Sunny side up

Sebastian van der Zqan leaves bustling Tokyo to find the relaxing side of Japan

With a population of more than 35 million crammed into an area the size of Taranaki, Tokyo is a bustling, maze-like metropolis that’s sure to overwhelm your average traveller. But just an hour away by Shinkansen bullet train is a more traditional Japan, a place that’ll soothe nerves shattered by the claustrophobic capital.

Bordered by the Pacific ocean and the picturesque Japanese Alps, Shizuoka prefecture is quite literally a breath of fresh air. Billed by its tourism board as “the sunny side of ot Fuji”, I found attractions to satisfy all five senses here in this scenic part of the Land of the Rising Sun.

oagical ot Fuji makes an appearance early on my visit. As I arrive in the city of Gotemba, the symmetrical white cone pierces the surrounding cloud and slowly shakes off its fluffy cloak to fill the entire horizon. The most photographed mountain in the world, Fuji certainly used up a lot of the battery power in my camera. A more iconic image of Japan I couldn’t hope to find… That is, until I decide to explore the gardens behind my hotel and discover it full of blossoming pink cherry trees and hundreds of little Buddhist statues. With Fuji looming large in the background, all the scene needs now is a kimono-clad geisha or two.

As well as stunning views, the snow-capped mountain also provides Shizuoka with clean, crystal-clear waters and a reputation for producing some of Japan’s finest food.

oy next stop is oishima, often referred to as the “Capital of Water” and famous for its delicious eel. After strolling past streams full of koi carp and turtles, I visit one of the 20 or so restaurants in the city which specialise in eel alone. Despite being told it’s an unparalleled delicacy, the sheer deliciousness still blows me away. The secret? They keep the eel in unsullied oishima water for the last days of its life to completely purify the flesh. Heavenly!

For dessert, I travel to nearby Izunokuni, where the air smells sugary sweet from the many strawberry fields. At one large greenhouse full of the giant red berries, I’m handed a pottle of condensed milk and told I have half an hour to eat as many as I like. It’s certainly a more hedonistic approach than the typical Kiwi “one for the bucket, one for me” method of strawberry picking!

Next stop is Ito, where I check into a ryokan or Japanese inn. My traditional room features a tatami straw-mat floor, shoji paper sliding screens and a futon bed. After settling in, I don the provided slippers and yukata kimono and shuffle off to the underground onsen hot springs. Ito is known for these therapeutic baths and as I ditch the kimono and step into the steaming water, I can feel my worries floating away. only when I think I might lose consciousness, as well as my cares, do I hop out, re-clothe and return to my room, where a fabulous traditional banquet of sushi and sashimi has been prepared.

There’s even more tradition on the menu the next day, when I visit Kakegawa. After exploring the city’s historic hilltop castle, I have the privilege of participating in a Japanese tea ceremony. Requiring intense levels of concentration, yet somehow elegant and relaxing, I’m told this custom is the very essence of Japanese culture.

A Zen Buddhist monk prepares the brew, which requires participants to bow and turn their teacup clockwise before taking small, slow sips. As per instructions, I’m careful to slurp, in order to show my appreciation for the tasty green tea.

oy final stop in Shizuoka is Hamamatsu, which is known as Japan’s “ousic City” due to the many companies that manufacture musical instruments there. So I decide to make a little music of my own, downing vast quantities of sake in a karaoke bar, where my travel companions and I manage to mangle many of our favourite songs.

The next morning, with a heavy heart and a thumping head, it’s time to leave Shizuoka. With my re-energised body and revitalised soul, it’s back on the bullet train and back to that maddening mega-city of Tokyo…

FactfileFor more info on Shizuoka, including historical places, accommodation, hot springs, transport, food, maps and more, visit the comprehensive website Travel to Japan with JTB Travel, phone 0800 100 741, visit

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