Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Hakone: Of Lakes, Cedars and Shrines

I’m going to cut right to the chase. Yesterday’s winner of the “English-ism” Award goes to the boat that Mark and I took across Lake Ashinoko. But before I present the winner, I have to set the scene. 

Mark and I started our day by going out to the bus stop just down the road to catch the bus to the lake, which is only a 15 minute walk (we had on good guide-book authority), but the bus was due to arrive in three minutes. And Japanese buses are always on time. Well, almost always, apparently. Fifteen minutes later we were still standing there thinking that perhaps the world had come to an end. 

But the bus being late enabled us to strike up a conversation with a young man and a woman whom we presumed was his mother. He started speaking to us in near perfect (well, pretty darned perfect) English. I assumed he was Japanese-American and had come back to his homeland for a visit. I asked where he was from. “Korea,” he responded. I hadn’t seen that one coming and I felt so stupidly, provincially American because I couldn’t tell the “obvious” difference between Koreans and Japanese.

It turns out that he had spent 10 months in – of all places – Burlington, Vermont. That, he said, is where he had learned English. Mark and I strongly suspected, however, that he had been taking English in school and in university well before he headed to the beautiful town on Lake Champlain. He was now in Japan for a year, doing additional studies in public policy. His mother had come over for a three-week visit.

I wish I had taken a picture of them. I’m going to start being more out there when it comes to pictures. Because it’s encounters like this that make trips so interesting.

Well, the bus finally did come, and we – and the Koreans – took it down the hill to the boat landing. Now, for some reason totally unknown to mere mortals, the powers that be had decided that it would be super fun to build a fleet of faux pirate ships, equipped with the latest radar and – of course – spotlessly clean, to travel the length of Lake Ashinoko.

And so, we boarded HMS Ashi-san for a trip across Lake Ashi.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s winner of the “English-ism Award.” As we were traveling up the stairs to the higher decks, I came across this door:

First, please note two things. First, the door is closed. Second, if one looks carefully at the bottom left-hand corner, you will see yesterday’s English-ism winner, which I have reproduced below for those with sight issues (like me).

Enough said?

The trip across Lake Ashinoko was uneventful. As we looked at the incredibly lush hillsides around the lake, we thought how beautiful this all will be in about a month as the leaves change color. But it was beautiful yesterday, too. This picture, if you look carefully, shows how the trees come right down to the lakeside, and the branches reach gingerly over the water, creating a line that almost – nay does – look … fabricated, as if one is looking at the edge of a small pond instead of a huge lake. How … beautifully Japanese.

Upon our arrival in Hakone-Machi, we disembarked and started exploring. One of the first shops we came upon was run by a couple who, shall we say, missed their calling as California bikers. They were so cool. Mark and I each bought a bracelet there to add to our collection. It was yet another time when I wish I had taken a picture.

After browsing through a few shops and buying stamps to mail our long-overdue thank you cards to all those who so beautifully and wonderfully contributed to our commitment ceremony and left us with gifts, we headed out toward the other community at this end of the lake, Moto-Hakone. Along the way, we encountered the “cedar road” – a stretch of the old Tokaido road than ran from Kyoto to Edo, the seat of the Tokugawa shoguns (now called Tokyo).  

The story goes that one of the early shoguns decreed that cedars be planted along this road to shade travelers in the summer and protect them from snow in the winter. This stretch of a mile or so is all that remains of this road. Mark and I came upon it and traveled under the boughs of trees that had been planted in 1618 and had sheltered commoners as well as samurai and perhaps even the Shogun himself.

Although walking the Cedar Road was arguably the highlight of the day, rich treasures still awaited us at the Hakone Shrine on the other side of Moto-Hakone. This site, before the Meiji Restoration of the 1860’s-1870’s, was a Buddhist temple, founded in the year 757 by the priest Mangan. The new Meiji government, however, declared a sort of war against Buddhism and converted this site to a Shinto shrine.


It was beautiful, regardless of whether it was Buddhist or Shinto, and there was a marvelous, beautiful, peaceful spirit there.

To cap off the day, we had another exquisite dinner last night in the lodge's dining room. This time, I ate nearly everything. It was delicious, and it's specialness was added to by a bottle of locally produced plum wine.

Today, we leave Hakone and head to Kamakura, where we will spend three nights. As luck would have it, it is raining this morning. Visibility of Fuji is nil. We are so pleased that we were able to experience yesterday morning's spectacular view. 

This map gives a general idea of where we've been and will be over the next few days.
 Metro Tokyo is in the top right corner, Lake Ashinoko and Mount Hakone are in the bottom left corner,
and Kamakura is toward the bottom right corner.

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