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Tokyo Day 4: Hakone Pt 2

JAPAN | Friday, 15 August 2008 | Views [3055]

We started the day bright and early at 6:30 a.m. with a dip in the hot spring at our guesthouse. It’s a shared facility, but guests can reserve it for private use. Since you have to go in fully naked, it’s really best that you do this.

The Japanese hot spring ritual is such: You have to take a shower and soap yourself down until you’re clean. Once you’re washed, you can enter the hot spring, but you must never immerse your head in it. And when you’re in the hot spring, you have to take regular breaks so that you don’t die from sulphur suffocation.

The water wasn’t as hot as we’d expected it to be, but very sulphurous. The moment I got in, the water felt very heavy on my chest and it was very difficult to breathe. The smell of rotten eggs hung lightly in the air. No wonder reservation blocks are only half an hour each. Still, it was quite relaxing. I took another shower after the bath, just to wash the smell of sulphur off my skin.

We had breakfast at the guesthouse, a buffet spread of simple stuff like bread and jam, fruits and cereal. Over breakfast I pored over a pamphlet of The Museum of Antoine de Saint-Exupery and The Little Prince and begged Lianyi to go there. The museum was just two doors down from our guesthouse, a fabulously charming French-style mansion from what I could see from the outside. I thought it would be a super cute and unbelievably lovely experience. He thought it would be a waste of time.

I WAS RIGHT. (As it turns out I always was when it came to picking out tourist attractions.)

The entire museum compound is a recreation of Provence, France, complete with cute little fake bakeries, a travel agency, library, bank, etc etc. The ground was cobbled stone and every corner was a picture perfect postcard shot. Sculptures of the characters from The Little Prince were scattered all over. Within the compound was a house. Its entrance was a recreation of Saint Exupery’s own childhood home. Upstairs, there were recreations of his childhood bedroom, as well as the different offices and rooms he later had in Morocco and New York. Another room was fixed up to look like the inside of a mail cargo plane, which Saint Exupery flew as a pilot. It was such a loving installed and obsessive museum. And God knows what Sain Exupery or the Little Prince had anything to do with Japan or Hakone except the shared affinity to cuteness!

The only drawback to the whole place was that all the exhibits and posters were in Japanese. There was a short film played about Saint Exupery’s life in a cute theatrette (that was made to look like an asteroid!) and that, too, was in Japanese.

After the film we left the museum and took a bus to the POLA Museum of Art, a private museum built by the guy who started the POLA cosmetics company. Only the museum entrance is above ground, because the architects didn’t want the building to interfere with the natural environment of the area or to be taller than the surrounding trees. Inside, there were pieces from both the Western world and Japanese artists through the ages. There were some great pieces by Renoir, Cezanne and some Japanese artists whose names I’m sorry I’ve forgotten.

But what really captured us were three paintings by Monet – one was a painting of the Rouen Cathedral at sunset (it was one of series that he painted of the same cathedral at different times of the day just to capture the effects of the light), another was a painting of a Japanese bridge over a pond and the third was a patinting called the Rio della Salute. When we first looked at the paintings up close, we weren’t really sure what was so great about them, or about Monet. But later on, as we were looking at other paintings in the room and then turned around, and saw the Monet paintings from that distance, we were struck by just how real they felt. The cathedral one especially. Up close, it really just looked like a mess of pink and blue and you can’t even really see the shape of the cathedral. But from a distance, it really does look like what you might see if you were walking towards a cathedral at sunset.

It was the same with the other two paintings. Up close, all we saw were splotches of random colours of paint. But from a distance, they looked extraordinarily real and true. It’s really quite amazing. And only when looking upon the actual paintings do you realise that prints  don’t even come close to capturing the essence of the artwork.

We were also awed by the Van Gogh. It was simply, upon a glance, a painting of a vase of flowers. But when you looked up close, you could see the violent jagged strokes of the paint brush. The flower stalks looked like a witch’s hair. From a distance it looked plain and simple, Up close, it was wild and angry. And when the audio guide told me that Van Gogh finished this painting just a few days before killing himself, my hair really stood on end.

After the POLA museum we got back on the bus and went to Gora. Not wanting to skip lunch yet again, we decided to eat a nice little homely restaurant at the train station. The sole waitress there, an elderly lady, couldn’t speak a word of Japanese, so we actually had to bring her out of the restaurant to point at the food displayed in the window outside to show her what we wanted. We both had tempura with rice. It was not bad, it tasted like good home cooked Japanese food.

Then we took a cablecar to Sounzan and transferred to the ropeway  to get to Owakudani, a giant crater that was created from the eruption of Mount Hakone 3,000 years ago. Today, tourists can take a ten-minute trail up one of the gentler slopes of Owakudani to get close to the volcanic activity of the area. At the top of the climb, you can buy eggs that have been boiled in the natural hot spring water from the area. These eggs are black from the sulphur in the water, and are said to add 7 years to your life.

