A stunning onsen town a bamboo forest and wasabi ice cream but a tragic history.
If you’re looking for an outstanding onsen (hot spring) town, then head to Shuzenji Onsen, a few hours’ train ride from Tokyo in the prefecture of Shizuoka. Although it’s nicknamed Izu’s “Little Kyoto,” it’s more than just that. Over the years, Shuzenji’s unique history has also inspired travelers and Japanese writers alike.
The area’s oldest onsen
The oldest onsen town on Shizuoka’s beautiful Izu Peninsula, it is listed as one of the “100 Best Hot Springs” in the country. Shuzenji also made GaijinPot’s list as of one the three most unforgettable ryokan and onsen experiences in Japan from travel expert Rob Goss. After soaking in the hot spring, don a yukata (a light cotton kimono), and stroll down the bamboo forest path along the Katsura River. The natural scenery is particularly stunning during autumn.
Even if you aren’t too keen on getting butt-naked, you can still enjoy Shuzenji’s free ashi-yu (hot spring foot baths) with Tokko no Yu, (Map) an open-air foot bath located near the middle of the river. Legend says that this hot spring was created when Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi (774-835) struck a rock in the river with his tokko (walking stick). Daishi is the founder of the Shingon Buddhism and the man behind the famous 9th century retreat on Mount Koya in Wakayama.
Shuzenji town’s story
Shuzenji also has a dark past. Leave the crowds behind and head to the bamboo forest and mossy pathways on the outskirts of town. There, you will find the tomb of Minamoto no Yoriie, the second shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate.
According to Japanese history, Yoriie was exiled to Shuzenji where he was assassinated. Close to his tomb is Shigetsuden Temple, the oldest wooden building on the Izu peninsula, built to calm Yoriie’s spirit.
Shuzenji Temple, also founded by Daishi, shares in the town’s tragic history. Political prisoners of the Kamakura Shogunate were exiled there and sometimes murdered on the temple grounds. Built in 807, Shuzenji Temple is the oldest on the Izu peninsula. There used to be eight smaller temples on site but they were destroyed by fires. The main temple is the only one that was rebuilt.
Close to Shuzenji Temple is Hie Shrine. Climb the stone steps to view two massive Japanese cedars. Pass between them and it’s said that you will be blessed with many children.
The home of wasabi
Don’t miss out on the local specialty before you leave Shuzenji. The Izu Peninsula is where the pungent root was first grown and is home to some of the best wasabi in the country.
While you’re in Shuzenji, try the weird but wonderful wasabi ice cream —cool vanilla ice cream mixed or smeared with freshly grated wasabi. There are lots of ice cream shops in the center of the town so take your pick!