Article Tools

Getaways Scented By Sea and Flowers


James Brooke, The New York Times, June 16, 2002
A FULL moon rose from behind a bamboo thicket and climbed across the sky; it gradually illuminated harvested rice paddies and in the far distance, a thin strip of Pacific surf. Watching from a cedar deck, I realized that in Tateyama, I had found a tonic for Tokyo.

One side of Tokyo Bay, the west side, is renowned as one of the world's largest agglomerations of people, about 10 million at last count. The east side, virtually unknown outside Japan, appears on maps as a splotch of green that spreads down the Boso Peninsula to Tateyama.

Less than a two-hour train ride from Tokyo, the resort city of Tateyama is a place to ride a bicycle through fields of flower farms, stroll on lonely Pacific beaches, contemplate centuries-old Shinto shrines and visit Japan's largest reclining Buddha.

Tateyama, with 52,000 people, offers a chance to trade the rush of traffic for the rush of the sea, the metallic air of subway lines for earthy aromas of freshly turned fields and composting leaves. Tokyo is a color-deprived city; in Tateyama, fields of red carnations and yellow rape seed roll up to the walls of bed-and-breakfasts.

Last August, our family traded a house in the woods in Colorado for a second-floor Tokyo apartment. So the chance to spend a late-September weekend bicycling in the countryside was too good to pass up. Just over a month later, my wife, Elizabeth, and our three boys, Alexander, James and William, were back for a second visit.

A Tateyama trip starts at Tokyo Station, a busy underground maze that seems large enough to shelter the population of Montreal. But once ensconced in a plush velour seat on the Sazanami express, a rider will find that the two-hour trip gradually massages away urban stress.

After clicking over an estuary in an industrial zone -- noted on one map as a ''drain'' -- the train whooshes past Tokyo Disneyland and then a Brasilia-style convention center built on landfill in the bay. As the train runs down the east shore of Tokyo Bay, the scenery starts to calm down. Snatches of green, then rice paddies and wooden houses, and finally, patches of forest mark the final stretch to Tateyama.

At the Tateyama station, an airy Mediterranean affair with a bay window view of Mirror Bay, we were greeted by David Green, a science teacher at Nishimachi International School in Tokyo, where our three sons go to school, David also owns a weekend lodge in Tateyama. The first weekend, we rented bikes and helmets from his ample supply. The second weekend, David trucked out from Tokyo a load of visitors' bikes, including our own. Our Colorado imports -- rugged, fat-wheeled mountain bikes -- were a bit of overkill for genteel cycling through rice paddies and along a landscaped coastal road called the Flower Line.

Bicycling through farm fields on lanes of concrete may feel odd at first, but Japan's eager-beaver construction industry has never met a dirt road that couldn't be improved with a few layers of concrete. The construction mania has created a spidery network of smooth lanes throughout the countryside. In the United States, these roads -- really just two-yard-wide lanes -- would be reserved for golf carts. In Japan, they are just right for small-wheelbase vans and pickups, and for cyclists.

Negotiating one of these lanes, David turned off the main road from Tateyama to the southern beaches and brought us to his property, Hakkakuso, or Octagonal Lodge.

Before our visit, William, one of our 10-year-old twins, announced: ''Mr. Green says that he was a hippie.'' True or not, the octagonal tower of unpainted cedar rising against the backdrop of bamboo appears a little like Buckminster Fuller meets 21st-century Japan, with a few relaxing middle-age touches, like Brazilian jazz on the CD player and a creatively stocked liquor cabinet.

Built a decade ago with pine interiors and spruce floors, the lodge, with five family-size guest rooms, is clean and comfortable. David manages to handle groups, like the 22 adults and children who were there on our visit, with the gentle, manipulative aplomb that comes from years of getting fourth graders to do what they are told.

The first weekend, we slept on futons in a large, windowed annex bedroom above his bicycle workshop. This featured the option of walking to an outdoor shower, well screened by a thick grove of bamboo. (For the more traditional, there was an enclosed hot-tub bath, with a shower for precleaning.) Dinners are buffet style, children at the first sitting, parents later. The cooking, done mostly by David, is largely Western, emphasizing fish, vegetables and chicken, with a Southeast Asian twist.

