When you think of family-friendly travel destinations, Japan may not be the first country that comes to mind. But if you’re looking for a unique experience that combines outdoor activities with culture and sprawling views of nature, you might want to consider a walking trip. Contributing family travel writer Margot Black shares her experience of walking the Izu Geo Trail in Japan.
The Izu Geo Trail
The Izu Geo trail is a spectacular guided walking tour of the Izu Peninsula from Walk Japan that scoops you up at bustling Tokyo station before shepherding you through some great scenery.
This seven-day, six-night adventure that I took with my husband and son, was billed as “suitable for anyone who is an occasional walker and can walk for more than three to four hours in comfort.”
Walk Japan’s meticulously planned route took us south to the peninsula’s southernmost tip at Cape Irozaki and over its central mountain region, via many charming seaside towns and rugged western coastlines. We ended our tour in Shuzenji, a historic hot spring resort town, which had many culturally riveting stops, sleepovers, and food experiences on the way.
Up front, I will say that anyone participating in this kind of active vacation should have a robust level of fitness; many of our fellow holiday-makers were used to walking for multiple hours a day at a fairly fast pace. You will need proper, broken-in hiking shoes—this is not a trip for sneakers.
Tokyo to Jogasaki Kaigan to Akazawa Onsen
We met our knowledgeable tour guide Taku at Tokyo station, arrived at Izu Kogen station on the coast at midday, and enjoyed a picnic lunch before setting off on our first walk.
We carried our possessions in backpacks and a tip is to edit and follow the checklist of items your outfitter suggests. Preparation is key and the trick is to pack lightly and cleverly. We did a lot of laundry during our trip (make sure you bring quick dry clothes).
They also supplied us with a list of simple Japanese phrases so that we could express basic pleasantries such as “yes” (hai), “no” (iie), and “good day” (Konnichiwa). We had a family competition to see who could learn the most Japanese words and elicit smiles and understanding from natives.
Our first day—a relatively gentle 2.8 miles—was spent walking along a bracing coastal trail that featured sea caves and crashing waves to a small port along the Jogasaki Kaigan. It gave us our first glimpse of the beauty of the region and also an idea of how the week was going to look and feel. It was hot and we were acclimatizing to all the walking with our well-stocked backpacks. Happily, we ended day one with something new for all of us; a soak in the Akazawa Onsen at our clifftop hotel.
An Onsen is the Japanese name for thermal hot spring baths. They are completely soul nurturing. An onsen every night on our tour was one of our favorite parts of Japanese culture.
Akazawa Onsen to Amagi Highland and Kawazu
After an easy 2.8 mile trek on day one, day two was set at a little more challenging level. We had 4.5 miles to cover and around five hours of walking. This was not the longest walk, but I was a little anxious about how we would cope. As it turned out, with all the rest stops and food stops, we did great.
The day started with a bus ride to the stunning Amagi Highlands in the mountains followed by a walk through a gently ascending beech forest to the landmark Amagi tunnel, which was built in 1904. It’s famous in Japan, and was mentioned in a revered work of literature, The Izu Dancer, by Nobel prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata. We then descended down a spiral bridge to Kawazu and another very welcome onsen, at Kawazu, where we enjoyed a lovely dinner.
One of the things I adored about this holiday was that we were able to try new foods. My son became very good at using chopsticks to eat his sushi. Watching him, I had to keep “mom cool” as I saw my son eating raw tuna for the first time on this trip. Those are the moments that make travel priceless. Aside from the adventure, it’s all about those beautiful experiences.
Kawazu Nanaduru to Shimoda and Iritahama
This was a 3.1 mile-day, so it was pretty easy compared to day two, although at no point did I think, “We must walk more!”
We made our way over paved footpaths, mountain trails, and rough tracks to the Kawazu Seven Waterfalls. I will never forget the day that I saw seven waterfalls. I loved gazing upon these unforgettable testaments to the power of nature. Our hotel had a beautiful onsen situated right next to a pounding waterfall in full view.
After we’d experienced the seven waterfalls it was onto something completely different. As huge fans of sushi we were intrigued to see wasabi horseradish being cultivated in a small fields that are nourished by local springs.
We sat down for a lunch of buckwheat soba noodles at a local restaurant where we added the local wasabi to our soup and then had a stroll around the market.
My son found a little stuffed toy dog that looked exactly like our dog at home and our guide named him Wasabi. I think it’s great to give a toy to a child on a family trip. Wasabi the stuffed toy cost us less than $10 and is now a cherished family memento.
