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Monday, 4 May 2015

Daydream Believers, Hakone, Hot Springs, New Horizons in the mountains

From the bright lights of Tokyo and possibly quite a little more sake than anyone of us had envisaged consuming, back to Shinkansen to whisk us away towards a possible view of Mount Fuji (second time lucky, right?)

Shinkansen views. Blink and you'll miss them.

Although Tokyo extends so far in each direction, Tokyo the city is not the whole story when it comes to its extensive and various landscapes. After less than an hour on Shinkansen we arrived in Odawara on our way to the mountain town of Hakone.

Hakone - Lake Ashi. Stunning

The train experiences – threefold – led us back in time with each connection. From the sleek, silent speed of Shinkansen to the more traditional Japan Rail (JR) trains to connect to – finally - the local train taking us at an altogether more sedate place in an old-fashioned tram-like vehicle towards Hakone. As we travelled this last, slow stretch the houses and buildings were shorter in stature, at most three storeys, but more likely one or two, interspersed with lovely trees and quiet seats where just a handful of cars, bicycles and buses, and people, were going about their daily business in equally sedate fashion as the train we travelled upon.

The stream down to Hakone town centre

Now, a few words about Japanese railway experiences, not only but partly because they made Helen laugh. Never in my life have I seen such a timely service on offer. Coming from Britain, where rail companies artificially inflate journey times to allow them to improve on (but not to perfect, mind) their timekeeping metrics, Japan was certainly an eye opener. Not only does every single service, from the tram-like plod-along local to Hakone, to the subway to Shinkansen, run on time, but there are also a large number of Japanese train-officials working on the railways who maintain a fastidious safety record, but who accord the ubiquitous Japanese quality of respect to each and every aspect of the train. As it comes into the station, an official on the platform will check the passengers’ safety and an official on the train will, white gloves, smart kepi-like hat, keep one hand and half his / her head out of the little conductor’s window to monitor the safe arrival of the train into the station. At the end of this, when the train is ready to leave, the conductor will make ready for the departure, and, as the safety gates close, the official on the platform will bow smoothly and deferentially to the train and off it goes on its (completely on time) way.

Borrowed photo of Japanese train officials...but you get the point!

To compare Hakone town centre to any European equivalent the closest I came is to think of a French alpine village or small town. One central street with little shops either side, combining the practical and ubiquitous seven eleven with a number of tiny chic tourist establishments selling everything from fish (of course) in all its many edible incarnations, to kimonos, yukatas (simpler kimonos worn for bathing... of which more anon) and all manner of post cards, chopsticks, Pokémon memorabilia and more. It was good to reach it with a normal level of energy as opposed to all those French visits to pen pals who you’re not still in touch with, skiing holidays or battle fields when you’re a) still reeling from chundering on the ferry over, still deaf from the continuous loop of most of the coach’s terrible taste in cassettes and in wiggly worms as a substitute for normal, nutritious ‘packed lunches’ as clearly described in the multi-page document your parents may or may not have received in advance of this trip across Le Havre.

Hello Kitty, Goodbye Cash

It’s never quite clear to me whether it’s a good idea to spend money in little towns to support local trade, or whether I’m about to get fleeced buying a Hello Kitty napkin for eight times the going rate. Regardless, it was a delight to visit each and every shop along the way.

Seen on the right: Japanese delicacy black sulphur prepped eggs...I did not try them. (Wimp)

And another word, this time about Seven Eleven. I first visited one on day one to get some Pocari Sweat (see previous post) and attempt to rehydrate after the exceptionally long flight out to Japan. This strange shop looks very American in style, the way that the shelves are laid out; the colours within; the range of drinks looks at a glance to be similar and they also sell cosmetics, foods, wine, cigarettes and have cash machines. So far, so normal. On my fifth visit it struck me, though, that it cannot have been a coincidence that in Every Single Store we visited in Every Single Location the one song that was playing, again and again, was Daydream Believer in a muzak arrangement that had me wondering when one of David Lynch’s dwarves would appear and take me off to the strange curtained room before my mysterious disappearance...Spooky.

Day Dream Believers...Seven Eleven, Japan-style

Anyway, we arrived, we shopped, we took a bus (a tiny little bus, which, yes, of course, was on time) up into the mountains for forty minutes to beautiful lake Ashi for the hope of a glimpse of Mount Fuji, which had so far eluded us. Sadly this was not to be, and what was supposed to be a glorious view of this master peak of Japan was just something we vaguely believed to be there, hiding behind the clouds, which is the geographical equivalent of what most Brits are hoping for in terms of a moral compass in any of all the miserable excuses for political parties we have to choose from before 7th May.  

Buses. On time. Of course.

We ate lunch at Lake Ashi with a beautiful view of the pirate ship that tours tourists around the lake, and noted the Japanese love of serving food at almost boiling point, and our own distinct lack of ability for ‘doing it local’ and cramming our mouths with the food as quickly as possible whilst still in a state where it could easily remove at least the top layer of your mouth’s inside, if not the second and third. Then on to see a shrine and some botanical gardens (but not alas, mount Fuji).

