A 'mystical' day in the highland
Justine Tyerman suffers a panic attack in the middle of a tunnel on Japan’s Izu Peninsula, and enjoys hiking in the rain . . .
Walking through the historic Amagi Tunnel on Japan’s Izu Peninsula evoked images of the beautiful young dancer and the student in The Izu Dancer. The 115-year-old moss-coated stone tunnel features in Yasunari Kawabata’s Nobel Prize-winning short story which I had just finished reading.
About halfway through the 445m tunnel, I imagined I felt a slight tremor and the words of our Walk Japan tour leader and guide suddenly began to echo inside my head.
Describing Japan’s record for earthquakes on our arrival on the Izu Peninsula the previous day, Yohei had said:
“About 1500 earthquakes strike Japan every year with around 1000 minor tremors occurring each day.”
I wished I hadn’t remembered it quite so clearly . . . I quickened my pace . . .
“It’s unusual for a year to go by without three or four earthquakes measuring 6.0 or more on the Richter scale,” I recalled him saying. I’d even written it down to make sure I got the figures right.
“Japan actually accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater.”
I began to jog . . .
“Deadly quakes are a tragic part of our nation’s history,” he said matter-of-factly.
I ran like the wind towards the circle of light at the end of the 445m tunnel. It would be just my luck for a quake to strike right now, I thought, in mid-tunnel. I’d never be found.
Emerging breathless at the end of the tunnel, those who had already made it through, alive and well, looked at me as though I was slightly deranged. Our young Singaporean friends were busy setting up a group leap at the mouth of the tunnel. Their photos were so cool, I soon forgot all about my quake jitters.
Earlier that day, as we drove south along the east coast of the Izu Peninsula, waves were pounding the black volcanic rocks that characterise the region, and fishing boats were bucking at their moorings.
Leaving the coast behind, we then headed inland through lush green forests, negotiating many tunnels and the Kawazu Nanadaru Loop Bridge, a corkscrew-shaped construction completed in 1982 to accommodate terrain too steep for a conventional road.
Our destination was the Amagi Highland in the middle of a mountain range which forms a spine along the length of the peninsula. The mountains had been pushed up, folded and crumpled when the Philippine Sea Plate collided with the Eurasian Plate millions of years ago creating the Izu Peninsula.
Our local guide for the day, Dan Tsuchiya, was waiting for us at the turn-off to a steep, windy, narrow mountain road.
Before setting off on our hike to Hatcho-ike (or Hacho Pond), the crater lake on Mt Amagi, Dan led us through a series of warm-up exercises in which everyone participated with great enthusiasm. There are maps and information boards everywhere on Japanese hiking trails so we had an orientation session before we set off uphill through a beautiful forest of beech and maple trees.
Our hike followed an ancient road that led to the once strategically-important port of Shimoda in the south of the peninsula.
Misty rain enhanced the colours of the forest and added a mystical, ethereal atmosphere to the landscape. As we climbed steadily higher, I was grateful for my layers of merino wool, wet weather gear . . . and umbrella.
Dan stopped at his ‘secret favourite forest’ to show us images of maples ablaze in autumn regalia. Further on, he pointed out a sad sight — the demise of the ‘mother tree’, the oldest tree in the forest. The 300-year-old beech had been blown over by the wind a couple of months earlier and would no longer feed the forest with seedlings or the animals with nuts.
The forest floor was strangely clean which gave the appearance of a well-kept park but in fact the lack of seedlings and undergrowth was attributable to the unsustainably-large numbers of deer, Dan said. Deer cannot be hunted in a national park so they take refuge here, eating everything except japonica which is poisonous to them. Unless the deer population is controlled, japonica will take over the forest, he said.
Inside an experimental area that had been fenced off to allow the forest to regenerate, seedlings and undergrowth were thriving.
Beautiful azaleas are a feature of the Amagi Highland. People come from all over the country to see the trees flower in June-July. Some were already in flower, providing vivid splashes of colour amid the green of the forest.
No one minded hiking in the rainBy the time we reached Hatcho-ike, the ‘Eye of Amagi’, at an altitude of 1170m, it was completely shrouded in mist and the temperatures were dropping. Our picnic lunch was a hurried affair on the steps of a demolished building that had its heyday last century when large numbers of people would hike up the track to ice skate on the frozen pond in the winter. A photo on an information board shows dozens of skaters on the ice in the 1960s.
As drizzle turned to heavy rain, we took a shortcut back to our coach passing by an ancient road beneath a canopy of trees. No one seemed to mind hiking in the rain in such a beautiful forest. We all had umbrellas and waterproof gear so we were warm and dry. Hiking with an umbrella was a novel experience for me. I found it very useful for keeping my camera dry while taking photos in the rain . . . a third hand would have been handy too.
Our accommodation for the evening was Amagiso Ryokan in Kawazu, a traditional Japanese inn with 28 hot spring baths including public outdoor pools at the foot of a spectacular waterfall. Open to male and female guests (in swimsuits), the photogenic pools have appeared in Japanese movies and television series.
Chatting with my fellow hikers in the hot springs with the waterfall gushing from the cliff above was divine.
Revitalised by the outdoor bath, I dressed in a bright yellow and white floral yukata with a blue haori (jacket) for dinner, another traditional Japanese feast of seafood and fresh produce. I was slightly alarmed at the live abalone on a burner right in front of me, trying to escape his fate. On another burner, I cooked thick chunks of tender Kobe beef, vegetables and fiddlehead fern to tasty perfection.
Other dishes included swordfish, white clams, shrimps, snails, sea bream, broad beans and mountain vegetables.
The waitresses were exceptionally friendly and chatty — Yuki had spent time in Canada, and Takako had worked at Amagiso for about 25 years. Takako was also responsible for the beautiful flower arrangements at the inn.
By the time I got back to my room, my futon had been made up with the lightest feather duvet. The rain was steady overnight and torrential by morning so our plans to return to the hot pool by the waterfall before breakfast were thwarted. The pathway was closed . . . along with numerous roads in the area.
At breakfast, we could create our own omelettes with a variety of tasty ingredients. There was yoghurt, noodles, salad, miso, tofu and pickles too.
A young kimono-clad girl escorted us to our coach under bright pink and purple umbrellas.
The ever-resourceful Yohei came up with a rainy-day contingency plan. Hiking to Kawazu’s Seven Waterfalls was off the agenda — the track was closed for safety reasons — so we visited the Uehara Museum of Art near Shimoda instead. The museum has two magnificent galleries displaying precious Buddhist art and sculptures dating back to the 8th century, and modern art including paintings by Monet, Renoir and Picasso. I fell in love with a beautiful sculpture there . . .
— To be continued
Justine Tyerman was a guest of Walk Japan https://walkjapan.com/
• The Izu Geo Trail is a 7-day, 6-night guided 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 mountainous peninsula with deeply indented coasts, white-sand beaches and a climate akin to a sub-tropical island, is located 150km south west of Tokyo on the Pacific Coast of Honshu.
• An easy-to-moderate-paced hiking tour with an average walking distance of 6-12km each day, mostly on uneven forest and mountain tracks including some steep climbs and descents.
• Walk Japan pioneered off-the-beaten-track walking tours in Japan in 1992 with the Nakasendo Way tour. Since then, the company has created 29 guided, self-guided and specialty tours introducing the geography, people, cuisine, customs, culture and history of the real Japan that often remains inaccessible for visitors to the country.
• Walk Japan has been widely recognised, including selection by National Geographic as one of the 200 Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.