Monday 28th April
Our second day in Hakone is not quite as frantic a chase around the major sites. We have two places on our tourism hit-list today: The Open Air Museum and a swim-suit wearing communal bath we can splash around together in.
Another zig-zag journey up the mountainside takes us to Chokoku-no-Mori and the Hakone Open Air Museum. This is wonderful – the rolling multilevel park and garden frame the pieces splendidly and there are some spectacular works including 26 Henry Moore sculptures and a Picasso pavilion that includes some etchwork prints and a large collection of his pottery.
The finest work on show for me is Gabriel Loire’s towering Symphonic Structure; a tower with a winding spiral stair-case allowing you to see a continuous tapestry of stained glass – the sun streams in through the lumps of coloured glass which form angels whose wings become harps that are being played by musicians who become part of larger figures all dancing and flying upwards towards a central image of a benevolent God with a pulsing red sunlit heart through which all the other parts flow out or flow towards. A lot of the other tourists troop up the stairs and back down again, glancing at the coloured glass but not stopping to see it or find the subtle images within images, seemingly blithely unaware that they are not just seeing a masterpiece but are in it, I let them shuffle past me as I take twenty minutes in each direction and several circuits around the bottom and still leave feeling there was much much more I could have gotten out of it.
Next we go to a nearby public bath complex hosting a myriad of different pools and even a water flume which we amuse ourselves with for quite some time. Some water from the Dead Sea is imported in one bath so you can float in brine and curse the scrapes you received on the flume as the salt rubs itself into your wounds.
A highlight turns out to be a visit to the Doctor Fish Experience. The ladies are desperate to visit though Gavin and I are both sceptical that dipping one’s feet in a bath full of tiny fish will be nearly as beneficial as the signs suggest it might. We get to the front of the queue and the attendant directs our attention to a sign bearing instructions in english which we had already worked out through seeing previous groups go in, i.e. don’t step on the Doctor Fish, try not to move your feet as the fish may “frighten away in wonder”. We’ve skim read it in ten seconds but have to wait through the laborious instructions dispensed in Japanese before being allowed in. At the given command we lower our feet into the pool filled with little minnows and attempt to neither crush nor frighten them with wonder. The Doctor Fish proceed to nibble dead skin off of our feet.
Gav and I’s scepticism is justified in one sense – this is simply having your feet nibbled by fish – but it is truly worth it because the sensation is ticklish and neither Natsuko nor Jessie (but especially the latter) are very good at dealing with having their feet tickled. A good deal of fish were frightened away in wonder in the ensuing giggles.
On the other side of the complex there is yet another sequence of differently flavoured baths. We dip in first coffee, then green tea, then red wine then sake before freshening up in Blue (I can’t remember what flavour this was supposed to be, perhaps charcoal – in fact all of these are simply appropriately coloured water with a hint of appropriate smell rather than dipping in the real thing). The bathing is concluded by stepping down the Foot Bath stairway – this was a bad idea as it is a rather more brutal method of removing dead skin than Doctor Fish being rather abrasive in nature. A quick shot is the Glamour Model Photo Booth together and we’re ready to dress and head home for another excellent dinner in our suite, immediately after which the ladies go back to the baths – Gav and I decide that we are definitely Clean Enough already and instead get started on the drinking.
Beer leads to Sake. Sake leads to Sho-chu. Sho-chu leads to suffering. Battering through breakfast with a massive hangover we have to check-out of the Ryokan after one more quick bath. We have a proper look at the exquisite garden before wandering around the shops of Hakone-Yumoto – mostly selling a range of dried fish and tacky souvenirs, usually in the same shop and finally boarding the Romance Car to head back to the big bad city.
I’ve commented before on the Public Announcement culture of Japan and out here in the country side is no exception – just before we get the train at noon a loud siren sounds, I in fact assumed it was the fire station up the road but later found out that this was simply the noon-siren designed to let workers in the field know that it is lunch time and only recently have they dispensed with the 7am time-to-get-up siren. That evening back at the apartment I am surprised to hear a tinkling lullaby tune echoing out among the houses at 6pm – this turns out to be the 6’o’clock tinkly-tune (my title, not theirs) and is to let school children know that it is time to go home, during winter months this occurs at 16:30 at any time of year it strikes me as peculiar. I suppose it is no less strange than church bells striking the hour but is certainly an exclusively Japanese tradition and therefore now all but immutable.
No bath in the apartment, a shower has to suffice before bed.