An hour's bullet-train ride southwest of Tokyo, scenic but often overlooked Shizuoka, dotted with green-tea plantations, pagodas and sushi eateries, boasts all the sightseeing and sensory mainstays of a Japanese sojourn.
What else would you expect of the region that's home to that most iconic of Japanese sights, Mount Fuji?
It's also home to unique surprises like pick-your-own strawberry farms, train rides and hot-springs resorts, offering unexpected twists on Japan stays, particularly for repeat visitors.
A taste of Shizuoka
If there's one dish that typifies this part of Japan, it's unagi, or freshwater eel. Hamamatsu, a small city on Lake Hamana, is said to be the source of the country's highest-quality eel and is rife with restaurants specializing in unadon, which is grilled eel served over rice.
An unagi meal is traditionally washed down with green tea, another local specialty. Endless rows of the green tea tree are a common Shizuoka sight. Ocha-no-Sato, the World Tea Museum, offers visitors a look at tea cultivation, consumption and appreciation and has a reconstructed 17th century Japanese teahouse, tours led by guides dressed in the traditional garb of tea harvesters and traditional tea ceremonies.
Shizuoka is also noted for wasabi, shiitake mushrooms, oranges and strawberries. The coastal Strawberry Beach Road is lined with greenhouses where visitors can pluck strawberries from the vine. At the Ishigaki Strawberry Farm, you can gobble up local varieties for 30 minutes in all-you-can-eat fashion, for about $15.
Temples and tatami mats
Shizuoka offers a range of accommodations options, from Western-style bed-and-breakfasts to global four-star hotel brands. Some of the most interesting combine Japanese-style lodgings with cultural experiences. A case in point: Hokoji Temple.
The friendly Buddhist monks at this beautiful, historical temple complex host overnight visitors in spartan, but spotless and comfortable, rooms where guests sleep on futons with tatami, straw mats. A typical one-night stay might include calligraphy lessons, Zen meditation, early morning chanting rituals and gourmet-quality vegetarian meals. The surrounding pine forest offers hiking, and hundreds of tiny Buddha statues dot the landscape. Rates start around $100 per night for two guests.
Another overnight must is a stay at an onsen, or hot-springs resort. Lying in the shadow of volcanic Mount Fuji, Shizuoka — in particular, its Izu Peninsula — is graced with geothermal springs and ryokans, or traditional inns, offering a countryside respite from Japan's big-city bustle.
Visitors to quaint Shuzenji have their pick of onsen properties that boast hot springs on site. The gorgeous, swanky, 142-year-old Arai Ryokan offers deluxe indoor hot springs, and hefty prices (from about $430 a night) to match. But the nearby Breezbay Shuzenji Hotel, a hilltop contemporary ryokan with an Indonesian theme, offers more moderate rates and three onsen facilities (one in a hand-hewn cave), a spa, both Western- and Japanese-style guestrooms and a fantastic restaurant. Rates start at about $200 a night.
Like most of Japan, Shizuoka boasts temples, shrines and castles. Highlights include the sprawling, city-center Mishima Taisha shrine in Mishima, to experience the rituals of Japan's native Shinto faith; the aforementioned Hokoji Temple; Hamamatsu Castle; and the exquisite, 17th century Kunozan Toshogu Shrine atop Mount Kuno, noted for its intricately carved exteriors. The latter, burial place of Japan's first shogun of the Tokugawa clan, can be reached in one of two ways: from the Naihondaira plateau (popular for its views of Mount Fuji) via aerial tramway, or by walking up 709 feet and some 1,000 steps.
Shizuoka also offers some seemingly out-of-place and just plain ordinary attractions.
Lake Hamana, ringed with resort hotels and an amusement park, is popular for water sports, boating and fishing. An hour-long leisure cruise around the lake can be topped off with an aerial tramway ride up to the Hamanako Orgel Museum, home to some 50 European music boxes dating to the 19th century. Visitors might simply stroll the lakeside until aching feet require a pit stop at the numerous public onsen footbaths.
Farther inland, the Oigawa Railway offers riverside rides on trains pulled by restored steam locomotives that lazily connect Senzu with the towns of Kanaya and Ikawa as harmonica-playing conductors serenade passengers in antique compartments. Fares start around $15.
Rakujuen Park in Mishima offers a verdant window on local life, with children playing in the zoo and amusement areas while swans patrol the idyllic waterways. Art and history buffs can tour the art-nouveau imperial cottage built on an old Mount Fuji lava flow in 1890.