Monday, September 9, 2013

Heading to Hakone

We left Tokyo yesterday. Frankly, I was ready for it. Tokyo produced sensory overload in me. So many images, so much sound. Any big city would be like that for me. But it did strike me that there seems to be a disconnect between the outrageous busy-ness that occurs on the typical Japanese TV program (at least the ones I've seen so far) and the typical Tokyo street on the one hand, and the tranquil Zen-like nature of so much that the Japanese have historically valued on the other. It just seems a bit of a paradox. But what do I know? I've only been in Japan for five days.

We headed to the mountains, to Hakone, a hot springs area about two hours from the western side of the city. This required a subway ride across Tokyo to Shinjuku Station, then catching a train that would take us to the base of the resort area, then taking a 50-minute bus ride up through extremely windy roads to our final destination.

Excited travelers after we had boarded the "Romance Car" bound for Hakone-Yumoto

I had been anxious about this part of our trip, having done lots of reading about it, etc., and had conjured up a story in my mind that it would be a difficult experience, i.e., making all these connections. I had printed out diagrams of bus stations, diagrams of Shinjuku Station, calculated travel times, etc. But in the end, it was very straightforward, if not downright easy. 

As I commented to Mark yesterday, a person would just about have to be brain dead to not be able to find their way around Tokyo's stations. Everything is so well-marked - in Japanese and in English. There are lots and lots of maps around with the "You are Here" arrow prominently visible. Stations are spotless. Little green arrows on the floor indicate on which side of passageways and stairways you are to walk. There are no drunks lying about, no stench of urine. It was frankly amazing. It's no wonder Tokyo won the 2020 Olympics bid.

And so we made our train connection with no problem. As we finally pulled out of the urban sprawl of Tokyo on our "Romance Car" train, we could see increasing amounts of blue sky. It had poured with rain on Sunday night; perhaps that had cleared things a bit. The weather forecast had not been great, so the sun and blue sky were a welcome surprise.

Mountains coming into view across yellow-green rice fields

I guess they don't call it the "Romance Car" for nothing

Precisely 88 minutes after our departure from Shinjuku, we pulled into the station at Hakone-Yumoto. As we walked across the street to the bus stop, I was struck by how much the scene before me reminded me of the area around Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southern France. (I had finished my LDS mission in Pau 28 years ago this fall, and we had visited Lourdes a couple of times.)

A man fishing in the river below the bus stop

Thereafter followed a 50-minute bus ride to our hotel/lodge, the “Fujimien.” The lead photo at the beginning of this post was taken shortly after our arrival from our balcony, overlooking a very pretty little valley in which there are some gorgeous golf-courses (Japanese do love their golf).

Our room is traditional Japanese. The picture below was how the room looked when we arrived. When we went to bed last night, we got out the pads and “futons” (what we would call duvets or comforters) and the bean pillows. Mark had bought a small bean pillow in Japan Town in San Francisco when we were there and started using it, but I didn’t much care for it. I didn’t think I’d like bean pillows, but the ones they have here are “full-size,” i.e., the size of our “normal” pillows back home and are – surprisingly – extremely comfortable.

The first matter of business after getting our bags to our room was to get back on the bus and head down the road to buy some gin. We had intended to get a bottle in Tokyo before we left, but it didn’t happen. Mark had expressed some anxiety about being able to communicate this need to the front desk staff, and I had consulted my Japanese dictionary app and had the words ready should we need them.

As it turned out, I didn’t. After a great deal of consultation between a young woman and middle-aged man behind the front desk, which eventually drew in an older man who appeared to be the owner of the hotel, it was concluded that we needed to go seven stops back the way we had come, and there we would find both a liquor store and a convenience store.

So we went out to the road, and with typical Japanese efficiency, a bus arrived within a minute or two. Less than five minutes later, we were at the stop we needed. Sure enough, there was a liquor store 20 meters away – just as the older man at the front desk had assured us.

I wish now that I had taken a picture of the liquor store and its contents. The front doors were wide open, and the building was nothing fancy by any means. But boy, did they have the stock. Mark’s eyes beamed in on the Blue Sapphire immediately. Close by were Grey Goose Vodka, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Southern Comfort and numerous other bottles of booze immediately recognizable to your average North American imbiber. 

We picked up the bottle and headed to what appeared to be the check-out desk. There was a rather dated register there. But no clerk. Mark peeked his head in the back room. No one there. He said “hello.” No response. We stood there for a few moments, then I said, quite loudly, “HELLO!” That generated a response deep without, back somewhere. A woman’s voice. 

A few moments later, a middle-aged woman came around the corner, shuffled up to the till, turned the key and scanned the code on the bottle. Nothing happened. She looked at the register, turned the key a couple of times and tried again. Nothing. She again fiddled with the key as if there was a short connection somewhere. Nothing. Finally, she excused herself and came back with a price. Bargain concluded. Another example of Japanese efficiency. A few minutes later, we were back on a bus headed back up the hill and were shortly delivered back to our hotel.

In the next post: Bathing in the "onsen" (hot spring bath), a full-course Japanese dinner and Mount Fuji at dawn.

View from our balcony of the onsen which projects from the back of the lodge
with a panoramic view of the valley below

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