Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Matsuzaki: The wisdom of the simple life

On one side is a beautiful bay and coastline, on the other an unspoilt landscape—a weekend interlude becomes an eye-opener to another way of life

Hundreds of sakura trees lining the river burst into bloom in spring. (Artwork by Virgil Calaguian)

Snow-capped Fujiyama or Fujisan stands majestically against a cloudless blue sky. (Artwork by Virgil Calaguian)

I first visited the Izu Peninsula a long time ago, when I was embarking on a new career and possibly a whole new life in Japan.  I had just joined an ad agency in Tokyo and one weekend the whole company, from the president down to the receptionists, set out on its yearly outing, which was a customary practice at the time. I had just moved to Japan so I was very excited to be taking part in such an important company activity, but at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder how well I would fit in with the group.

But, as the Good Book says, there is a time for everything, and so it came to pass that at that crossroads I got my bearings for moving forward in life. Over two days and three nights, we spent the time bonding through group activities—eating together, chatting over  tea, coffee, beer, whiskey, or sake,  playing games in friendly competition, relaxing in the hotel’s indoor and outdoor onsen (natural hot spring), and even going to bed communally. Everybody joined in, including the president, and as I got to know the others better, I began to feel more at ease in my hitherto unfamiliar surroundings.

Old traditional house converted into an elegant boutique hotel (Artwork by Virgil Calaguian)

Looking back, it was most likely the moment when Japan started becoming home to me. The seminal encounter served as an initiation rite into the Japanese corporate world and the work ethic that had made postwar Japan a global economic power. I experienced how a Japanese company strengthens the bonds between employer and employees and among employees, fostering  friendship, trust,  loyalty, and, as a consequence, greater productivity in the workplace. It also gave me valuable glimpses into the honne-tatemae (interior-exterior) of the Japanese character, which, at times, had appeared inscrutable and daunting to my young and inexperienced mind.

My second visit took place several years later, in the company of a young university student. In a reversal of roles, I was now the sempai (senior or mentor) rather than the kohai (junior or novice) of the previous visit, a key point in person-to-person relationships in Japan. I don’t remember where we went but I recall staying in an old house of unpainted wood. By this time, I was better acquainted with Japanese culture and could perceive that the  absence of decoration was not necessarily a mark of deprivation but a reflection of wabi-sabi, a philosophical concept underlying the Japanese attitude toward life.  

There is no adequate English equivalent for wabi-sabi, perhaps because it is alien to the western mind. Based on the Buddhist tenet that nothing is permanent, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect, wabi-sabi finds beauty in the impermanent, the incomplete, and the imperfect. With a deep reverence of nature as the core element, simplicity is preferred to complexity, asymmetry to symmetry, impression to expression, austerity to plenty. Extravagance and flamboyance are to be avoided and flaws and imperfections embraced as an integral part of life. Yet, out of an innate devotion to discipline and love of beauty, what is rough becomes refined until it is elevated to the realm of art, but always mindful not to destroy the original character or intrinsic value.

For that reason, from ancient times Buddhist temples have been constructed with perfectly hewn but unpainted timber, the massive posts and beams assembled without the use of a single man-made bolt or nail. Likewise, tansu, the Japanese original portable chest and cabinet, is made of bare keyaki (zelkova) wood left to age naturally and acquire the desired patina over time.

Converted into a ryokan (inn) after his death, the house was the residence of an eminent poet. My companion took me there for a very personal reason—our mutual interest in Japanese literature.  Our weekend sojourn was specifically inspired by Kawabata Yasunari’s The Dancing Girl of Izu, a short story about a student’s encounter with a dancer/drummer working in a band of wandering entertainers. The purpose of the student’s trip is to help himself overcome loneliness and melancholy—or, ennui, the au courant French term at the time—and as he follows the performers in their peregrinations around the peninsula, he gradually feels the stirrings of love for the dancer,  but, rather comically and poignantly, his amorous illusions are shattered when he sees her emerging from an onsen and realizes that, without her costume and makeup, she is just a 14-year-old girl.

In a way, my companion was like the personification of the student. He, too, tended to be pensive and melancholic, and was even then still rueing the loss of his first love when he was coming of age in his hometown. Who would have known then that this young man, unsure of himself, from a completely different cultural background, would become a lifelong friend, steadfast as the North Star, and a father to a daughter and a son, the latter now of the same age as he was on our visit to Izu?

To this day, I still remember vividly this extraordinary scene from that visit. As night was falling, after a day of trekking around the countryside, my companion and I eased ourselves into a rotenburo (outdoor hot spring) and soaked our weary bodies in a rock pool overflowing with invigorating hot water. There was nobody else around, just the two of us, and a couple of lanterns to dispel the encroaching darkness. Rapt in the silence of nature slumbering in winter, we sat in the pool lulled by gently trickling water, sipping hot sake from little white porcelain cups that we floated on the water to keep warm—when suddenly tiny snowdrops came falling down from the ink-black sky. It was a scene worthy of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s much-loved paean to Japanese aesthetics— In Praise of Shadows.

The townhouse I had moved into was just six or seven minutes’ walk from where Kawabata Yasunari had lived

Around six years ago, out of both choice and chance, I came to live in Kamakura, best known as home to the Great Buddha, seen in virtually every travel brochure on Japan. What many may not know is that the small coastal city (population: approx. 150,000) served as Japan’s de facto capital from 1185 to 1333, nearly a thousand years ago. I was drawn to the ancient city for its rich historical and cultural heritage and a unique continuity with the past. To my pleasant surprise, I later found out that the townhouse I had moved into was just six or seven minutes’ walk from where Kawabata, one of my favorite Japanese authors, had lived and written some of his masterpieces. Acclaimed for the lyricism of his prose, Kawabata was honored in 1968 with Japan’s first Nobel Prize for Literature.

I also discovered that a stone’s throw from his humble abode is an imposing western-style house, erected for a marquis belonging to Japan’s defunct kazoku aristocracy (hereditary peerage). Now the Kamakura Museum of Literature, the historical building also served for a time as the residence of prime minister Eisaku Sato, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.

Built in 1936 in the style of a European stately home, the baronial mansion is surrounded by manicured grounds, complete with English-style lawn and rose garden, and commanding a sweeping view of Sagami Bay.

In contrast, Kawabata’s simple dwelling is constructed entirely of bare wood, tucked away in an inconspicuous alleyway, hidden from public view by a high wall and gate, also made of worn and weathered wood.

It turned out to be best autumn display I’ve seen in recent memory


Izu is a popular travel destination for its mild marine climate, numerous onsen resorts, and exceptionally scenic landscape which varies from densely forested mountains and fertile valleys to miles and miles of rocky coastline, spectacular in parts, and sandy beaches that draw thousands of holiday-makers in the summer. The peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean, with the east coast stretching along Sagami Bay and the west along Suruga Bay.

My recent visit, in the company of British-born photographer Peter Oxley, was occasioned by a couple of friends and their daughter having taken up residence on the west coast. Junta and his lovely Filipina wife Hermie have been friends of both Peter and myself for a long time. Until the outbreak of the pandemic, they were residing in the Philippines, but Junta who was in Japan visiting their daughter Ami found himself unable to return to Manila due to travel restrictions. After several months waiting vainly for the pandemic to subside, Hermie eventually braved the uncertainties of the trip and 14-day quarantine and reunited with Junta and Ami in a town called Matsuzaki.

Getting  to Matsuzaki from Kamakura required several changes on the train journey, but thanks to ever-efficient JR East, we reached our destination seamlessly. Our hosts met us in Shuzenji, which is literally at the end of the railway line, and from there we drove  to a nature theme park to view the autumn colors, as we had requested. The park, sprawled over 50 hectares of hilly and mountainous woodland, is renowned for autumn viewing, particularly for its 2,000 maple trees. It turned out to be best autumn display I’ve seen in recent memory, with the feathery foliage of the momiji (Japanese maple) just turning into its characteristic brilliant crimson and the fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo into rich chrome yellow.

But beautiful though it is, autumn viewing is always tinged with a certain sadness, as it signals the imminent onset of winter and serves as a reminder of the transience of beauty and life itself—what the Japanese call mono no aware, roughly translated to pathos of things.

Mono no aware is drawn from the Buddhist theme of mujo, the impermanence of earthly existence.  Like a nostalgic recherche du temps perdu (remembrance of things past), the theme permeates all 54 chapters of Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), the world’s first novel, written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman courtier at the imperial court in Heian-kyo, the name given to Kyoto at its founding in 794 AD. The pathos of things also flows through the works of such modern-day literary figures as  Soseki Natsume, Mori Ogai, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, and  Kawabata Yasunari. Most poignantly, it infuses every single film from the genius of the unsurpassed humanist filmmaker, Ozu Yasujiro.

Mono no aware can also serve as the moral of a story, as in the prologue to Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), the early 14th century epic narrative about the rise and fall of the warriors and warlords who played leading roles in the blood-drenched 12th century war between two bitter rivals, the Heike (Taira) and the Genji (Minamoto) clans, which changed the course of Japanese history irrevocably.

The sound of the Gion shoja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sola flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

From the park, we drove for lunch to an alfresco restaurant on the edge of a wide lawn bordered by a mixed evergreen and deciduous forest.  When we arrived, the place was overflowing with a crowd waiting to sample the restaurant’s famous breads and pastries, but we soon found a lovely spot under trellises draped with wisteria vines. There was a row of benches facing a long counter, beneath which was a canal containing flowing warm spring water into which the diners could soak their feet. Along the length of the counter was a reflecting pool, the floor and walls clad in deep blue tiles, sparkling in the blinding sunlight. A few meters away, the terrain dropped into a ravine at the bottom of which the clear waters of a river coming down from the mountains cascaded over stones and boulders. There was something mystical about the autumnal scene.

Throughout Izu, one enjoys views of Mount Fuji, worshipped as a god in ancient times and now a spiritual icon of Japan

After lunch, we stopped at a roadside viewpoint where we were treated to a superb panorama of Suruga Bay receding to a majestic backdrop of snow-capped  Mount Fuji and Japan’s Southern Alps, also covered in snow. As we stood admiring the stunning scenery, Junta shared this interesting piece of information: Mount Fuji rose from the earth when the Philippine tectonic plate pushed against the Japanese plate eons ago.  Throughout Izu, one enjoys views of Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest peak at 3,776.24 meters, worshipped as a god in ancient times and now a spiritual icon of Japan. Fujisan, as the Japanese call it, is a magnificent sight in any season but particularly in winter when it stands etched against a cloudless blue sky, with the slopes of its graceful cone blanketed with snow.

Farther enroute,  we passed the site of a former mine that supplied gold for minting coins during the Edo Period (1603-1867). The mine was reopened in 1900 and by the time it ceased operations permanently in 1965 it had produced 40 tons of gold and 400 tons of silver. Today visitors can see various exhibits in an on-site museum, with the world’s heaviest gold bar, weighing a massive 250 kg, as the main attraction. Maybe there’s still  gold waiting to be panned along the rivers and streams, mused Peter, who is actually a graduate in geology and gemology.

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Matsuzaki. Our hosts had booked a room for us in an old ancestral home converted into a ryokan, knowing our interest in Japan’s history and culture. The owner, a slight, white-haired lady with the most genteel manners, met us at the door to welcome us.

When I first came to Japan, tatami was found in every home, but these days it, too, has become somewhat of a rarity

Bigger than a standard apartment in Tokyo, our room comprised an entry hall, or anteroom, and a main sitting/sleeping area, partitioned by wood-and-paper shoji doors and floored with tatami. It was a very traditional Japanese space, which is becoming rare in today’s urban living. It warmed my heart to step on tatami again, something I hadn’t done for a while. When I first came to Japan, tatami was found in every home, but these days it, too, has become somewhat of a rarity. The distinctive smell of the rice straw, soft rush and hemp used in the woven flooring triggered memories of other places, other times—or, more poetically, other voices, other rooms.

At the far end of the room was an enclosed wooden porch furnished with a small table flanked by a pair of rattan armchairs.  Sliding glass doors opened out to a Japanese-style garden centered on an arrangement of neatly clipped shrubs and trees, among them a momiji decked in its autumn foliage. In accordance with the Oriental gardening concept of shakkei (borrowed landscape),  a  mountain range served as a backdrop, at the same time marking the boundary of the town.

As I sat down in one of the chairs,  I felt a sense of profound relief I hadn’t felt since the outbreak of the pandemic. It was as if all the pent-up stress from two years of living in self-isolation and confinement was lifted off my shoulders. It was wonderful to break free, even if only momentarily, from the gnawing fear of an invisible but deadly enemy.  For a while, I just sat there savoring the moment, grateful to be alive.

Our hosts were already waiting in the room reserved for us when we arrived for our six o’clock dinner. In the center of the formal tatami room, a long, low table was laid out with an array of dishes arranged in kaiseki-ryori style. Kaiseki is a formal meal in which food is presented not merely as nourishment for the body, but as a feast for both body and soul. The word, which literally means  breast-pocket stone,  is said to have been originated by the great tea master, Sen no Rikkyu (1522-1591), perhaps to poke gentle fun at the practice of Zen monks to conceal heated stones in the folds of their robes to suppress the pangs of hunger.

As is customary in kaiseki-ryori,  our dinner covered all five classifications of taste—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory)

There are two types of kaiseki-ryori: one is exemplified by the meal prepared for us by the ryokan and the other by the light refreshment served in the tea ceremony. Both have this in common— colors, textures, and flavors must be as satisfying to the eye as they are to the palate. As is customary in kaiseki-ryori,  our dinner covered all five classifications of taste—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory)—as well as all manner of food preparation—raw, soused, grilled, fried, steamed, and simmered. It included fresh sashimi from locally caught fish,  grilled sazae (turban shell) in its shell, shiitake and other vegetables cooked tempura style, steamed glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo shoot bark, with a single sprig of spring ginger as accent, two large prawns grilled with a dash of soy sauce and citrus, and roasted ginkgo nuts in tribute to autumn. It culminated with a simple bowl of steamed rice, a little side dish of Japanese pickles, miso soup, and poached pear with pineapple compote for dessert.

Over green tea,  Peter and I offered our omiyage (gifts ) to our hosts and thanked them once again for their hospitality and generosity. Omiyage is translated as souvenir in English, but while a souvenir is something bought as a keepsake of a trip, an omiyage consists of local specialties or delicacies given to one’s hosts on a visit, or to family, friends, and work colleagues upon returning from a trip. We brought a box of hato sabure, dove-shaped sable biscuits, a Kamakura specialty, along with other sweets and an assortment of novel foodstuff, including cheese and butter, made from tofu. In a nod to his British roots, Peter presented Junta with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black and Bailey’s Irish Cream to the ladies. This exchange of gifts is a beautiful custom, somewhat similar to our own pasalubong. When we leave, our hosts will reciprocate with locally produced presents.


The following morning, I got up early to give myself enough time for a soak in the in-house onsen. My first visit to an onsen after a long while, it was a marvelous treat, relaxing and rejuvenating. When I came out, I was escorted to our new room, which turned out to be a two-story suite, with the living space and ensuite toilet on the ground level and a tatami room/anteroom upstairs.

The suite was inside a kura (storehouse) formerly used for keeping the family valuables. The downstairs area overflowed with palpable nostalgia for the past, furnished with old pieces—a wooden table, woven bamboo baskets, wooden vats for making sake, a byobu (folding screen) adorned with paintings of fans, a simple bamboo vase displaying a masterly ikebana arrangement, and an enormous wooden chest, burnished by centuries of use, which took up the entire width of one end of the room. There was something very comforting being in a room resonating with memories of a vanished era somehow kept alive by these ageless relics. Once again, I found myself in the world of wabi-sabi and mono no aware.

Upstairs, past a short flight of wooden steps, one enters a space that occupies pride of place in the ancestral home’s cultural heritage. All the walls and fusuma (sliding panels) doors in the two adjoining spaces are decorated with sumi-e (black ink) paintings and classical Japanese poetry written in flowing calligraphy. Painted mostly on paper, the artworks are faded and frayed in places, but still beautiful despite the ravages of time. A pair of sliding glass doors overlooks a pocket courtyard planted with tall bamboo and ground moss, an eye-pleasing vignette in the wabi-sabi mold.

As we had requested the night before, breakfast, served precisely at the appointed time, consisted of thick slices of toast, over which we spread lashings of creamy Hokkaido butter and homemade apricot jam; perfectly timed hard-boiled eggs in proper porcelain egg cups;  a side dish of  crisp green salad drizzled with light Japanese wafu dressing  (sesame oil, soy sauce and rice vinegar), and, best of all, freshly brewed coffee, strong and kept hot in a flask. Again I was contentedly transported to the past. It was exactly the same breakfast, affectionately called “Morning Service,” that used to be offered in every coffeeshop throughout Japan, before the invasion of the big-business American chains.

Over dinner the night before, our hosts had taken turns in giving us an overview of Matsuzaki’s history, starting from the town’s rise to prosperity as a trading port, largely due to a sheltered cove that provided a safe haven in unfavorable weather. As business flourished, it became necessary to build the town’s many storehouses. Constructed of a durable timber frame and thick walls of stone and clay, many of these storehouses are still standing today.

Silk weaving came next but was abandoned after the local industry lost out to longer established silkmakers. The mulberry trees that supplied food for the silkworms were then replaced with sakura saplings, specifically for the young leaves used in sakuramochi, a traditional pink-colored mochi (rice cake) with red bean paste filling and wrapped in pickled sakura leaf. Matsuzaki remains the country’s largest supplier of pickled sakura leaves, which are also used in sushi, for imparting a delicate aroma to steamed rice, and as powder flavoring in western-style cakes and cookies.

After Japan opened its doors to the outside world, ending centuries of travel restrictions, some of the town’s enterprising young scions brought back cattle from their adventures afield. A budding dairy industry sprang up, but it soon died out when one of the pioneers, Yoda Benzo, moved to Hokkaido and established the island’s still thriving dairy industry.

Charcoal, too, became a major source of revenue, transported by hand-pulled wooden carts and then loaded on riverboats rowed downstream to the port for lading on bigger vessels bound for Edo, present-day Tokyo.

An amazing 94 years—she told us she represents the ninth generation of the family

After breakfast, we found our hosts engaged in a lively conversation with the ryokan owner at the reception area. To our delight, the lady regaled us with tales from the past, speaking animatedly about how her family built the sprawling residence around the latter half of the Edo, or Tokugawa, Period.  With her bright eyes and sprightly composure remarkably belying her age—an amazing 94 years—she told us she represents the ninth generation of the family, making her daughter, who directs the ryokan’s daily operations, the tenth. There was wing that housed a sake distillery and store, but it was destroyed by fire when the third generation was in residence. Around the same time, some members of the family moved to Edo in search of other opportunities. She herself turned the house into a ryokan 50 years ago.

As we listened to the grand old lady’s reminiscences, I noticed an ocher-dyed noren (fabric divider) behind her, with a white floral design on each panel. It turned out to be the family crest, a graphic representation of tachibana, the flower of Japan’s oldest indigenous citrus. Later, in our wanderings around town, we came across variations of the same floral motif and were told it was used by different branches of the Yoda family, one of the most prominent members of the community.

When asked about the paintings and calligraphy in our room, the lady replied, with visible pride, that they, along with various artworks found throughout the house, such as a strikingly realistic miniature statue of the Bodhidharma, were all by Matsuzaki’s most illustrious son—Irie Chohachi (1815-1889), sometimes referred to as Izu no Chohachi.

Chohachi was the son of farmer who was too poor to pay for the boy’s schooling, but showing an artistic aptitude from an early age, he was given his early education at Jokanji Temple. Years later, when he had become a renowned artist, Chohachi came back to repay his debt of gratitude by creating a huge plaster mural depicting a swirling dragon on the ceiling of the temple’s main prayer hall. Art lovers can still view the superb monochrome mural, along with a polychrome relief of celestial maidens.

Chohachi is said to have introduced color to plaster by mixing in pigments such as ground lapis lazuli. During his lifetime, he earned numerous commissions, but, sadly, much of his oeuvre was lost in the Great Kanto Earthquake that devastated Tokyo and environs in 1923. Fortunately, 50 surviving pieces are housed in the Izu no Chohachi Museum, a five-minute walk from our ryokan, passing through a heritage building that was once a kimono trading company.

Town boasts one of the biggest concentrations of buildings with namako kabe walling in Japan. (Artwork by Virgil Calaguian)

Now a gallery displaying vintage kimono, the two-story structure is particularly notable for an architectural feature closely associated with Chohachi—walls made of slate tiles diagonally arranged in a diamond pattern, held together by a grid of white plaster contoured to suggest the shape of the sea slug, whence the name, namako kabe, sea slug wall. Originally conceived to provide structural reinforcement, along with protection against fire and flood, namako kabe came into widespread use in both private homes and public works, including the town’s three bridges. Matsuzaki boasts one of the biggest concentrations of examples of this visually striking architectural feature.

Some of Chohachi’s paintings feature such painstaking details that visitors are encouraged to view them through magnifying glass 

With his genius, Chohachi elevated plastering to high art, creating both bas-relief murals and sculptures in the round. Some of his paintings in the museum feature such painstaking details that visitors are encouraged to view them through magnifying glasses to better appreciate the workmanship. The astonishingly intricate sculptures are as good if not better than the finest antique Oriental porcelain statues and figurines.

We were so absorbed with the displays that by the time we stepped out of the museum building (a remarkable work of art in itself), the sun was already at its zenith, perfect timing for the next item on our agenda—lunch at the foot of the mountains.

On the way, we drove past rows and rows of sakura trees lining both sides of a river meandering down to Suruga Bay. The trees were bare at that time of year  but come spring they would burst into bloom, ushering in the most loved of Japan’s festivals— hanami (flower viewing), the one occasion when the whole country lets down its usual reserve and comes out to drink, eat and be merry under the glorious sakura displays. This celebration of life and the reawakening of the earth is like a euphoric, near-ecstatic rite of spring. But again it encapsulates, perhaps more than anything else, the meaning of mono no aware, for the exquisite beauty of the sakura blossoms lasts but a few days, blown away too soon by wind and rain.

For lunch we had ayu (sweetfish), a species that thrives in both coastal marine waters and freshwater lakes and rivers, and is prized for its sweet-tasting (hence the name) white flesh. On the Nagara River up north in central Japan, wild cormorants are trained  to catch ayu and deliver the fish to waiting fishermen. The only ayu I knew was the seasonal offering at fairs and festivals, a whole fish in a bamboo skewer, encrusted with sea salt and grilled over burning charcoal. Great was my surprise when we were served several culinary variations—grilled, deep-fried, prepared like soy sauce-flavored kippers or Spanish sardines, and, to top it all, ayu heads in miso soup! All that at this rustic little eatery beside an old-growth forest by the banks of a mountain stream!

From there, we drove to the nearby community sento (bathhouse), which Junta visits regularly, and where I could easily picture myself becoming a regular. The newly renovated facility is spotlessly clean, bright with natural light, airy and spacious, and is fitted with separate outdoor onsen for the men’s and women’s sections. In the old days, there was a sento in virtually every neighborhood throughout Japan, but these days it’s no longer easy to find one. There’s only one left where I live.

Near the sento stands the stately former residence of a wealthy family, now the property of the municipality, open to the public. I was particularly impressed by the massive size of the original zelkova posts and beams, each one cut from a single tree, which have kept the structure intact for 300 years, impervious to the earthquakes that frequently hit Japan. The house is the second oldest standing private building in the whole of Izu. An annex and three storehouses are later additions, but all five are designated as tangible cultural properties by Shizuoka Prefecture. On a large panel in the entry hall was a tachibana emblem, signifying the former residents belonged to the same Yoda clan as the owner of our ryokan.

Outside, by the entrance, I caught up with Hermie by a little tableau of pockets of pansies and little dainty flowers peeking out of a worn bamboo trough and a couple of wooden buckets left randomly  on the ground. For a while, Hermie and I stood there admiring the lovely arrangement, at once artless and artul, art without artifice, the spirit of wabi-sabi beautifully expressed.

When we got back in the town center, we toured an extensive complex of historical structures, with a final stop in a room displaying props, posters and memorabilia from movies and TV shows shot in and around Matsuzaki in the 1960s-90s. Ami spoke of her idea of an annual film festival for both indie and mainstream moviemakers, which would help revive interest in the town and surrounding area as a shooting location.

That evening, capping yet another wonderful day, we dined on grilled unagi (freshwater eel), as good as the best in Tokyo. We then repaired to the home of our hosts, which, to our utter amazement and not a little envy, turned out to be a two-story, ten-room modern western-style house, and which, to our even greater envy, they shared with a beautiful black cat named Apollo! His Feline Grace slunk in and out of the shadows, his coat lustrous like velvet, radiant as his namesake,  sun god in ancient Greek mythology. We were told Apollo is shy by nature, perhaps because he was rescued from an animal shelter, but he came out of hiding and even allowed us to stroke him.

Over coffee, we chatted about a whole range of topics, including the unique selling points of Matsuzaki both as a tourist destination and as place to live. Ami’s work involves encouraging people, particularly the younger generation, to move out of the overcrowded cities and live in the underpopulated countryside. Junta recounted this amusing anecdote of how his parents came to live out their retirement in Matsuzaki. While looking at various options, they were shown an overgrown plot of land and as they were hacking away the scrub, suddenly Mount Fuji appeared before their eyes,  like a portent of good luck. At that moment, they made the life-changing decision to build their new home at the very same spot.

It was close to midnight when we got back to our ryokan. Orion was spread out against the night sky, brighter than I have ever seen it through the haze of city lights and pollution.


First stop on our itinerary the following day was the sheltered cove that had launched Matsuzaki’s rise to prosperity. Like a picturesque scene fit for a painter, trawlers, yachts and various boats were moored alongside the wharf. Both Peter and I have a lifelong wish to live on a boat, and some years ago we became friends with an Australian couple who had actually lived on their sailboat for 21 years, circumnavigating the globe multiple times, with two cats,  picked up on a shore visit in Malaysia, on board.

From where we stood on the waterfront,  directly in our line of vision, across Suruga Bay, loomed Japan’s Southern Alps, their snow-covered peaks resplendent in the sunlight; behind us stretched out another mountain range covered with thick forests. Bordered by mountains and the sea, and located an hour’s drive from the nearest train station, Matsuzaki has remained basically untouched by modern development. The isolation has also protected it from the onslaught of mass tourism and the adverse effect that can have on the natural ecology and community life.

Around 65% of the 85.23 land area is forest, the rest occupied by a scattering of 21 villages with a total population of just 5,000

On one side is a beautiful bay and coastline and on the other an unspoilt landscape. Around 65% of the 85.23 land area is forest, the rest occupied by a scattering of 21 villages with a total population of just 5,000. An atmosphere of peace and tranquility pervades the entire municipality, though there’s no dearth of activities one could do throughout the year—walking and cycling, hiking and camping, birdwatching and kite flying, stargazing and tracking fireflies, fishing in the river or the sea, swimming in summer, kayaking and canoeing in the coastal waters, sailing in the open sea, not to mention gardening and growing one’s own food, trying out one’s hand at the traditional crafts still practiced in the town—the possibilities are limitless.

From the harbor we wandered towards town, stopping by a fish restaurant, which I was delighted to know was helping to keep haiku alive. By the door was a glass box for customers to drop in their own haiku, some of which are chosen for display. The selected piece currently on display translated into the English:

A lone persimmon

Against a cloudless blue sky

Autumn is here.

I was reminded of an unforgettable afternoon when the father of the friend I had traveled with on my second visit to Izu wrote haiku for me on bits of paper napkin, while we drank hot sake and grilled turban shells in a beat-up seaside shack frequented by fishermen from a village nearby.

Aside from being a lover of haiku, the restaurant owner was as an expert on the wide diversity of marine life inhabiting the bay. There is a little museum in the hotel across the street with a colorful exhibit of fish specimens inside floor-to-ceiling glass cases. The specimens were so life-like, I couldn’t tell if they were real fishes or synthetic replicas. Junta showed me a book  authored by the owner that was illustrated with fine drawings of different fish species.

Continuing toward the center of town, we dropped in at a cafe where I recognized Chopin’s Barcarolle coming from hidden speakers. I inquired from the owner if the pianist was Kohei Sorita, whose artistry in the recent XVIII Chopin Competition in Warsaw had touched a chord within me.  The owner, a soft-spoken representative of the town’s younger generation, informed me it was Argentine-born Martha Argerich, a previous winner of the  concours.  As we spoke, I noticed a fresco of fleecy clouds against a cerulean sky on the ceiling; as it turned out, it was designed to help calm down patients when the cafe was a dental clinic run by the owner’s parents!