Hot noodles. Now you see them, now you don't, now you need third degree burns treatment

Pirate ship on Lake Ashi. Voyage of the Dawn Treader, eat your heart out.

Mount Fuji (on the right) and where we knew it was but couldn't see it on our visit (left)

Japanese temples are often flanked on the right by fifty or more sake barrels (which look to the untrained eye just like white paper lanterns) which are sent by sake companies to the temples as offerings to hope for ‘good fortune’ for their sake yield. At one in Tokyo there were also a similar number of French Bordeaux barrels; clearly there is some fine Japanese-blessed red wine out there for the asking! Every interaction for an ordinary person (as opposed to a monk / religious officiant) at these temples is linked to a quest for good fortune. 

Japanese sake barrels at a temple near lake Ashi

Hand washing, in a ritualistic fashion, seeking and receiving (via a small payment) a paper fortune and clapping and bowing to the inner temple are all elements in which visitors seek good fortune. As far as the paper fortune goes, I only did this once in Tokyo, and got a terrible fortune (every aspect of it appalling) and so had to do what you’re meant to do when this happens (because of course there’s a way out of this!) which is to fold it up, wrap it around a specific little rack and leave it there...bad fortune be gone.

Prayers for good fortune

Bad fortunes tied up and set free. 

Back in Hakone at the hotel Senkei, we were treated to a traditional Japanese hotel experience. For the most part. Shoes off before entering the main part of the room, in favour of indoor slippers; the provision of yukatas for us to wear before visiting the hot spring (up lots of stairs, wearing ‘outdoor’ flip flops and quite difficult to do when you’re practically naked in a garment which flaps open at will, in one of the most modest countries in the world) and instructions on how to tie them on a living person (good) as opposed to how not to do it (as they’re also used to dress corpses so it’s important to tie them over yourself correctly!).

A really unflattering picture of me in a Yukata. 
See what I'll do for blogging to make it real? See?

You have to bathe (shower, they say, but in a tiny little bowl sitting down) so ‘wash’ is about the closest you actually get to a realistic description , before entering the hot spring, completely naked and in the open air. 

Bathing guidelines... (Note, no 'not petting'...clearly the Japanese are pro-girl on girl smooches)

Now, I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a prude, but even I know that after six months in bed with broken this and that and unable to do much exercise I wasn't competing with Cameron Diaz for 2015 bikini bod, so I was quite nervous at this point. 

Gardens around lake Ashi

Of course the Japanese have thought of every possible way to create a safe and modest environment by separating the times when men and women can bathe (and women get the best deal from the time table, let me tell you) but it does still involve stripping bare and then getting into a super hot bath with no bubbles with other women you don’t know, who have the unnerving habit of talking to one another in a language you don’t speak and giggling as they do it. 

More beautiful Lake Ashi, less pictures of me naked.
(You weren't really expecting that, were you? Good.)

Had I gone down the route of teenage tattoos, it would have been at this point that I was asking myself, why oh why did I think having a Japanese symbol between my shoulder blades was a good idea, when now that Google exists it turns out I've inadvertently gone for a permanent sign of “We’re the chipmunks” for the world and his wife to see.

Panorama of lake Ashi in Hakone. Stunning

I ended up staying in the hot spring for only a short period, as, although it was truly stunning it was, and I know, the clue was in the title, but a little too hot for me. We looked out on stunning ever green trees of different hues and heard the lovely choruses of swifts and other mountain birds in our tranquil spot, so I am glad to have had this stunning experience. 

Lake Ashi, sakura and me.

In order to continue the relaxation I went for a massage, where a lovely lady who looked like she might just about have been old enough to be someone’s granny, listened carefully while I pointed at each of my scars and explained, broken back, broken elbow, bad foot. Before proceeding to pummel the shit out of my poor body and – when I actually cried out in agony – make ‘Oooh I really understand that’s a bit painful’ murmurings at me, and followed this up by lots of very pointed deep breathing, as if to say, “Come on you big Nelly, this is nothing, you should try lugging logs up the mountain. I do that in my spare time!”

"Think of the cherry blossom, blot out the pain. Blot out the pain..."

After the delights(?) of this experience I felt – unbelievably – quite amazingly better, but exhausted from the travel and from the hot+springs+plus+fierce+massage I ate some gyoza and noodles before passing out from all the fresh air and ‘mountain goodness’ at around eight, leaving Helen to watch episodes of Pokémon on our Japanese TV. I mentioned that the hotel Senkei was traditional in nearly all aspects. They (like many hotels) offer a concierge service to look after your bags while you continue to explore having checked out. In this case that consisted of placing a green netball / basketball net over your belongings as if this somehow rendered them invisible and immune from theft attempts by its (clearly hidden) quality as Japanese kryptonite...

Green nets. Those bags are going NOWHERE.

All I can say is, it must have worked, as we returned to Tokyo with bags still in hand. Aside from missing mount Fuji (again) a super mini break in the mountains.

It's dancing time for dwarves, day dream believers.

Keep on dreaming...home coming queens everywhere...

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