On our second visit, our school group overflowed Hakkakuso and we ended up staying down a lane and across a brook at Noa Noa, a whitewashed bed-and-breakfast surrounded by flower fields. Our corner room, with two single beds, was a mite cramped (the boys slept on tatami mats on the floor), but we had lovely views of the fields and could hear the brook gurgling through the night.

Before dinner, the boys and I pulled wooden planks off the Japanese family bath on the ground floor and lowered ourselves into the steaming water for our first soak in an ofuro. In the morning, a pair of communal sinks on the second floor allowed me to shave while looking at the distant Pacific, with three low islands on the horizon.

Each morning on our weekend visits to Tateyama, our group cycled out of Hakkakuso, passing fields where weekend truck farmers in broad-brimmed sun hats stooped over their rows, planting lettuce, tending turnips or burning brush from the fall rice harvest. The routes invariably took us past commercial greenhouses, where, through open doors, we caught glimpses of burgundy coxcomb or red carnations. Some farms, for a fee, allow city visitors to pick flowers, about 75 cents a stalk.

Flowers make spring Tateyama's peak tourism season. The Flower Line, officially listed by the government as one of Japan's 100 most beautiful roads, runs alongside Heisaura Beach, also officially listed as one of Japan's 100 best beaches. Along this coastal road and a 10-minute bike ride from David's lodge is Nambo Paradise, Japan's second largest botanical garden (after one in Nara, near Osaka).

There, I wandered through a series of connected greenhouses, lingering in the orchidarium. Elizabeth got lost in the butterfly pavilion. The boys, with 12-year-old James in the lead, spurned the petting zoo as too babyish, but romped around the playground and then charged up and down the observatory tower, a white painted lookout that rivals the peninsula's two lighthouses for its sweeping views of the ocean.

As in other parts of Japan, if you poke beyond the concrete, you will find traces of the people who lived here 40 generations ago. In Tateyama, we bicycled to Awa Jinja, a hillside Shinto shrine founded in A.D. 717. A peaceful place at the end of a dead-end lane, the shrine and ponds are set at the base of the hill. The priest on duty was very welcoming and gave us a pile of booklets in English, including one on the history of the shrine with a calendar of festivals, ranging from weather forecasting using burnt charcoal in January to two festivals for the purification of sins, one in summer, the other in winter.

Almost next door is the Tateyama Wild Bird Sanctuary, which has forest walks, bird observation towers and picnic tables.

Other sites on our list to visit when we return is the reclining Buddha, set on a hillside off Route 410, near David's lodge. In Tateyama, there is the hilltop castle from 1588 and the Awa Museum, devoted to the ocean and to the history of human habitation on the peninsula, which goes back at least 14 centuries.

The area around the railroad station and the ocean-front streets of Tateyama, which is also served by ferry from south of Tokyo, are filled with handicraft shops, selling handmade bamboo fans and hand-dyed woven fabrics among other treats.

Farther away, perhaps better visited by one of the buses that ply the coastal road, are Futomi Flower Park, which offers swimming and fishing, and Kamogawa Seaworld, which features orca shows, trained seals, an aquarium filled with exotic fish, and a covey of penguins. For visitors who don't read Japanese, all these attractions are laid out in maps and on billboards.

The narrow roads winding through hills or along the Pacific shore are fine for safe family bicycling. With Japanese drivers easily among the world's most cautious and considerate, this gentility on the road allows cyclists to focus more on the scenery and less on self-preservation.

With all the bicycling, lunch was always a much anticipated stop. We sampled several restaurants, generally favoring seafood. Sometimes the restaurants had picture menus; sometimes we relied on a Japanese member of our cycling group to translate.

At the Southern Boso Resort, I was served a miniature pirate boat piled with sashimi for $14. Farther down the coast, at a restaurant across the street from the Nojimazaki lighthouse, the five of us had lunch plates of tempura shrimp or curry on rice for a total of $28.

The food for the soul was the slow pace, the scenery and the quiet. Japan, the country that contributed the boombox to world culture, paradoxically prizes quiet. Silently pedaling through the countryside, we encountered no radios playing in the fields, no Sunday afternoon operas coming out of open windows -- just the whir of rubber tires, the buzz of cicadas, the call of crows and the gurgle of water flowing through irrigation ditches.

On our walks to the black volcanic-sand beaches, we discovered that Japan may be the only place in the world where surfers are quiet, occasionally managing a tiny bow while walking with a big board.

