The sleepy fishing port of Nakagi is liveliest right before dawn breaks, as local fishermen set out on their boats to see how many Ise-ebi their nets have caught overnight. For years, local fishermen have relied heavily on the famed Ise-ebi, or Japanese spiny lobster. Ise-ebi fishing is limited to September to April, and during the first to third quarter of the lunar phase when the night skies are darker. The nocturnal Ise-ebi like to move in the dark.
Nakagi is at the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula. It is a popular destination for snorkeling and sea kayaking in summer, but otherwise relatively quiet. Winter attracts local travelers who want to ring in the new year feasting on Ise-ebi, which is part of osechi ryori (traditional Japanese New Year food). The bright red Ise-ebi symbolize longevity, as they have a relatively long lifespan and trailing “whiskers.” A kilogram of Minami Izu’s Ise-ebi is about ¥7,500. Local minshuku and hotels usually serve Ise-ebi as part of their dinner during the harvest.
The Kuroshio is the world’s second-strongest current. It flows off the coast of Japan’s Pacific coastline resulting in a year-round subtropical climate and warm, clear water rich with nutrients. The Ise-ebi thrives in these shallow tropical waters.
Like many small towns in Japan, Minami Izu’s population is declining, decreasing by about 100 people every year. The local fishermen work in pairs to keep their trade alive, setting out to sea at sunset to cast gill nets then pulling them in early morning before the sun rises. After that, they work together to remove the lobsters (and other critters caught in the nets) before shipping them off to customers or the fresh market, then warming up with a bowl of fresh lobster miso soup. They repair their nets in the off season, and in the case of Katsuyo Takano, take tourists to Hirizo Beach, a popular snorkeling spot that can only be accessed by ferry.
“A long time ago, we had 20 fishermen here but it’s down to eight,” says Takano, who was born and raised here. “I started lobster fishing seven or eight years ago—I was already working on a boat and wanted to come back to fish somewhere closer to home.”
Iro Shrine, built precariously on the side of a cliff at Cape Irozaki, is evidence that the ocean has shaped Minami Izu’s history, livelihood and culture. This unique wooden shrine is built on a ship mast said to have washed up to a particular spot on the cliff in A.D. 701 and gotten stuck there. The current main shrine was built over it in 1901 and remains supported by this mast.
“This shrine was built for people to pray for protection while out at sea, and also to be thankful for food and blessings from the ocean,” says local priest Takahiro Ozawa. The shrine has become a tourist spot as it offers some of the best views of the ocean and Minami Izu’s rugged coastline.
The best way to get to Minami Izu is the train to Izukyu-Shimoda Station on the JR Ito Line. You can also travel in style on the JR Odoriko Limited Express Train direct from Tokyo, Shinagawa, Kawasaki and Yokohama stations.
Minami Izu has no trains and limited bus service. From Izukyu-Shimoda Station, you may want to rent a car to explore the area at your own pace. You can also take the Tokai Bus from the station, which takes 20 minutes to central Minami Izu.
Unless you’re staying at a local inn or hotel, dining options, convenience stores and supermarkets are extremely limited so be sure to plan ahead or bring along food and snacks.
Minami Izu Cherry Blossoms
Minami Izu town central is built around the Aono River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean. This river is lined with Kawazu-zakura, a special type of cherry tree that blooms in mid-February. The blossoms are characterized by their darker, more vivid color compared to the more common Somei-Yoshino. They generally stay in bloom for about a month; the warm coastal climate allows them to thrive. Nanohana (rapeseed) flowers also bloom around this time. It can be chilly when the sun’s not out, so warm up in the towns’ many hot springs such as Gin-no-Yu Onsen. Be sure to try the onsen melon, grown in greenhouses powered by heat from the hot springs.
Cape Irozaki is the southernmost point of the Izu Peninsula. Walk down to the tip of the cape for stellar views of the ocean. You’ll pass by Irozaki Lighthouse, built during the Meiji Era that has been in continuous use since the 1870s. It opened to the public in 2019. Iro Shrine sits on the cliff further down the path. There’s also a visitor center and cafeteria back at the parking lot. Buses run from Izukyu-Shimoda Station to Cape Irozaki (40 minutes).
Getting to this natural outdoor park is an adventure as you drive (or walk) down a steep, zigzag road. The views of the valley opening up to the ocean are spectacular, but the main attraction is a troop of around 300 Japanese macaques who congregate at the rocky beach at the base of the valley. Depending on the time you visit, these wild monkeys will be feeding at the park (usually in the morning or evening). There’s a visitor center where you can safely feed the monkeys. If you don’t see any, they’re probably back in the surrounding forests. Hagachizaki Monkey Bay is located on the west coast of Minami Izu and a 30-minute drive from Minami Izu Town. Admission is ¥1,200 for adults and ¥600 for children.
Mikomoto Hammers offer a rare opportunity to dive with hammerhead sharks around the uninhabited Mikomoto Island ten kilometers southeast of the peninsula. Although the best time to see the sharks is from July to October, they are around during other times of the year. The water temperature ranges between 16-20 degrees in October to December and April to June, and 20 to 25 degrees July to September.
As the Kuroshio Current flows near this island, divers will be required to drift drive and have at least 30 certified dives prior to the dive.
Hirizo Beach is a five-minute boat ride from Nakagi Port and can only be accessed by ferry. It costs ¥2,000 for a day pass. This is a rocky beach surrounded by cliffs and a small island, and its azure waters offer some of the best snorkeling and visibility on mainland Japan. The beach is only open during the summer months, but be sure to call ahead as ferries sometimes cannot operate during typhoon season. You can also view the beach from Cape Aiai.
This beach is said to be one Japan’s 100 top beaches for its white sand and clean waters. The kilometer-long coast is lined with pine trees and protected by two capes on both ends that blocks waves and makes it a family-friendly swimming spot. In June to July, sea turtles come to the beach to lay eggs. The beachside Kyukamura Minami-Izu Hotel is a popular place to stay as guests can enjoy fresh local seafood such as Ise-ebi and soak in natural hot springs.