February 8, 2019

Timeworn Atami

Located near Tokyo, the onsen town of Atami in Shizuoka offers visitors a glimpse of what life would have been life during Japan's bubble period.

A panoramic view of Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture from Atami Castle

Welcome back to yet another installment of my super in-depth area guides where I detail all you need to know to get off the beaten path. It certainly has been a while since I’ve published one of these, eh? Ever since getting injured back in November 2018, I’ve been taking it easy on the multi-day trips while I recovered. Thankfully though, I’m finally feeling fit enough to tackle the road again. With that said, today we will be taking a look at the seaside resort town of Atami. Located on the northeastern base of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture, this hot spring resort is the perfect add-on to your time in Tokyo. Be it for a mere day trip or an overnight stay, Atami has more than enough charms to deliver in spades.

Before getting into the weeds here, allow me to first start by explaining Atami’s allure. Strange as it may seem, in many senses, what makes this seaside town worth visiting is the fact that it is well past its heyday as a weekend getaway from Tokyo. You see, during the extravagantly opulent years of Japan’s bubble economy (1986–1991), Atami was highly popular amongst the locals as a destination for business retreats. To cater to this surge in demand, huge developments sprung up in the area, including many large ryokan and apartment blocks along the shoreline. These conspicuous man-made structures give Atami the perception of looking much larger than its current 40,000 strong population would otherwise suggest.

Alas, the miracle of Japan’s Bubble economy did not last. As talk of Japan being number one vanished into the pages of history, so too did Atami’s popularity as a weekend indulgence for corporations. Once the bubble burst in early 1992, Japanese businesses simply couldn’t afford to continue spending recklessly on matters such as luxurious employee getaways. Consequently, Atami too began to experience a significant decline. While the area remains somewhat popular among Tokyoites as a seaside escape from the concrete jungle, Atami is certainly a shadow of its former self. Moreover, other affordable means of travel have also eaten away at Atami’s appeal. After all, why visit this washed-up resort town when low cost carriers enable one to travel to Okinawa or even abroad for the exact same fare?

That said, one of the really cool things about all of this though is that Atami is much like a town that has been frozen in time. Simply put, little has changed since Atami’s years in the spotlight. Because of this, many of the developments that went up during Japan’s bubble economy have an uncanny air of yesteryear to them. Poor upkeep aside, strolling through the winding streets, I couldn’t help but feel as if I had been swept back in time to an era before Japan’s so-called Lost Decade.” Indeed, as I’ll outline in the following sections, there are many attractions in Atami that hail from an age that is considerably different from the one we live in today.

Getting to Atami

A bullet train races past Mt. Fuji on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line

Let’s pause quickly and talk about logistics. Luckily for you, the reader, getting to Atami is just about as simple as it can be. The town is sandwiched between Sagami Bay and the coastal mountains over in Shizuoka Prefecture. Since the area is located directly on the Tokaido Line that runs all the way to Kyoto and Osaka, travelers need only to hop on any of the slower bullet trains heading in that direction. Here, the only thing that you need to be weary of is the fact that the super express Nozomi (as well as some of the Hikaris) do not stop at Atami. To be safe, just opt to take any of the Kodama bullet trains as these will still get you there in under an hour. Alternatively, just refer to Hyperdia or a similar service and let their search engines do all the heavy lifting for you.

Now one of the great things about Atami is that it is very convenient for JR Rail Pass holders. Normally, these passes do not allow you to take the super express Nozomi bullet trains (which is one of their major drawbacks). Seeing as Atami is not serviced by these trains anyway, this means that those with JR rail passes can essentially visit the town for free. If you’re heading off to Kyoto and don’t have any other hot spring towns on your itinerary, it might make sense to hop off and spend even a half day exploring Atami. After all, it doesn’t cost you a yen and you can’t ride the fastest of the bullet trains to begin with. Why not enjoy a quick soak before heading off to explore Japan’s ancient capital?

Note that once you’re actually in Atami, things aren’t as convenient. Much of the area’s attractions are spread across large swaths of lands. To make matters worse, Atami’s position between the sea and the mountains means that there is little flat land. Steep hills are to be expected. Personally, I’m of the mindset that Atami is best explored on foot as the few buses that service the area are infrequent and challenging to understand. Still, other guides suggest busing it from destination to destination. If you prefer this option, know that there’s a sightseeing loop bus for tourists that serves many of the city’s top spots. To save yourself some cash, go for the 700 yen 1-day pass as it comes with discounted entry fees for several Atami attractions.

