Wednesday 29 March 2023

Atami: Japan Seaside Resort and Hot-Spring Mecca

Temperatures are rising and it feels like spring has come at last - with Tokyo cherry blossoms officially reaching full bloom on the 22nd, change is definitely in the air. Speaking of change, on the 13th, Japan belatedly eased its long-standing recommendation to wear a mask and is now officially leaving it up to personal choice (kojin handan=個人判断). Nevertheless, most people are still taking a wait-and-see approach and continue to wear masks while checking out what others are doing - a nice illustration of how peer pressure still rules in Japanese society. 

The seasonal and social change makes it a good time to travel, and I took the chance to visit the popular tourist spot of Atami on the Izu Peninsula, a seaside (and, in the past, honeymoon) resort less than an hour west of Tokyo on the bullet train. Atami (熱海)literally means "hot sea" which refers to the famous onsen hot-spring baths dotted in the many ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) in the surrounding volcanic hills. Living up to its name, the weary traveller is greeted with a public hot spring footbath (ashiyu=足湯) on leaving the station, somewhat oddly named the "Ieyasu Hot Water Footbath" to mark 400 years since Tokugawa Ieyasu - first shōgun and one of the great unifiers of Japan - visited Atami.

Truth be told, there's not actually much to see or do in Atami apart from soak in the hot springs and eat seafood - in fact, Atami is now more of a commuter hub for Tokyo than a tourist spot. However, we did take a trip to tiny Hatsushima Island (see video from the 30-minute ferry ride below) which ironically has a lot more to do! There is one notable monument in Atami though, located by a pine tree overlooking the artificial beach, and that is a statue of a man, wearing traditional wooden geta sandals, kicking a Japanese woman on the ground, who is holding her arm up in self-defence.

Apparently, the statue depicts a scene, set on Atami Sun Beach, from a serialized novel called Konjiki Yasha (The Golden Demon=金色夜叉) written by Koyo Ozaki, a leading literary figure of the Meiji Era. The novel's themes are the loss of humanity, social responsibility, and love in the face of money. The scene depicts a "climatic farewell", in which the heroine, O-Miya, has just revealed to her lover, the student Kan'ichi, that she has accepted a proposal of marriage from a rich banker's son, swayed by the gift of a diamond ring. No doubt aware of the problematic nature of the image, the plaque justifies it as follows: "The statue, which depicts the most symbolic scene full of love and sorrow of the two who have grown apart, faithfully reflects the original story. In no way does it condone or promote acts of violence. We would be very pleased if you could read through the novel and consider the pair's emotions, as well as the social conditions of the time." Nevertheless, in these days of statues being torn down, and after a pandemic which saw domestic violence consultations reach record levels and female suicide spike in Japan, one can only wonder about the kind of message that such a statue sends to all those visiting this "honeymoon" resort. Do put your thoughts on this and recommendations for your favourite travel spots in the COMMENTS please!

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