by M. John Andrew

Imagine an exotic Pacific waterfront destination, complete with volcanic peaks, lush jungle and stunning ocean vistas. Now imagine it only a one-hour train ride from downtown Tokyo.

Yes – that was Tokyo, which conjures up images of packed commuter trains and garish neon signs. Yet only an hour from this bustling metropolis of 30 million is a seaside paradise: an exotic mix of coral reefs, hot spring spas galore, and monoliths of once-molten magma towering over white sandy beaches.

Welcome to Izu, once land of exile and haven for Japan’s great novelists, now hitting the high-water mark as the destination for everyone from the casual tourist and history buff to the most dedicated of divers, surfers and sport fishermen. And with the Aichi Expo 2005 being hosted by Japan with the theme Nature’s Wisdom, there couldn’t be a better time to encounter the natural beauty of this little-known emerald of the East.

Hop on a westbound bullet train from Tokyo and in an hour you are in Atami – Japanese for “hot sea”. In ten minutes you can be checking into your hotel or suiting up for some of the best reef and wreck diving in Japan. Charter a fishing boat and enjoy fresh sashimi on the open ocean. Or simply sit back and soak in one of Atami’s hundreds of indoor and outdoor hot spring baths—the town is so pervaded by natural hot spring water that the gutter runoff is too hot to touch and steam pours from the storm drains. Atami rises up the sheer mountainside from the waterfront, and most of the outdoor baths or rotenburo overlook the breathtaking ocean view, dotted with fishing boats and the picturesque Izu islands.

In a land where ‘fresh’ means ‘still breathing’, it is the seafood that stands out here in maritime Izu peninsula. Sample the monkfish liver or red snapper along with the standard sushi favorites such as tuna, prawn and cuttlefish. And culinary delights don’t stop at the raw fish: fine French and Italian cuisine vie with Balinese and Thai restaurants for the patronage of the hungry traveler. Feeling a bit peckish from all that fish and fettucine? Chicken on a stick or Korean barbecue are a quick way to restore your protein count.

Head south by train or rental car and take in some of the most striking coastline in Asia. Stark black volcanic rock towers up in bizarre formations out of the rich aquamarine seascape. Here and there a solitary fisherman or a tiny shrine clings to the jutting rock amidst the crashing waves. Just around the bend, a white sandy beach with surfers and seabathers. Stop off at Hokkawa to bathe in the outdoor hot springs that mix with bracing ocean surf, hot sake cup in hand.

For the romantically inclined, Izu peninsula is popular as Tokyo’s number one “date course”. In addition to the ubiquitous love hotels, attractions range from the sublime to the bizarre, and include golf and mini-golf, cable cars, acrobatic dolphins and beluga whales. Don a wet suit and you can join them in the water. A plethora of museums abounds : the cat museum, the teddy bear museum, and the glass and clock museums. This is Japan, after all, and they swoon over this kind of thing. Then there is the monkey farm – the primates abound throughout the peninsula – the surprisingly excellent Izu Kogen microbrewery and a full-scale French rose garden overlooking southern Izu’s shoreline. For a break from your break, bathe in the Odoriko Onsen, setting for Nobel laureate Kawabata’s Izu Dancer.

With so many hotels and traditional Japanese inns to choose from, patrons are picky and the best establishments win customers with innovation and creativity. Feast on grilled sea bream, seafood custard and lobster in your room before heading to the bath. If you would prefer not to bathe with strangers, look for the kashikiri-buro option, which allows couples and groups to take turns enjoying the indoor and outdoor baths in privacy. And keep an ear out for the karaoke bar – you may want to exercise those vocal chords after all the steam, sushi and sake.

For the nature lover, hiking the coast and climbing volcanoes is both exhilarating and educational. At Nanadaru hike up a jungle trail that passes seven waterfalls and several hot springs and hot tubs that are open to the public. But be careful – monkeys may unexpectedly come swinging through the trees; wild boars are prone to an inexplicable crashing through of the underbrush.

Climb or ride the cable car up the Mt. Komuro volcano and circle the crater against the howling wind. At Mt. Daruma, camp out under the stars and watch from high overhead as the fishing boats twinkle in the distance. Did I mention the birding? Many of Japan’s over 500 species of cranes, egrets, kites, cormorants, plovers and swans make this lush peninsula their home.

But it is the diving that comes as the biggest surprise to many Japan visitors. Gaze through the thermal gushes of underwater hot springs at moray eels, lionfish, leopard sharks and eagle rays. In Tago, join the annual Reef Check environmental survey of the stupendous coral reefs, or explore the underwater caverns and tunnels. For the more adventurous, head out to Mikomoto to drift in the currents with schools of hammerheads.

Next time business or pleasure takes you to Tokyo, look past the glitter of the Ginza and the kitsch of Kabukicho. Whether it’s for a weekend of relaxation or a few days of adventure, Izu is arguably Asia’s best-kept waterfront destination secret.