Easy biking past colorful fields and quiet beaches

The Tateyama Tourism Association, (81-470) 222-000, has a free, 32-page English guide, ''Tateyama: Wellness Resort City,'' available at the tourist information center in the JR Tateyama station or at City Hall. Information is on the Web at www.city.tateyama.chiba.jp/English/indexe.htm.

Transportation

The View Sazanami super express train on the Keiyo Line leaves six times a day from Tokyo Station (Track 1) for Tateyama and takes 1 hour 50 minutes. A round-trip Minami-Boso (minami means south) ticket costs $55.50, at 126 yen to the dollar; ages 4 to 11 half-price. Information in English: (81-3) 3423-0111.

JR Awa Shirahama buses leave seven times a day from Tokyo Station's south entrance. They take 2 hours 10 minutes; round trip is $35. Information: www.jrbuskanto.co.jp/mn/aetop.htm.

Ferries leave Kurihama, an hour south of Tokyo, for Kanaya; $4 for the 35-minute trip. From Kanaya, it's a half-hour bus ride to Tateyama.

Once in Tateyama, to get to Hakkakuso Lodge, take the JR bus heading for Shirahama via Kambe at the Tateyama station, get off at the Awakambe stop, walk back about 50 yards and turn left. For Pensions Noa Noa, take the JR Flower-Go bus heading for Shirahama via Sunozaki at the Tateyama station, get off at Nambo Paradise, and walk back about 50 yards and turn right. (Bus stops are announced, but you might try to tell the driver where you want to get off.)
Excursion tickets on the JR bus around Boso Peninsula cost $16 a day, $10.30 a half-day.

Bikes can be rented from a shop, Poppy, at the east exit of the JR Tateyama station, for $1.60 an hour, and at various lodgings, including the Tateyama Grand Hotel, which charges $6.35 a day.

Where to Stay

Hakkakuso Lodge, 422-1 Sunomiya, Tateyama, Chiba prefecture; telephone and fax (81-470) 282-824, or send e-mail to the owner, David Green, at dgreen@gol.com. Rates: $75 a person a night, including breakfast and dinner, use of bicycles and coffee all day; children, $71. Rooms are clean and family-size, some with bunk beds. There is a traditional Japanese bath (ofuro) detached from the main lodge and two outdoor private hot-water showers. English is spoken.

Pension Noa Noa, (81-470) 280-2005, has seven guest rooms, one with private bath, charging $67 for each of two adults in a room ($71 during obon, a Buddhist festival Aug. 12 to 15); children over 4 sharing a room with adults pay $48, $52 during obon. Two meals included. There is a traditional bath and separate toilet. A little English is spoken.

What to See

Nambo Paradise Botanical Garden, (81-470) 281-511, on the Web at www.awa.or.jp/home/nanpara/. General admission, $6.35. The JR bus from Tateyama stops there.

General admission to Futomi Flower Center, (81-470) 921-311, is $4.75. From Tateyama, take the JR Uchi Bosen train heading for Awa Kamogawa to Futomi Station and walk about seven minutes.

The reclining Buddha is a 30-minute bus ride from the Tateyama JR station on the Minami Boso honsen route to Shirahama ($2.75). The Buddha is a 10-minute walk from the Suminoya bus stop. Admission, $4.

The Awa Jinja Shinto shrine is reached on the same bus line; get off at the Awa Jinja Iriguchi (entrance), the third stop from the Suminoya. Donations taken.

The Tateyama Wild Bird Sanctuary is next to the Awa Jinja Shinto Shrine. Free.

Where to Eat

Miharashi-tei, (81-470) 382-248, is one of the second-floor restaurants lining the street facing the Nojimazaki lighthouse. Two adults and three children ate well -- curried rice ($5.55 a bowl) and a filling platter of tempura shrimp, with rice and soup ($8.75) -- for $28.

More elegant is the Ikoi-no-mura Tateyama (Southern Boso Resort), Fujiwara 1495-1, Tateyama-shi, Chiba-ken 294-0224; (81-470) 282-211, fax (81-470) 282-215. In the airy, glassed-in restaurant, I had a sashimi boat for $14. The boys had spaghetti with meat sauce ($5.55); Elizabeth had a curry cutlet ($7.15). JAMES BROOKE

JAMES BROOKE is a correspondent for The Times in Tokyo.