Sunday 27th – Tuesday 29th April 2008
Last time I came half way around the world, by chance my friend Richard from Glasgow was also in Tokyo, flown out on short notice by his company and we spent a most enjoyable evening together. This time around Gavin and Jessie are also out here on holiday, indeed by this stage they’ve been here for a week, largely enjoying the sights in Kyoto which I insisted they make the main part of their trip, feeling as I did that I could happily have spent much more time in the ancient capital. They have arrived by Shinkansen back to Tokyo station and made it round to Shinjuku and meet us at the planned spot. Natsuko has worked things out with military precision. Together we embark the Romance Car limited express train to Hakone.
This is not a romantic train trip per say, the train is hardly the Orient Express, indeed in terms of luxury it is a good deal more cramped than the actually much older Shinkansen carriages. After a little help from a fellow passenger we are able to figure out how to swivel one pair of seats around so we can face each other rather than sit airline style as the train sets off for the National Park of Hakone. The romance is not in the train, it’s in the destination.
The Fuji-Hakone-Izu national park is a part of Japan that fits a number of stereotyped images of Japan. Great steep volcanic hillsides flush with green trees, little towns with cramped housing, little shops and ubiquitous power cables criss-crossing the sky and tatami mat clad Ryokan hotels sporting volcanic spring water baths. We arrive in Hakone-Yumoto, the terminus station of the Romance Car, and are no sooner off than a small army of pink-uniformed ladies bustle onto the train armed with rice straw brooms, dust pans and rubbish bags to clean it for the crowds waiting to end their holiday. We find our Ryokan where a small army of navy blue uniformed staff relieve us of our luggage, bowing and scraping and then go for the standard tour around the park starting with the tram which zig-zags its way up mountainsides stopping at switch back points where the conductors and drivers scurry past the windows in opposite directions and tourists suffer a moment of confusion as we head back in the direction we arrived from. The view gets steadily more stunning as we climb out of the valley that Hakone-Yumoto is nestled in finally arriving in Gora where the real adventure begins.
From the tram we transfer onto a funicular train that hauls us straight up a steep hill and then board a sequence of cable-cars which swing us across valleys affording views not just of the luscious park but occasionally of Mount Fuji itself, though today it is lost in the heat haze, then finally across a smoking hillside stinking of sulphur to Owakudani where a volcanic eruption three thousand years ago carved out this valley and left an extraordinary garden from Hades with acidic streams boiling out of the cracks.
The whole place smells of eggs. This is presumably the reason why the Japanese decided that the only sensible thing to do here when visiting was to eat eggs. The consumption of eggs is a whole industry, we climb the hillside to the place where a bubbling hot pool is used to cook them, dozens at a time leaving their shells blackened by the sulphur and calcium reacting, and sell them to a the crowds who guzzle them with zeal as eating one will reputedly increase the length of your life by seven years. Not everyone can make it up the hillside from the cable car station and the cluster of restaurants and shops there, so there is another cable car – not to transport people but to transport crates of uncooked eggs in one direction and volcano blackened ones ready to eat in the other.
The eggs do not satisfy our lunch time hunger entirely so at the bottom of the ova-express we avail ourselves of fast food, Japanese style. In the west you would expect bags of chips, hot dogs and burgers in this kind of place. Here we have battered chicken on a stick or toasted squid on a stick. I can not resist a squidllipop (like a lollipop, but squid) – its very nice in a rubbery sort of way.
We take a different cable car route back down the other side of the mountain to Togendai on the shore of the lake, Ashino-ko, where diesel powered boats styled after gold-leaf clad and gaudy galleons complete with lion or sea-horse figure heads wait to take us across the lake. The boats are clearly for tourists – what is slightly peculiar is why they need to be this way, they are so festooned with fake gold that in the sunshine they positively hurt to look at, they are so out of place – aping ocean going sailing ships whilst locked into an inland mountain lake and they are supposed to be a tourist attraction in and of themselves when they are situated in an area of some of the (rapidly diminishing) beautiful countryside none-the-less the tourists queue to get a chance to be photographed beside the fibreglass pirates on the deck. I must admit that I dozed the whole way across the lake – we’d had a very early start and a long hot day.
From the dock at Moto-Hakone it’s a bus trip back to Hakone-Yumoto and our Ryokan completing our widdershins trip around the park. Our luggage has been moved in to our suite where we find Natsuko’s name on the door and slippers waiting on the lower genkan floor. These are not for wearing in the rooms though as there are tatami mats covering the corridor and both rooms, all of which look out through floor to ceiling windows on to the carefully tended gardens – surrounded by great maple trees and riddled with streams and pools which are home to a small army of carp. As evening begins to settle and we relax in the larger of our rooms around the low table the lights come on in the garden turning the trees, flowers and waters into an oasis of light and we are served dinner by the maid who is personally in charge of our comfort – serving dinner and breakfast and ensuring our needs are met – she appears out of a door that we had assumed was a cupboard but in fact turns out to be the servants entrance. Three quarters of us enjoy the meal immensely, Jessie has a slightly harder time picking out items that don’t contain fish – we are all happy to swap morsels with her though.
After dinner it is bath time. The ladies are desperate to get down there, Gavin and I are a little more apprehensive – not because either of us have any particular concern about public nudity but relaxing in a bath is appealing for a few minutes, maybe as many as twenty, rather than the hours they are in favour of. As men though we do have the option of an outdoor bath which is water drawn from a spring – so we all put on robes, pick up two towels (one for drying and one for preserving modesty) dawn slippers and shuffle down to the bath houses.
We have received strict instructions about washing with the showers before entering the bath, there are instructions in the room with cartoons of old Japanese people looking angry at people breaking the etiquette, so Gavin and I are a little confused by the lack of showers at our bath. Luckily we are the only occupants when we arrive so with no old Japanese people to make angry we quietly strip and wade in. When some Japanese arrive a little later we see that one should wash here by scooping water out of the bath with a little bucket so we’ll know next time, the indoor baths we discover later house the missing showers.
The bath is nestled in a discreetly hemmed off part of the expansive gardens and is exquisitely relaxing, one can vary the temperature by moving closer or further away from the source of the hot water, bubbling out of a large ornate rock and spilling into the pool at one end, or by immersing oneself fully by sitting on the bottom or only partially by sitting on one of the submerged stone flagons. It takes a while to get over the slight awkwardness generated by trying to have a conversation with one of your mates when naked in a bath together and we are both tired after a long but enjoyable day and stunned by the luxury of the Ryokan – true we are paying quite a bit for it but none of us expected quite what we have got.
Gavin and I feel we’ve had plenty of bathing after three quarters of an hour, it takes another half hour before the ladies emerge and we are stuck here as they had the key to the room, but eventually we shuffle back up to the suite and crack open some beers and sake nattering together till late before retiring to our separate rooms and the futons that have been laid out for us where a deep sleep beckons.