Tokyo can have you feeling like a pinball being flung about in one giant game of pachinko. And while experiencing the bright lights and buzz of one of the world’s great cities is what brings most here in the first place, it’s also eventually what may have you planning your escape. Thankfully the Izu Peninsula is only a short journey away, and it’s here where you’ll find some of the best onsens (natural hot springs) in the country, sweeping surf beaches, fine seafood, incredible views of Fuji and a surprisingly impressive collection of modern art. Well known to Tokyoites as a popular seaside getaway, but largely off the tourist radar, this is the perfect place to rest up for a day or two, or even weeks.
Located 120km southwest from Tokyo, and a leisurely two-hour train journey on the JR line, the sleepy fishing town of Itō is a lovely place to slow things right down. It’s famous primarily for its onsens, which are a great way to soak away your stress. Some good options for public bathing include the outdoor Ryokufuen hotspring with attractive maple trees, a small waterfall and steamy hot waters, or the indoor Seaside Spa for a bath with ocean views. Alternatively you can plunge your feet into one of the many hot spring footbaths, including one on the train platform! Otherwise stroll along the beach promenade to the marina, which has a 43m-long footbath (and ¥100 towels from a vending machine), as well as a strip of seafood restaurants and a microbrewery that serves cherry blossom pizza in spring time.
Cultural attractions abound, ranging from modern art galleries, literary walks and ocean-front sculpture gardens, to kitsch sights like museums dedicated to cats, teddy bears and wax figures. Art lovers won't want to miss the Ikeda Museum of 20th Century Art. Its collection, housed in an abstract silver cube-shaped building, features big names such as Dalí, Warhol, Picasso, Lichtenstein and Miró. Meanwhile the MOA Museum of Art near Atami has a fantastic collection of Japanese art.
Only a 20-minute bus ride from Itō is the rugged coastline of Jōgasaki, which can be enjoyed via 9km of coastal walking trails. There are stunning ocean views along with a 43m suspension bridge and a very Japanese lighthouse that resembles something out of 1950s sci-fi comic book. Also worth checking out is Mt Omuro, a volcano carpeted in lush grass, which rises dramatically to a height of 580m and resembles a mini Mt Fuji with its rice-bowl cone. It’s accessed via a cablecar, and up top you can walk around the rim for panoramic coastal views and Fuji on a clear day. Down deep in the crater itself is the unexpected sight of an archery centre.
Itō is also a wonderful spot to stay in a traditional ryokan accommodation. Hands down one of the best-value ryokans in the country is K’s House Itō Onsen (kshouse.jp), which has traditional style tatami mats and futons in spacious rooms overlooking a bubbling stream full of carp and heron, and features an atmospherically lit onsen.
With sun, surf and good vibes, Shimoda has all the hallmarks of a classic Beach Boys track. The nearby beaches of Shira-hama and Kisami are perfect for laying down a towel to laze on white sands. Both get packed on summer weekends, so aim to head here on a weekday to avoid the crowds. Surf here is good all year round, and while the waves aren’t exactly huge, you can get some decent rides in. It’s a great place to learn to surf, and there are several surf schools in the area, as well as boards to hire if you’re keen for a paddle.
The town of Shimoda itself also has historical significance as the site where Japan ended its isolation policy to the outside world during the Edo era, and there are several museums covering the subject. It’s about an hour on the train from Itō, along an often scenic coastal journey, or around three hours from Tokyo.
The rugged coastline on the western side of the peninsula is worth a detour for the incredible sight of Mt Fuji looming from the water on the horizon. In the town of Heda you’ll find numerous lookout points to Fuji, and in spring you can enjoy the iconic sight of Fuji’s cone covered in snow as you stand among cherry blossoms. The region is also famous for dining on deep-sea Takahashi crabs, which are the world’s largest and can grow up to 3m long. The area is great for hiking in the dense forest which has plenty of wildlife, and there are several dive operators here too. With many onsens this side of the coast, you can finish up the day relaxing in therapeutic natural hot springs, featured onsite in many hotels.