Winter Holidays, Part 3: Izu Dreaming

The three days we spent on the Izu Peninsula were probably some of the best moments of my mother’s visit — both my mother and I agree. And it was all a complete accident.

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Quick flashback to the night of December 26th: my mom was due to arrive in two days, and yet I had no hotel booked / plans of any sort for January 1 – January 3rd. Pro tip: don’t be like me. Book well in advance, especially for good hotels during the longest public holiday period in Japan. Anyways, I spent quite a few hours frantically searching booking.com for ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in any part of Japan — any at all! — within reasonable train distance. It was stressful. It was depressing. All the good places were full. Don’t be like me.

Finally, after refreshing the webpage a million times, I saw a property listed in Shizuoka prefecture. Okay! The reviews for this place (all 669 of them) were fantastic. Even better! The pictures looked amazing! It was a historical ryokan! It wasn’t too expensive! All my boxes were checked. And there was one room left — I raced to book it with a cry of victory.

Flash forward to January 1st: my mom and I spend the morning Shinkansen-hopping to the coastal town of Ito Onsen, on the east coast of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture. We know nothing about it.

Then we walk through the beautiful city, arriving at our hostel — yes, our HOSTEL — and I knew everything was going to be okay.

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Yes, this was our private room (and private balcony overlooking the river) for the next two nights. (Admittedly, the last photo is of the ryokan next door to ours. But ours looked pretty similar — beautiful, right?)

This was one of the reasons why I was so desperately searching for a RYOKAN (and not just a hotel): because the ryokan experience is very traditional, very Japanese, and therefore very hard to come by in any other part of the world. Ryokans all have onsens (public hot spring baths) on the property for guests to use freely. Rooms are typically traditionally styled with sliding paper doors and scrolls, and guests sleep on futons on the tatami floor (I can’t help but compare the sleeping experience to camping inside in sleeping bags). Basically, I thought that a ryokan stay would be a very cool experience for my mom (and it was).

If anyone is curious, I booked Historical Ryokan Hostel K’s House Ito Onsen. Yes, that’s the full name of the place. And I highly recommend it.

Enough about the accommodation already. What did we actually DO in Ito? Well…

Outside of our ryokan, on January 2nd, we saw mochi — rice cakes — being pounded. Both of us were offered a chance to try pounding the mochi ourselves with that heavy wooden mallet!  And then we all feasted on the finished mochi, which was flavored with red bean paste and kinako.

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We spent a long day hiking the Jogasaki Coast around the “thrilling” suspension bridge and the lighthouse. My mom and I joked that the suspension bridge earns a solid 2 on the scale of thrilling, but the coastline was absolutely stunning.

We learned that the Izu Peninsula is part of a monogenetic volcanic field — meaning that each of the 70-some volcanoes on and around Izu will only ever erupt once in their lifetimes (and I’m pretty sure they all erupted thousands of years ago, so Izu is pretty safe from volcanoes). I had never heard the term “monogenetic volcano” before, though, so that was fun to learn about! Anyways, the Jogasaki coastline is so beautiful thanks to the eruption of nearby Mount Omuro about 4,000 years ago.

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At the end of a hiking trail leading away from the lighthouse, my mom and I discovered the entrance to a little flower park, flanked by an outdoor vendor selling fresh oysters. We couldn’t see much of the flower park from the ticket stand, but we decided to pay the 400 yen fee anyway, just to check it out.

There were no regrets. 400 yen well-spent, indeed.

Izu Four Seasons Flower Park had looked innocent enough from the outside, but it took our breath away. It was perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, and flowers of all sorts were in boom — Birds of Paradise, cherry blossoms, golden fields of cassia — and this was on was January 2nd. Mom kept exclaiming: “I just didn’t expect this to be Japan in January!” Meanwhile, I kept exclaiming, “We don’t have flowers in Ibaraki! I only live two hours north of this place, why don’t we have flowers?!?”

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What else did we do? Well, we ate a few fantastic dinners at Kunihachi, an izakaya only a minute’s walk away from our ryokan-hostel.  It’s a bit of an eccentric-looking place, but don’t be fooled: the food there is AMAZING, and the couple who run it are very friendly! The Kunihachi spring rolls and the fried garlic noodles are not to be missed — they were our absolute favorites (to the surprise of the owner, we ordered the spring rolls two nights in a row!)

We had some fun in Ito as well: we kept seeing people delighting in pouring bubbling, steaming spring water over a squat little statue on one of the streets near the station, so both of us decided to bathe the statue as well. Apparently, this guy was a deity of creativity, so if my mom and I suddenly become artists, everyone will know why. And at our ryokan-hostel, we used the onsen, of course (my mom’s first onsen experience!). To walk to and from the onsen, we were given yukata (casual, traditional lounge-wear is the best explanation I have to describe it) and we had fun wearing them, as can be seen below:

Another very exciting thing happened: WE SAW MOUNT FUJI! It was quite exciting for the both of us, because even though this was my mom’s third trip to Japan, and even though I had been living here for five months, neither of us had seen the iconic mountain in person before! Although it was miles away, the snow capped silhouette was striking. I suddetly understood why it has been so revered by the Japanese for so long. You see, and you believe.

To see Mount Fuji, we did a half-day trip to Mount Omuro (aforementioned monogenetic volcano) and took the ski lift to the top. Mount Omuro has a really strange shape — sometimes described as an inverted rice bowl — and the inside of the crater hosts an archery range!

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That pretty much sums up our time on the Izu Peninsula. And it pretty much sums up both my  winter holidays and my mom’s time in Japan, at least for the record of this blog.

A brief ending to the tale, though; after Izu, my mom and I spent another day in my city, visiting the Yuuki Silk Museum and eating lunch at one of my favorite cafes. Next we spent two nights in Tokyo before she flew home to the States and I returned, once more, to a much less glamorous life of teaching and making dinner and going grocery shopping. And although I was sad that she had to depart, I also welcomed my schedule and my own bed. Because as much fun as I with my mom (and we did, indeed, have many laughs) it’s also nice to return to a routine.

However, I will say that once I got back up here, (barely) north in Ibaraki, I’ve spent many cold nights under my kotatsu, Izu Dreaming for the sunshine, sea, and flowers.

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