After four days in Tokyo, we checked out of our cute little hotel and took the train out of town. Our destination: Hakone, a cute little town with onsen (hot springs) in Kanagawa prefecture and the gateway to the Mt. Fuji region. The timing was perfect: as much as we enjoyed Tokyo, after the first four days we were ready for a little break.
The “Romance Car” is a 90-minute service from Tokyo’s Shinjuku station to the town of Hakone Yumoto. It isn’t particularly romantic but it has forward facing seats as opposed to the subway car that is used for the local service on the same line. The best part of the Romance Car is that it looks vaguely like a Boeing 747.
You can sit in the nose area and have this fantastic view for the whole trip.
Arriving in Hakone Yumoto, we found it to be a charming, quaint town. A small river flows through it and it is easy to walk from the train station to just about anywhere in town.
Our hotel, Hotel Senkei, was a traditional Japanese inn complete with hot springs bathing facilities just a ten-minute walk from the station. Nestled into a hillside, the Senkei is quiet and charming.
One overall observation with travel in Japan – an observation which held true at the Senkei – is that English isn’t that widely spoken. Not that I expect people in other countries to speak in my language, but with the large number of non-Japanese we encountered, both in Tokyo and even here in Hakone, I was a little surprised that there aren’t more people in the tourist industries who speak languages other than Japanese.
That’s not a problem, though. Between Tawn’s few words of Japanese and a good game of charades, we were able to communicate reasonably well with almost everyone. There were only a few times – I had a problem with my train ticket to the Narita airport, for example – when we felt a communication barrier. In that case, I felt like the person working the ticket gates genuinely didn’t want to help me.
In either case, what is there to do in Hakone? Well, seeing Mt. Fuji is the main thing and it was my objective. You can buy a “Hakone Free Pass” which isn’t free but which allows you to travel on all the different types of transportation in the region. And what a range it is!
First, you take a cute two-car train about twenty minutes up the mountain. (This isn’t Mt. Fuji, just another small mountain above the town.) Then you transfer to a funicular railroad (above). This leads to the “Hakone Ropeway“, an aerial lift that carries gondolas over the summit of the small mountain and down to the shores of Lake Ashi.
This is what the view from the Hakone Ropeway is supposed to look like.
When we arrived there at 4:30 on Monday afternoon, this was the actual view. The entire lake and mountainside was socked in with fog. It reminded me of San Francisco. So, no Mt. Fuji.
Along the ropeway’s path you cross a large sulfur mine – the so-called Valley of Hell – that really is aptly named. You can see where they’ve stripped away large portions of the mountain and there are large yellow deposits of sulfur. Oh, and it smells like rotten eggs, of course.
When we arrived at Lake Ashi, it was also socked in. We had just ten minutes before the finally ship of the day would sail to the far end of the lake, a thirty minute journey that normally affords nice views of Mt. Fuji. Incongruously, the ships are decorated like pirate ships.
Why Tawn was eating an ice cream, I don’t know. It was very chilly on that dock and we stayed inside the boat for the whole trip. At the far end of the lake we boarded a bus, completing the circuit back to Hakone Yumoto.
Exhausted, we returned to the hotel and changed into our yukata, the traditional Japanese robes one wears when lounging about the room. We had already been asked of our preferred dinner time and we chose the latest we could – 7:00. This video shows highlights from our entire Hakone trip but a large portion of it shows the elderly Japanese housekeeper who lays out an elaborate dinner spread and tries to explain to us how to eat it.
To say that the meal was elaborate is an understatement. There were some dozen individual dishes, each prepared with great attention to the presentation. They were delicious and beautiful and by the end of the meal, we were truly satisfied.
We had a lacquered tray of five little amuse bouches. Sadly, I can’t tell you what they were, only that each was tasty and fun to eat.
We had sashimi, pickles, potato salad and something in the green jar that I can’t remember.
The main course was shabu-shabu, beef and vegetables boiled in water and dipped in a sesame sauce.
Twenty minutes after we started eating, the housekeeper returned to serve tempura, the lotus root rice, and a cold pork dish. The miso soup in the corner had these tiny clams in it, smaller than my smallest fingernail. The tempura was a new experience: instead of being dipped in a heavy batter, it had just a light egg wash. The inside was a scrambled egg, one pouch with a scallop and the other with a shrimp. The theme was “sakura” – cherry blossoms – and so the little decoration is meant to evoke a sakura in full blossom. The other thing I learned is that with really good tempura, you’re meant to sprinkle a little sea salt on it.
We were so busy taking pictures that the housekeeper was probably wondering if we were ever going to eat.
Not only did I have to take pictures for this blog, but we had another Flat Stanley traveling with us, this one from Monterey, California. Of course, Stanley wanted to try some Japanese food, too!
While Japanese meals don’t usually include dessert, we were served some of the wonderfully sweet local strawberries with a dollop of whipped cream. The perfect way to end the meal.
After dinner, we went downstairs to the hot springs. Hot spring baths, or onsen, are a central part of Japanese culture. These mineral rich waters are said to be good for any number of ailments and I think the simple act of relaxing in a tub of hot water is a good stress-reliever.
The hotel had both indoor and outdoor baths. The single outdoor bath alternates days for men and women. Both sexes had their own indoor bath, though. Japanese baths are the great leveler: everyone is naked and young or old, skinny or fat, the baths make you realize that we are all pretty much the same.
There were signs and cartoon instructions in both Japanese and English making sure the two important rules of Japanese bathing were observed: First, you clean yourself thoroughly before entering the hot springs. There are little stools and shower hoses in a row and you sit down and scrub yourself until you are pink. Second, your little hand towel must never be put in the bath water. You can put it on your head, use it to cover your face, set it on the side of the bath – but don’t put it in the water.
While we were being scalded in the onsen, the housekeeper took down the table and set up our futons. These were not as comfy as the ones in the Ueno hotel but we still had a good night’s sleep after the day exploring, the filling meal and the relaxing bath.
An elaborate breakfast was served bright and early the next morning as light spring rain fell outside the room.
Boiled tofu and seaweed, fish cake, pickles, rice…
and a poached egg (served, oddly enough, a bit cool) in a thick soy sauce.
Checkout time was 10:00 and we were packed and ready to head to the station, re-energized and eager to return to Tokyo for a few more days of exploring.
Here’s a video of the meal: