Izu’s Ebisu-jima Island: The Natural Side of Shimoda’s History
The quiet, historic town of Shimoda, tucked into the mountains along the southeast coast of Shizuoka’s Izu Peninsula, is best known for its connection to Admiral Perry and his American Black Ships. Along the short but famous Perry Walk you’ll find numerous artisan shops, eateries and examples of traditional architecture, all backed by Ryosen-ji, the temple where Perry finalized America’s tenuous diplomatic status in Shimoda.
But while there is no shortage of man-made interest here in this tiny port town, the rugged beauty of the rocky coast is what stands out to many who come. And down at the southern tip of the small peninsula just east of Shimoda, an intimate and accessible encounter with this natural world awaits.
Ebisu-jima Island seems at first glance just a big rocky outcropping rising up from the shallow coastal floor. But this tiny island, like the rest of the Izu Peninsula, was formed by submarine volcanic eruptions occurring millions of years in the past. The short walk around this small, unassuming island brings you up close with three distinct features of the rocks that comprise Ebisu.
The eruption that gave birth to Ebisu-jima sent thousands of tons of ash and pumice shooting out of the sea floor. These eventually settled and hardened into submarine sediment strata that were later pushed by geologic activity above the surface of the ocean. These layers of sediment have over the millennia been shaped by erosion from the waves and the wind, creating the beautiful striped rock that now dominates the western face of the island.
In contrast to this sculpted fluid surface, much of Ebisu-jima’s south and east faces are comprised of the lava and volcanic rock that rose, settled and cooled underneath the surface of the sea. These rough rocky formations now stand above the water and waves as the bulk of Ebisu-jima Island. At the feet of these ancient rocky walls more large chunks of volcanic rock stand in the water, pounded by the waves and lending additional life and color to the restless ocean.
The third noticeable feature of Ebisu-jima’s rocky face is a flat sheet of rock called a shore terrace, stretching into the sea from Ebisu’s southern edge. Known as Senjojiki, this swath of sediment formed from ash and pumice was eroded by the motion of the waves and brought to the surface through the slow, seismic uplift of the land. This particular stratum of volcanic deposition is known as ‘Izu Rock’ or ‘Izu Pumice’ and has been quarried and used in many buildings in Shimoda due to its heat-resistant qualities and, to coin a term, its ‘carveability’.
For sure, the rocks of Ebisu-jima and the waves that crash against them in a constant spray of white and blue stand out to the passive observer. But along the eastern shore, particularly at low tide, an abundance of life exists. As the ocean recedes tide pools form all over the rocky skirts of the island, creating havens for thousands of hermit crabs and snails. Small fish will also often become trapped in these pools until the tide rises again. Meanwhile crabs scurry across the surface of the rock as they search for food, hiding in the countless cracks and crannies when the footsteps of man draw near.
Just beneath the surface of the water a surprising variety of sea life can be found. Squid, octopus and the infamous fugu are only three of the dozens of colorful residents of this shallow underwater playground, decorated with seaweed and coral and, of course, an intricate landscape of volcanic rock. For snorkeling equipment rental try asking the god folks at the tourist information office on Route 136, right across from the buses on the east side of Shimoda Station.
And Topping It Off
Ebisu-jima may be nothing but rock and ash, hardened and shaped over eons, but the island is topped with trees, thick grasses and evidence of human ritualistic activity from the Kofun-Nara Period. Traces of bonfires suggest that Ebisu-jima was once a holy place. Today we see a more common form of religiosity, in the form of Ebisu-jinja, the requisite Shinto shrine for any important site in Japan. Alongside this stands the slightly more modern Suzaki Ebisu-jima Lighthouse.
A foot bridge is all that connects Ebisu-jima with the Izu mainland. At the end of this bridge a stone staircase curves up along the northwest side of the island. On the way up the tiny nearby community of Suzaki and its modest port come into view. From the top of the island the pelagic panorama spreads out before you, the rocks and the ancient ash and the waters that Admiral Perry sailed, bringing the ancient geology of this place called Shimoda into quiet concert with the ongoing story of Japan.
The View from the Top
The Passing of History
Train: Shimoda is accessible by train via the privately-run Izu-Kokyu Line. Take the Tokaido Main Line from Tokyo/Yokohama to Atami, entryway to the Izu Peninsula. At Itami jump on the Ito Line bound for Ito Station. At Ito, transfer to the Izu-Kyuko Line. Shimoda is the very last stop.
A more expensive but more convenient way to go is by taking the Odoriko Limited Express from Tokyo or the Super View Odoriko which runs from Tokyo and Ikebukuro. Both trains are services of JR East.
From Shimoda Station grab a seat on the Number 10 Bus to Suzaki (須崎). Buses generally run once an hour, more frequently from late December to early February when the Wild Narcissus Festival takes place in nearby Tsumekizaki.
Car: Izu Peninsula is largely mountainous, which makes for a beautiful albeit time-consuming drive. The Izu Skyline snakes down the eastern side of the peninsula, but only reaches halfway to Shimoda. The Izu Chuo Expressway and, further south, the Shuzenji Expressway, leave you well short of the city of Izu. From there it’s all local roads. Route 136 to Route 414 is the most direct way to Shimoda.
Bicycle: Izu does attract its share of avid cyclists, but the mountains are not for the faint-hearted or the weak-legged. As an added disincentive there is precious little shoulder space on any given road. Your best bet might be to take the train or drive to Shimoda, then hook up with Aloha Bikes for some local guided touring!
The Izu Peninsula is a nature lover’s paradise, with rugged beauty in every direction. A trip to Shimoda and Ebisu-jima provides everything the region offers in one satisfying shot.