In the town center, we called in at the store of a women’s collective, going past a fanciful tower topped by a clock with a surreal 13th hour on its face. For a split second, Dali’s melting watches and the giant handless clock in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries flashed through my mind! We were welcomed by the ebullient  head of the collective, amid a bursting profusion of sweets and souvenirs, trinkets and tea, bags of all shapes and sizes, teddy bears, stuffed toys, dolls, including Barbies in kimono, etc., all handmade by the members.  Peter and I were each presented with a small laminated stone embellished with a miniature painting of an actual heritage house.  Ami also presented us with green papaya soap produced by a friend of hers, who has succeeded in growing the tropical plant locally.

Sadly, before we knew it, it was time to leave for Shimoda to catch our train back home. But before leaving Matsuzaki, we had one final stop in a  couple of outlying villages where we had another marvelous view of Mount Fuji,  with a pair of rocky islets in the foreground. The name Ushitsuki-jima (literally, islands where cows were cast ashore) comes from a legend that two cows (descendants of the cattle brought to town in Edo times?) were found on the outcrops after a heavy flood had destroyed the village onshore.

The drive to Shimoda went through a long and winding mountain pass, bordered by forest on one side and sweeping vistas on the other. I was reminded of other scenic routes Peter and I have driven through in our travels across the globe, such as the jaunts we did one summer through picturesque hilltop villages and rolling vineyards under the Tuscan sky. As I observed Ami deftly negotiating the many twists and turns on the road, it struck me that she was just a little girl when I first saw her. That’s how long we’ve known Junta and Hermie.

Sometime in the late 1980s, an exhibition of Peter’s fine-art monochrome photo prints was held as the cultural highlight of Philippine Independence Day celebrations in Japan. Each picture showed a scene from Intramuros, used to introduce an aspect of Philippine history and culture. Hosted by the Philippine ambassador, who made Peter an honorary Filipino in the glittering gathering, it was held in such an exclusive membership club in Tokyo that we had to dress up in business suits to hang the pictures! Junta and Hermie, who published a periodical for the local Filipino community at the time, contributed as principal sponsors. Junta also translated into Japanese the English briefs I wrote for each picture.

Both Junta and Hermie are involved in training caregivers in the Philippines and helping them secure employment in Japan. When I asked Junta whether or not he plans to return to the Philippines, he replied with a noncommittal smile. From that I gathered he was happy living in Matsuzaki, and I could very well understand why. Thanks to the new norm of work from home, he can do his job efficiently online while living life as he pleases. Outside of work, his day is taken up by walks in the woods scouring for moss and native flora,  angling for fish in the rivers and coastal waters, exploring the countryside on his bicycle, following a healthy natural-based diet, trying out local delicacies, reading books and attending lectures and seminars in pursuit of his personal interests. Likewise, Hermie and Ami follow their own laid-back but fulfilling daily routines.

Our visit had shown us that it is still possible in this digital age to live in the midst of nature

I could see myself fitting into life in Matsuzaki easily. Brief though it was, our visit had shown us that it is still possible in this digital age to live in the midst of nature, away from the din and clamor of city life. Our sojourn was like a return to nature and also a homecoming. Though the town’s physical appearance was almost exotic, I did not feel like a stranger in a strange place. On the contrary, I felt I had come home.

Perhaps that’s because it was a step back to the way life used to be, reminding me of the town where I grew up as well as the country I later adopted as my home. And I rediscovered traditional core values that are now sadly disappearing in a fragmented world increasingly consumed by consumerism and materialism.

I could very well see that in this place where time seems to have stood still, one can reconnect with nature and with one’s inner self, drawing strength from the comfort of continuity, the past underlying the present, age-old customs passed down from generation to generation, and nature rightly revered and protected. It’s a place where the winters are mild, the summers cool, people are invariably courteous and considerate, the air’s clean, the food’s fresh, and the cycle of life follows the rising and setting of the sun, the coming and going of the seasons—in short, an idyllic way of life.

It’s a return to simple living, to the philosophy of wabi-sabi, and that, particularly in these deeply troubled times, may be the wisest thing to do.

About author


With an awarded career in advertising, he’s traveled various places, lived in some of them, has written about the various sojourns and life’s discoveries. The past few years he’s lived in Kamakura, Japan.

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