Atami’s Hot Springs

The Oyu Geyser in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture

As an onsen town, Atami is said to be one of the oldest with some historical evidence documenting its opening as far back as the Nara period (710–794). Many eons ago, the steep hills on which Atami is built formed one side of a massive volcano. Today, much of the present infrastructure sits on the remnants of its crater. Along with Arima onsen in Hyogo and Dogo onsen in Ehime, Atami is considered to be one of Japan’s three oldest hot springs. Later on during the Edo period (1603–1868), even the eventual founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu himself, was said to have been a huge fan of Atami in his day. Today, there’s even a free ashiyu foot bath for you to enjoy right in front of the train station honoring this connection.

In total, Atami has seven thermal springs from which the boiling hot water seeps from the ground. These springs are scattered all about town and are marked with little placards detailing their history so keep your eyes peeled as you mill about. One other location I will urge you to keep an eye out for is the Oyu Geyser pictured above. Allegedly, the geyser was one of the biggest in the world and would rattle the ground when erupting. Sadly, the Oyu Geyser finally gave up the ghost following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Still, it’s a sight to behold and one well worth adding to your adventures. You’ll find it located here behind the New Fujiya Hotel’s annex building.

Now, much like many other onsen towns, there are countless options for enjoying Atami’s thermal waters. From day-use only facilities to luxurious and exclusive ryokan, Atami has something for all travelers. Rather than bombard you with a long list of preferred options, here I’ll just suggest you do some Googling to find one that best fits your budget and taste. That said, some easy to find day-use facilities are as follows:

See what others you can find yourself as this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg!

Atami’s Modern Castle

The rather recently constructed Atami Castle in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture

Next up, let’s talk about Atami castle. Though an iconic symbol of the town, Atami’s stronghold is a bit… different. For starters, the structure has absolutely no historical roots whatsoever. In fact, the castle was built in 1959 as a tourist attraction when the town was beginning to bud as a resort getaway for businessmen. Erected entirely from concrete, Atami castle has a number of floors that curate a variety of artifacts. Though I’d hesitate to call it a full-fledged museum, inside you’ll find some samurai weaponry as well as a floor dedicated to a graphic shunga exhibit. Never heard of shunga before? Well, let’s just say that you’re in for real a surprise. Just be sure to leave the kids out in the hall while you explore. Oh, and to further muddle this mixture, there’s even an arcade in the basement of Atami castle. Talk about weird…

As peculiar as Atami castle is, I’d still say that you’d do well to venture inside despite its lack of any real historical significance. The structure itself sits high on a bluff providing a killer view of the charming seaside town down below. To reach Atami castle, you’ll either need to take a bus or ropeway car up to the crag on which its located. Additionally, right next to the castle, you’ll also find a trick art museum too. I opted not pay the entry fee to keep costs at a minimum so I cannot comment about whether it is worth it or not but there are combination tickets available for sale. Should you be interested, consider picking up one of these when purchasing your ticket for Atami castle as it should help to save a few extra yen.

Now of course the crowning jewel of this area is none other than the infamous Atami Adult Museum. As the name suggests, this oddity is strictly only for those above the age of 18 years and showcases the uncensored gamut of Japanese sexual bizarreness. Spanning an entire three levels, the Atami Adult Museum exhibits a diverse variety of kinks that range all the way from the sublime to the downright ridiculous. For example, ever want to blow wind up a life-sized Marilyn Monroe’s dress ala “The Seven Year Itch?” Well, you can check that one off the bucket list here. You’ll find this relic of a bygone era built right into the ropeway station itself as if visitors were meant to check it out on their return. It’s literally impossible to miss.

By the way, unbeknownst to many visitors from abroad, Japan actually has a fair number of similar facilities hidden all over the country. Known as Hihokan in Japanese (meaning “secret treasure halls”), these museums give a rare glimpse into the unbridled decadence of the bubble economy. This was an era of unparalleled growth, social change and, it would seem, business-savvy perverts. You’ll find Hihokan in washed up and fading beach towns like Atami. As ludicrous as they may seem, these properties are charming in their own right and unveil the cultural zeitgeist of a bygone time before all things became politically correct.