We then traveled by bus to Shimoda, a lovely white sandy beach where we explored the harbor and the town. We saw the Gyokusen-ji temple, the home of Edward Harris, who was the first American consul to Japan. Then naturally we ended the day with a soak on our inn’s onsen, because frankly, I was addicted and it was great for my muscles.
Iritahama to Toji, Cape Irozaki, and Matsuzaki
We prepared to cover 2.6 miles but we also had the bus to help us get from a to b to c as we continued to head to the southernmost tip of the Izu Geo peninsula before turning west. Here the scenery changed dramatically from white sandy beaches to more rugged cliffs.
At Toji we were delighted by a magical sea cave on a giant sand slope, which is now a popular place for children to go sledding. My son was able to flatten a cardboard box and go whizzing down the dunes, which he loved.
We enjoyed the constant hiking along the beach trails. It was delightful to be so near the ocean, taking in the sights and sounds of nature. For lunch, our guides stopped in an idyllic little spot and served up a lovely barbecue by the beach. The scenery was peaceful and I reveled in the fact that nothing was rushed. City life seemed a million miles away.
We drove to the harbor before setting out on our walk to Cape Irozaki, Izu’s southernmost point high above the Pacific Ocean.
We visited a family-run factory that produces katsuoboshi (dried bonito flakes) that are used in Japanese cooking. We met a gentleman who showed us how the flakes are produced (it takes months). Walk Japan is particularly skilled at introducing you into situations you would never find on your own. The tour of the factory was a great insight into their way of life.
Afterward, our bus drove us to Matsuzaki, which is known for its period buildings that feature black clay tiles. Here we slept at a Japanese inn and I naturally soaked in the onsen before dinner. Because we were now on the west coast, we were able to watch the sunset.
Matsuzaki to Hiroshima & Arari
This trek was a biggie. Not only did we have 7.5 miles to cover, but we also faced an elevation gain of 1,870 feet, which was a challenge hiking up a winding trail along the clifftops. However, there were great views of Mount Fuji in the distance. We also saw many coves, rock formations, and turquoise waters.
The walk was challenging, but as a unit we were always determined to get from one point to another knowing that another treat from Mother Nature was waiting for us. At the end of the day, a car delivered us safely to our hotel and we had another soak in an onsen.
WiFi was available at all of our hotels and inns, although sometimes only in the lobby. But this meant that we were truly unplugged. Plan accordingly if that might be a problem for you.
Since we are Americans and needed to be connected for work (even on holiday), we rented a hotspot from Japan wireless for approximately $7 per day, and all of our devices were able to connect to it for no extra fee. This was a much better deal than our mobile providers were offering at $10 per device, per day.
The cuisine at our inn was a little different. My son and I gave the honorably presented abalone back to the ocean. It was so fresh it was still moving on our dinner table, so we both decided not to eat it. I walked down to the shore with him and he released it back into the ocean. It was very sweet. We quietly returned to our group and enjoyed the rest of dinner and then wound up eating a bowl of cereal in our room together that night.
Dogashima to Mount Daruma and Shuzenji
Getting toward the end of this tour was bittersweet. We had a final seven miles to cover, at an elevation of almost 1,000 feet, but it was worth it.
That morning, we were gifted free time to explore Dogashima, the cliffs, and their long tombolo, a spit of land that surfaces as the tide recedes offering access to a small island. This was one of my favorite explorations because the coastline was unspoiled.
We then took a car ride to west-central highlands of Izu for our last hike that offered panoramic views of Mount Fuji. We reached the peak of Mount Daruma, a dormant volcano, and ate lunch as we tried to catch glimpses of Mount Fuji in between the scuttling clouds.
For this final launch of our trip, we opted for a truly un-Japanese pizza as we sat at the picnic tables. Honestly, it was a treat after all the exotic foods. There’s always room for both.
Then we were driven to Shuzenji for our final overnight stay at a historic onsen resort that’s more than 160 years old. It features the oldest onsen inside a hotel and has been declared an “important cultural property” by the Japanese government.
We saw women using a communal foot wash, a long-standing Japanese tradition, which culturally blew our minds.
At the inn, we were greeted by a lovely lady in a green kimono before we explored the gardens and their koi carp ponds. One of the ponds is connected to the onsen, so when you’re soaking, the fish are looking at you—which is both spectacular and strange.
One of the perks of traveling with an outfitter like Walk Japan is that you are able to hand over the reins to someone else. It also granted us an opportunity to explore a region off the beaten path and fully immerse ourselves in Japanese culture and nature.
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Text and images by Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com