Tokyo to Hakone to Kyoto is the most popular itinerary for first time travelers to Japan. As such, it is often called the “Golden Route.” It covers the modern vibrancy of Tokyo, the historic serenity of Kyoto, and the relaxing hot spring resorts (onsen), with views of Mt. Fuji.
However, Tokyo to Shizuoka to Kyoto can be a better alternative. Shizuoka on the Izu Peninsula, south of Tokyo – especially the resort towns of Atami and Shizuoka – can be more attractive, less crowded, and possibly more culturally rich.
Mt. Fuji is a big mountain. At 12,389 ft, it is the highest peak in Japan and often the symbol of the country. While Hakone offers one view, from the other side, on the Shizuoka Prefecture side, you can see the mountain as well, and in many cases, even more brilliantly.
Culturally, Atami is home to the MOA Museum of Art, which on February 5, 2017, the reopened with a new café, new research library, new lobby and more expressive exhibition space to better enhance the beauty of the art objects. The opening exhibition includes the Atami Seascape Nihonga style paintings of Hiroshi Sugimoto.
From Atami, you can continue in Shizuoka Prefecture to Mishima (Just 7 minutes on the Kodama bullet train). Here you should visit Mishima Taisha, considered the third most important Shinto shrine in Japan, after Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Mishima Taisha is famous for its floral blossoms – from February, when a rare plum (ume) tree "omoi-no-mama" opens its petals in four different colors of red, white and pink -- through April when 200 cherry trees, in 15 varieties, bloom. In addition, annually on August 16, the shrine attracts visitors to its Yabusame festival. This archery on horseback dates back to Japan’s 12th to 13th Century Kamakura Period, when the shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, who in fact was exiled on the Izu Peninsula and worshiped at Mishima Shrine, became alarmed at the poor archery skills of his samurai.
Given the shrines importance as a hanami (blossom viewing spot), it’s no wonder that the most important object in the shrine museum’s collection is a lacquerware box with the inlayed gold leaf (maki-e) design of plum blossoms. The box, containing ancient utensils used for women’s cosmetics, dates back to the late Heian period (12th Century) and is a National Treasure of Japan.
On the shrine grounds, a 1200-year-old fragrant Osmanthus tree is protected by the national government as a natural monument. In addition, four other Mishima Taisha artifacts are registered as “Important Cultural Properties.” These include:
A Kamakura period tachi (Japanese sword) donated to the shrine by Emperor Meiji.
A Muromachi period (14th to 15th Century) wakizashi short sword
A copy of the Heart Sutra dated 1203, written by Minamoto no Yoritomo
A collection of 592 documents of shrine records from the Heian through Edo periods.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), Mishima Taisha was the main shrine of the post town of Mishima that prospered as a major pilgrimage stop on the Tōkaidō highway between Edo (present day Tokyo) and Kyoto. Mishima Taisha’s torii gate was depicted in an ukiyoe by Ando Hiroshige. A calendar issued by the shrine was carried home by pilgrims from all over Japan, and was known as the “Mishima Calendar.” The house of the Mishima Lunar Calendar Publisher can be visited as well and is just a short walk away.
Next, you can continue to Shuzenji. This 1200-year-old onsen town was founded by the famed Buddhist monk Kobodaishi. The town is slightly hilly, with cobblestone streets, some lined with bamboo groves, alongside picturesque waterfalls. There are numerous antique shops, craftspeople making bamboo baskets, and ubiquitous places where you can purchase food products made with the local crop – wasabi. You’ll find wasabi salad dressing, wasabi white chocolate, and even wasabi soft serve ice cream! And, don’t forget to stop by Baird Brewery Gardens for some local craft beer made famous by Ohio native Bryan Baird and his Japanese wife, Sayuri. I think he even has a wasabi infused brew.
In the evening, as the sun fades, crimson Chochin-style (oblong) Japanese lanterns light the pathways around the town. The river views outside Arai Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn founded in 1872, with tatami-mat guest rooms, onsen baths, and even foot baths on some of the balcony guestrooms, are magical. Even inside, the feeling of serenity persists. Wooden corridors framed with fusuma screens open onto courtyard ponds and gardens. Kaiseki meals include freshly caught river fish and freshly picked and shaved wasabi. Guestroom futons are soft and comfortable (although the bean-filled[?] pillows are a little too authentic) and the all-you-can-drink sencha green tea -- another local specialty -- is set out in a beautifully decorated lacquer canister on the low table with a traditional sweet and an electronic pot of self-serve hot water. When I was there, I grabbed my tea cup, wrapped myself in a blanket, opened the fusuma screen looking out onto the river, and cuddled into the reclining chair in front. The clean air, the natural sound of the water, the glowing red lamps in the distance, this was the Japan of my imagination, at half the cost and without the crowds of Hakone. Tomorrow, I would take my time, and then proceed by bullet train on to Kyoto. That is what I recommend for you too.
Shizuoka is a Prefectural member of the Shoryudo region of Central Japan. For more information on this region visit: http://shoryudo.go-centraljapan.jp/en/about/index.html. The above itinerary can be done easily with a Japan Rail Pass, which allows you free entrance onto all the Japan Railway trains, including the Kodama Shinkansen Bullet train. (A short ride on the Izu-hakone Railway is not included in the JR pass.)