Atami’s Seasonal Charms

Atami’s early blooming cherry blossoms

Depending on the time of year you visit, there’s much natural beauty to behold in Atami. For one, the area has some of the fastest blooming cherry trees in all of Japan. While forecasts typically predict full blooms for the greater Tokyo region in late March, Atami’s trees normally start to blossom as early as January and there’s usually an annual festival heralding their arrival. This is great news for those who are visiting Japan in winter and will miss the regular window in which the trees bloom. If you absolutely must see some cherry blossoms and are in Japan during late January or early February, you absolutely have to check out Atami. The best location for catching these early bloomers is by the Itogawa, a river that cuts through the middle of the town.

In addition to the the early cherry blossoming, Atami is equally well known for its plum blossoms. These trees usually start blooming in late November to early December. By far, the best locale for viewing Atami’s plum blossoms is the Atami Umezono Plum Park. Spanning over 50 different varieties, this natural haven has a grand total of 472 plum trees including a few that are well over a century old. Depending on when you visit, you may be able to enjoy a cup of amazake or dip your feet in the Atami Umezono Plum Park’s ashiyu foot bath. Note that the park is drop dead gorgeous during autumn so don’t think you missed out if you’re here before the plum trees bloom.

Lastly, while not exactly a natural attraction, Atami has annual fireworks festivals during the summer months. Often times, these celebrations are a lot less crowded than other popular events due to the fact that Atami is a wee bit more removed from central Tokyo than alternative locations like Kamakura.

There’s Still More to Atami

The MOA Art Museum in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture

In addition to hot springs, the castle and the umm… “museum,” Atami has a whole host of other attractions to check out as well. In the interest of brevity, I’ll introduce these below with only a short blurb. Should something tickle your fancy, I suggest doing a bit more research to figure out if it’s worth making the time for a visit.

  • MOA Art Museum
    No talk of Atami would be complete without mentioning the MOA Art Museum. Pictured above, this three-decade old facility recently underwent renovations and is an attraction unto itself. The facility exhibits a huge collection of 3,500 items that include national treasures and important cultural properties. Though it is a bit on the pricey side (entry is 1,600 yen) and can be hard to get to on foot, the MOA Art Museum is surely not to disappoint those who put in the effort to check it out. In fact, I’d consider it a must see if you visit Atami.
  • Kinomiya Shrine
    Essentially meaning “Tree Shrine,” this ancient shrine has long been believed to be home to Atami’s guardian deity. Right next to the main hall, there is an antediluvian tree known as Ogusu which has existed for more than two entire millenia. At its widest, the behemoth trunk is more than 24 meters thick. Kinomiya Shrine has done a great job adding a modern but chic flare during recent renovations. Along with the powerful lighting that illuminates the sacred Ogusu tree, these help to make the shrine the perfect nighttime allure.
  • Kiunkaku
    This villa was originally erected in 1919 and was later remade into a ryokan in 1947. Since then, it has been prized by many as the ideal representation of a Japanese space. These days, the city of Atami cares for Kiunkaku and remains open for visitors to explore its elegant grounds. Entry will run you about 500 yen.
  • Izusan Shrine
    This one is also a bit of a hike but guarantees a lot of history. Not only is it the origin of the name “Izu” from which the Izu Peninsula gets its name, it’s also where the Minamoto clan and the Hojo clan first bonded. If the significance of that statement is lost on you know that the Kamakura shogunate came from this union. Today, Izusan Shrine remains legendary for connecting people.
  • Hatsushima
    Situated off the coast of Atami in Sagami Bay, this island is accessible only by ferry. The ferries depart from Atami harbor every half hour or so. While I didn’t make it out to the island myself, I’ve read that it has some killer open-air baths with amazing panoramic views of the sea. What’s more, there are a handful of cottages out there where you can get a much needed break from the madness of modern life.

Note that these are just a few of the hidden gems that I uncovered during my two days in Atami. Be sure to keep your eyes out as there are tidbits of history scattered all throughout the coastal town’s many hills.