Friday, May 21, 2010

SURVIVAL SKILLS: Ring of Fire (A day in Hakone)

My first week in Japan was spent in the heart of one of the largest, most modern cities on earth. On the way to Kyoto, I spent a day in a little mountain town called Hakone, which while modern enough, was still small enough to offer a completely different taste of life in Japan. I'm super glad I went, and if you should find yourself on vacation in Japan, you should go too. In theory, on a clear day it's possible to see Mount Fuji from the area around Hakone, but it was super cloudy the day I was there. So, instead I snapped this picture from the flight home at the end of my trip.

That pointy white cloud in the middle of that picture is actually the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji, and it's a pretty good symbol for the volcanic side of Japan, which is the focus of part two about my trip.


It's easy to forget that Japan is a volcanic island, but if you can keep that whole Pacific Rim / Ring of Fire thing in your head when you go there, you should try to visit an onsen, or hot spring. I recommend you talk to your travel agent about Hakone. It's a little village in the mountains not too far from Tokyo, and it has a handful of really nice resort hotels each with their own hot spring. I spent one night there, but really there's enough to do that you could stand to spend two or three if you're in Japan for more than about two weeks. I arrived late in the afternoon from Tokyo, and left the next afternoon for Kyoto.

Transit to Hakone was pretty interesting. From Tokyo, you go to Shinjuku and take a train out of the city to another train station, the name of which escapes me. From there, you take a second train to the foot of the mountains near the Hakone area, at which point you need a bus. If you've ever been to Hawaii, you've kind of seen what I'm about to describe. Volcanic mountains are not gentle, gradual slopes. They kind of just stick straight up and have sheer black rocky sides. So the bus ride up the mountain to the village was terrifying. Somehow, they scraped out enough of the side of this mountain to attach a road to it. And sometimes, there are crazy metal bridges spanning the gaps between two sheer faces of rock, because continuing up required adhering a road to the other side. The bus driver is by definition a madman, and he takes these hairpin turns at what you will feel to be an unreasonably high speed. However, once you swallow your terror and get over your vertigo, the views are beautiful. Of course, I didn't manage to have my camera out for any of the terror-views.

Now, an onsen has this sort of public bath kind of atmosphere. There are these little stations where you sit and wash yourself with fancy soaps and shampoos, and then you rinse off and go out to the pool and sit and relax. They're generally not co-ed because you do all this without clothes. Which is still culturally strange to me. When I arrived, I saw by the quantity of slippers left behind in the locker room type area that the onsen was fairly crowded and I chickened out of being naked around a bunch of Japanese guys. So I didn't immediately try it out. Instead, I explored the semi-sleepy little town of Hakone.

Walking down these little suburban streets, it wasn't anything like Tokyo at all. I found a beer vending machine, which I could not operate because it required that a fancy Japanese ID be inserted into a slot high up by all that red stuff. Double protection against kids using it! I also got to see someone's vegetable garden, where they were growing a number of daikon. I know there's no scale in the picture, because I was too shy to get very close. But a daikon is a sort of huge radish, and the pale green root sticks up between eight inches and a foot out of the ground before the leaves start. They're ridiculously huge.

Hakone is also home to a rather interesting art museum that was unfortunately closed by the time I got there. Maybe if you spend more than one night in town you might have more luck.

There was also a little hiking trail around the town, with interesting shrines at different stops on the path. It was fascinating and eerie because by the time I found the hiking trail, the sun was already setting. It had a very spooky feeling, like those little white wood spirits from Princess Mononoke would swarm out of the dark places at any moment.

I had some sushi at the tiny restaurant in the hotel and went to sleep without going down to the onsen. I was still warming up to the whole semi-public nudity thing. But the next morning, I woke up, put on my yukata and too-small slippers (they didn't really have anything big enough for enormous gaijin feet) and went downstairs. It was early enough, that I hoped most people on vacation would be asleep. I was more or less right. There were a handful of old guys going about their onsen business but I was determined to go in the water before I left, so I did it. Here I am, a few dozen pounds ago in my stylin yukata.

The spring water bubbles up out of the ground somewhere around 90 degrees or so, and you basically just sit in it and relax and put a washcloth on your head, and it rocks. It's especially awesome if the resort/hotel you visit has an outdoor onsen. It will typically be located in a nice landscaped garden, and if you go in the winter, you can sit in the water, and if you're super lucky, maybe it will snow on you. When I was in Japan it wasn't really cold enough for snow. It was mostly overcast and rainy, but that no affect on the onsen experience. These are some shots of the hotel garden from my hotel room window.

Fortunately, by the time I had arrived in Hakone, my basic grasp of Japanese was enough for me to buy things at the combini, because there was not one other person in the village that could speak much in the way of English. Also fortunately, before leaving Tokyo I spent about a half hour with the English-fluent person at the front desk of my hotel, talking about how to get places by bus and train. Within the city limits of Tokyo, nearly anyone you need to talk to will know enough English to help you with their specific area of expertise. This is especially true of things like train stations or hotels. But definitely heed this advice when you go. If you leave Tokyo, have a guidebook with a map and pictures, and have some sort of little dictionary or phrasebook so you can at least communicate in an emergency.

This talk of language brings me to one of my favorite things that happened up to this point of the trip. After spending an hour or so lounging outside in the hot spring, I went back to my room, packed up and then decided to go downstairs and see about the breakfast buffet that was included with my stay. It was at this breakfast that I had my one conversation completely in Japanese. There I was, shoveling american style breakfast onto my plate. Bacon, scrambled eggs, the whole deal. And someone tugs on the leg of my pants. I look down to see this tiny 4 or 5 year old toddler holding an empty plate. I glance around the room to see her parents, sitting nearby, watching with these really proud/excited looks on their face, so I figured it was cool to proceed.

Girl: Sumimasen, gaijin-san? (Excuse me, Mr. Foreigner?)
Me: Ohayo gozaimasu! (Good morning!)
Girl: Tamago onegaishimasu! (Eggs please!)
Me (scooping her some eggs): Dozo, kawaii-chan. (Here you go, cuteling.)
Girl: Arigato gozaimasu, gaijin-san! (Thank you very much, Mr. Foreigner!)

Then as soon as she thanked me, she toddled back to her parents as quickly as she could without spilling her plate. And her parents smiled huge and took her plate and gave her a hug. It was pretty awesome. Also, each time she spoke it was like she was singing a little song. Completely adorable. Her calling me gaijin-san was especially hilarious because gaijin typically carries a fairly insulting connotation. But from a toddler it was just super super cute and attaching the -san honorific was pretty clever.

@nerdsherpa-san, master of toddler-level Japanese.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I've worked in Hakone for 7 years now, so it was very interesting to read.

    The train from Shinjuku is the Romance Train. I call it the "no romance romance train". It is kind of like the expensive "free pass".

    I never seen a machine with the "Sake-Pass" before. I have to get one now! They have something like this for tobacco though.

    The Open-Air Museum is my favorite! I've spent over 4 hours there before. Bring an obento and some ice tea if the weather is good.

    Glad you had a memorable time in Hakone!