While most mountains this season are blanketed in snow, the Izu Peninsula offers a warmer escape. The old-fashioned port town of Matsuzaki is the base for Yamabushi Trail Tour, a mountain bike and kayak-fishing operator that runs tours year round.
Quaint Matsuzaki Town is nestled between coastal mountains and the ocean. A stroll through town takes you back to the Edo Period, as many of the historical buildings still stand with the region’s characteristic namako-kabe (black tile walls) in a criss-cross design held together with white plaster. No trains run through Matsuzaki, making it tricky to access, which has helped preserve its antiquated charm and avoid being overcrowded with tourists.
The trails up in the dense mountains were used more than 1,200 years ago as kodo (ancient pilgrimage paths) and then, later, for a thriving charcoal industry. Matsuzaki’s subtropical weather and abundance of hardwood made it a popular production spot for charcoal. Workers would make charcoal in the mountains and transport them down by horse to the port until gas became a more sought-after commodity.
These overgrown, forgotten paths were recently discovered by a group of mountain bikers who found potential here for adventure. They cleared over 40 kilometers of trails and started exploring the mountains by bike.
“Matsuzaki is great for mountain biking in winter because there’s no snow or frost which makes for safe and fun riding,” says founder Junichiro Matsumoto. Matsumoto is originally from Yokohama and spent years trekking the Himalayas, Patagonia and around South America before settling down in Matsuzaki.
“The Izu Peninsula teems with nature and I was attracted to how close the mountains and ocean are to each other,” says Matsumoto. “From where I’m at, it takes five minutes to the mountains, five minutes to the ocean, five minutes to the river.”
Matsumoto and his team developed several trails, the longest a 550-meter vertical descent from mountain to sea without leaving the forest. Ancient kannon (Bodhisattva) sculptures line certain sections of the trails: reminders of the rich history the mountains hold.
Advanced riders can test their skills on the Epic courses with naturally formed half pipes, walls, banks, switchbacks and rock faces carved out of the bedrock. There are also several gullies. More experienced riders can opt for two-day tours.
For beginner mountain bikers, there’s the Fun Ride which slowly introduces elements like half pipes, bunkers, walls and up-down runs. Yamabushi Trail Tour will transport bikes and riders to the trail entrance at the top of the mountain.
The Easy Ride tour is a leisurely cycle around Matsuzaki with excellent views of the satoyama (countryside) and even a 50-meter waterfall you can cool down at in the summer. Electric mountain bikes are available for rent, which give you a nice power-assisted boost when needed.
While their tours are mostly centered around mountain biking, Yamabushi Trail Tour also offers fishing tours using a pedal kayak with all equipment included. Suruga Bay offers a wide variety of fish depending on the season, ranging from madai (sea bream), saba (mackerel), katsuo (skipjack tuna) and hirame (flounder). In the evening, a partnering restaurant prepares and serves the fish.
“Even if you don’t catch anything, the views of Mt. Fuji are great,” laughs Matsumoto. “On the kayak, it feels like you’re sitting directly on the surface of the water looking out at Mt. Fuji.”
Matsumoto also operates Lodge Mondo, a renovated guesthouse on the edge of town. The lodge features private rooms, dormitory rooms, a shared space and big shared bath. His team used locally sourced wood, which were left unused in the mountains, by chopping themselves and processing them into lumber at a nearby sawmill.
“Everything in nature is connected, from the mountains to the river which flows into the ocean. We’re taking people on these mountain bike tours but simultaneously we want them to see the connection and importance of preserving our forest and natural environment,” says Matsumoto.
Ishibu Rice Terrace Fields
These terraced fields, with around 370 paddies, lead down towards Suruga Bay and Mt. Fuji on a clear day, and have been awarded for its photogenic landscape. In May, the fields are lit with candles.
Mt. Eboshi and Kumomi Shrine
This 160-meter mountain is a sharp climb to the top where you’ll get a bird’s eye view of Mt. Fuji and Suruga Bay. Kumomi Shrine is located halfway up the trail.
Right under Mt. Eboshi’s nose are several popular dive spots. Divers enjoy Matsuzaki’s complex underwater landscape as it has a bit of everything: caves, nudibranch, macro diving, schools of fish and white sandy spots. Some diving spots are conveniently close to shore. There are large schools of pectoral fish, snapper and amberjack. It’s common to see large stingrays and you may even see sea turtles.
Sakuraba Leaf Mochi Production
Foodies will delight that Matsuzaki is the biggest producer of sakuraba, a pickled and sweet sakura leaf usually wrapped around sakuramochi, a popular confection. This wagashi is a sweet, pink-colored rice cake filled with a red bean anko paste and wrapped in the sakuraba. Several roadside stalls sell these sakuramochi, especially during cherry blossom season in late March and Girl’s Day in the beginning of March.
The leaves are from oshima zakura, different from the popular light pink variety, which thrives in Matsuzaki’s warm climate. Leaf harvesting and production started in the mid-1920s. They are usually harvested in May to September and pickled in salt in big cedar barrels before being shipped out nationwide to some of the country’s best confectioners.
Chohachi Art Museum
It’s almost impossible to miss the tiled namako-kabe walls lining Matsuzaki’s historical buildings. Namako-kabe is one of the traditional finishing styles dating back to the 19th century. They are made of flat tiles over mud and joined with swollen-looking white plaster which looks like namako (sea cucumber). The plaster strengthens weak points of old external walls and helps keep the building fireproof.
The Chohachi Art Museum celebrates Irie Chohachi, a great plasterer from Matsuzaki who created plaster artwork and sculptures during the late Edo period to the Meiji period. His masterpieces were mainly for temples around Tokyo which were unfortunately lost during the Great Kanto Earthquake. Here you can see about 50 of his pieces.
Former Yoda Residence
Despite what its name suggests, this historical home has nothing to do with Star Wars; it is the second oldest private house in Izu belonging to the prestigious Yoda family who found success in the silk industry during the Edo Period. Tour the main building, which was built nearly 300 years ago.
The best way to get to Matsuzaki by public transportation from Tokyo is to take the JR Odoriko Limited Express Train from Tokyo, Shinagawa or Yokohama stations direct to Izukyu-Shimoda Station. From there, rent a car or take the W40 bus heading for Dogashima and Rendaiji (takes 50 minutes).
For accommodation, there is actually a surprising variety of places to stay, from big hotels like Izu Matsuzakisou and Nishiizu Matsuzaki Itoen Hotel, to cozy ryokan and cheaper minshuku.