Atami: 107km (66 miles) SW of Tokyo;

Whenever Tokyoites want to spend a night or two at a hot-spring spa on the seashore, they head for Izu Peninsula. Jutting into the Pacific Ocean southwest of Tokyo, Izu boasts some fine beaches and a dramatic coastline marked in spots by high cliffs and tumbling surf. It also has a verdant, mountainous interior with quaint hot-spring resorts. However, even though the scenery is at times breathtaking and Izu offers a relaxing respite from bustling Tokyo, there's little of historical interest to lure a short-term visitor to Japan; make sure you've seen both Kamakura and Nikko before you consider coming here.

Keep in mind also that Izu's resorts are terribly crowded during the summer vacation period from mid-July to the end of August. If you do travel during the peak summer season, make accommodations reservations at least several months in advance. Otherwise, there are hotel, ryokan, and minshuku reservation offices in all of Izu's resort towns that will arrange accommodations for you. Be aware, however, that if a place has a room still open at the last minute in August, there's probably a reason for it -- poor location, poor service, or unimaginative decor.

Before you leave Tokyo, be sure to pick up the leaflet "The Izu Peninsula" at the Tourist Information Center.

Atami means "hot sea." According to legend, once upon a time local fishermen, concerned about a geyser spewing forth into the sea and killing lots of fish and marine life, asked a Buddhist monk to intervene on their behalf and to pray for a solution to the problem. The prayers paid off when the geyser moved itself to the beach; not only was the marine life spared, but Atami was blessed with hot-spring water the townspeople could henceforth bathe in. It's rumored that Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), Japan's most famous shogun, was so enamored by the quality of Atami's hot-spring waters that he ordered barrels of it delivered to his castle in Edo (present-day Tokyo).

Today, Atami -- with a population of 40,000 -- is a conglomeration of hotels, ryokan, restaurants, pachinko parlors, souvenir shops, and a sizable red-light district, spread along narrow, winding streets that hug steep mountain slopes around Atami Bay. Although I find the setting picturesque, the city itself isn't very interesting -- in fact, its economy is severely depressed, and because it has none of the fancy shops and nightlife to attract a younger generation, mostly older Japanese vacation here, giving the town an old-fashioned, unpretentious atmosphere. In any case, this is the most easily accessible hot-spring seaside resort from Tokyo, and it has a wide beach flanked by a 1km (1/2-mile) boardwalk, a wonderful art museum, and several other attractions that make it popular even on just a day trip.