be made about what to wear to dinner, I changed into my geta, the outside footwear beside the sliding door, and sat on my balcony in the twilight, feeling refreshed, tingly and incredibly clean after my first onsen experience. I listened to the roar of the sea and watched the last rays of the sun on the turquoise water. 

Dinner for our group of 12 was served in our own banquet room. I was astonished at the number of items on the table including individual burners at each place setting. I made a mental note to never again complain about setting the table at home. I was even more astonished at the variety of exquisitely-presented dishes, some just a taste, barely a mouthful, but each one a work of art.

As Yohei explained, the Izu region is known for its abundance of marine life due to the influence of the Kuroshio (Black Current or Black Stream), a warm north-flowing ocean current on the west side of the North Pacific Ocean. Coastal fishing has prospered here since ancient times so it was no surprise to see a menu dominated by fresh fish and shellfish.

The 10-course menu included kiyomi orange sake, broccoli tofu with caviar, wasabi and petal of lily bulb, clams with grated horse radish, bamboo jelly, beef shigure, ise lobster and sashimi of local fish, local red snapper and pork from Shizuoka, water celery, spring onion, shiitake, tofu, yuzu (citrus fruit), Spanish mackerel with miso; vinegared Japanese ginger, spinach, savoury egg custard, lily bulb and sweet chestnut shrimps, pickled and fried mackerel, cucumber, yam, fresh abalone cooked in sake, rice, seaweed miso soup, pickled vegetables, plum sake, and lychee pudding with apple, grape and cherry.

The flavours and textures were delicate, fresh, light, clean and without the bulk often associated with Kiwi cuisine, so I did not feel weighed down as I often do after dinner at home. And using chopsticks means you eat small portions and take time to savour and appreciate each mouthful. Dinner was a leisurely affair lasting about two hours allowing plenty of time to get to know my fellow hikers. And I remembered not to gesticulate or spear my food with my chopsticks, nor plant them vertically in a bowl of rice. I think I’ll introduce chopsticks at home.

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A work of art - exquisitely presented sahimi on the Izu Geo Trail. Photo by Walk Japan

My futon and feather duvet were already beautifully laid out when I returned to my room, with the pillow pointing west-ish. Only the deceased have their heads pointing north so you don’t want to get that one wrong.

I slept with the window shutters open, bathed in moonlight with a cooling breeze from the ocean. Being on the east coast of the Land of the Rising Sun, I wanted to make sure I awoke to catch the dawning of the new day.

It was a soft water colour sunrise with pale gold and soft greys with a few ominous dark clouds lurking in the sky. The forecast was for showers so I piled all my wet weather gear into my backpack and threw in an umbrella and rainproof pack cover on Yohei’s advice. I’d never hiked with an umbrella but I was glad I heeded Yohei’s words. It was fantastic for keeping my camera gear dry.

Downstairs in the banquet room, another feast had been set out for us with 20 or more dishes at each place setting. I recognised nothing I would normally eat for breakfast but I relished the DIY sushi, miso, salad, pickles, noodles, salmon and tofu bubbling away on a burner.

The kimono ladies were out in force bowing and waving flags as our bus departed for the Amagi Highland, part of a mountain range which forms a spine along the length of the Izu Peninsula. Having witnessed the spectacular landforms created by lava as it flowed into the sea, we were heading inland to climb a volcano. Exciting stuff for someone obsessed with geology...

To be continued

Facts:

  • The Izu Geo Trail is a 7-day, 6-night tour starting in Tokyo and finishing in Mishima. The trail explores the Izu Peninsula in the Shizuoka Prefecture, one of the most unique geological areas on Earth. The large mountainous peninsula with deeply indented coasts is located south west of Tokyo on the Pacific Coast of the island of Honshu, Japan.
  • An easy-to-moderate paced hiking tour with an average walking distance of 6-12km each day, the Izu Geo Trail is mostly on uneven forest and mountain trails including some steep climbs and descents.
  • Walk Japan is the pioneer of off-the-beaten-track walking tours in Japan offering a wide range of authentic tours exploring the country, its people, society and culture. Beginning in 1992 with the Nakasendo Way tour, Walk Japan was the first to successfully introduce the real Japan, geographically and culturally, that often remains inaccessible for visitors to the country. Since then, the company has created 28 guided, self-guided and specialty tours throughout Japan and has been widely recognised for its work, including selection by National Geographic as one of the 200 Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.

Justine Tyerman was a guest of 

Walk Japan.

This article originally appeared on Over60.