Sounds good right?

But of course, our trusty Lianyi managed to find an off-the-beaten-track path that was far away from the tourist trail and suggested we take a hike up that instead. I followed him, because that is what obedient wives do. The trail was very narrow and tall wild grass grew on both sides, as tall as me, and sometimes so long that they obscured the path. We were the only tourists taking that route, so at first we were a bit unsure about its safety, but just 5 minutes into our climb, a long line of old Japanese people came climbing down. We said to each other, if those old people can do it, so can we!

So we soldiered on. It was honestly the toughest hike I’ve ever done in my life, not that I’ve done many. But it was really difficult. There were a lot of small slippery stones that caused us to trip, the soil was sometimes soft and slippery too and the wild plants kept scratching our bare arms. The trail was also pretty steep and as I mentioned, very narrow. But still we persisted. Every once in a while, Lianyi would ask me if I wanted to turn back but I kept saying I don’t know, I don’t know, let’s just go on and see what happens next.

After 20 minutes, we saw a sign that was in Chinese. Lianyi said, Hey this sign says we’re 10 minutes from the top! That gave us motivation to go on.

But 10 minutes later, we still weren’t at the top yet. I was panting very heavily and my entire body was slick with sweat. I couldn’t stop scratching my arms and my feet were yelling at me to let them go free. We took a break. Our water was finishing.

As we were catching our breath, a middle-aged Japanese couple came climbing down. We stopped them and asked, how long is it to the top?

The man replied, “2 hours.”

Oh my fucking God.

Obviously we turned back down, taking another half an hour or more to reach the ground. The climb down was horrible. I must have screamed like, 5 times, throughout because I kept slipping. What was to be a 10-minute leisurely stroll turned out to be a one-hour jungle trek. And we didn’t even get to eat the long-life eggs!

We were strangely good-humoured about the whole affair though and were laughing about it as we made our way down. If we hadn’t met that Japanese couple, who knows, we might have ended up having to stay overnight somewhere on the damn mountain without food, water or any protective clothing.

Before the trek:

After:

Once we made our way down we got back on the ropeway to go to Togendai, where we would take a boat ride on a pirate ship across Lake Ashi. It was a  beautiful ride. We passed by a lot of luxurious property along the shores of the lake. I guess Hakone is a place for the rich to build their summer homes.

The boat dropped us off at Hakone Machi. It was already pretty late by that point. We actually had 3 sights to see in Hakone Machi but one of them, the Checkpoint Museum, was already closed. So we just walked past it to get to the next stop, the Ancient Cedar Avenue, which is really a short path framed with beautiful old cedar trees on both sides.

The avenue led us to sight #3, which was the Detached Palace Garden. This was another thing in Tokyo that I wish I had more time to spend in. It was a beautiful, beautiful garden. It looked truly royal, like seriously, a garden meant for an emperor. It’s open 24 hours but it was getting dark so all we did was zip in, take some photos, and zip back out. We probably only saw 0.1% of the whole garden.

After that we just turned around and went back the way we came, back to the jetty, which was next to a bus stop. There we took a bus to Hakone Yumoto station and boarded a subway bound for Shinjuku.

And then.

About half an hour into the train ride, Lianyi looked up and said, “Eh. We’re back at Hakone Yumoto!”

Obviously he was talking rubbish so I said, “What?”

“We’re back at Hakone Yumoto!”

I looked up. We were back at Hakone Yumoto.

None of the guides we read, none of our guidebooks, told us this: that when the train from Hakone Yumoto reaches Odawara Station, you have to transfer to a different train to get back to Tokyo.

Of course, the train driver did announce this when we had reached Odawara, but ONLY IN JAPANESE.

And the train we were on, on the Odakyu Line, didn’t have any signs in English at all, unlike those on the JR Line.

So let this be a lesson to all: Transfer at Odawara or you will be stuck in Hakone FOREVER.

For the rest of the now-3-hour train ride, we made jokes about how no matter how many times we transferred trains, we would always end up in Hakone Yumoto because it was like this haunted horror town that never lets you go. And at night when you’re stuck there sulphurous green monsters come out and eat you.

Therefore, even though we were supposed to reach Shinjuku at 9 pm and have dinner with June (who’d arrived in Tokyo the day before), we only arrived back in Shinjuku at 10, by which time most restaurants had closed. Luckily a cafe near our hotel, called the Ooze Charm Cafe, was open til midnight. We took a much-needed shower (the sweat and scratches of Owakudani being still stuck on our skins) and then practically crawled to the cafe, where we had excellent Japanese-style pasta in an underground indoor smoking area.

Our clothes still smelled of smoke the next morning.

Tags: hakone, japan, tokyo

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