Hot springs, a lake and 5 types of transport
And so to Hakone to make the most of a Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday.
Hakone is situated in a beautiful mountainous area near the coast to the west of Tokyo. It is known for its scenery, particularly around Lake Ashi, and its hot springs.
We stayed in a wonderful ryokan style hot spring resort hotel in the tiny town of Gora. The hotel has its own large hot spring baths but also each room has a small private balcony with its own little hot spring bath so you can have a dip any time you fancy it without all the formalities of a public bath. It rained hard that first night and it was certainly luxurious sitting in 38 degree hot springs listening to the rain lash down around your balcony.
The room itself was one of their western style rooms, but happily they have "westernised" very cleverly so that we in fact had a beautiful Japanese style room with tatame matting and sliding wooden doors, only with mattresses and duvets instead of futons.
We opted for beef hotpot for dinner (shabu shabu) which turned out to be the third of 5 courses in a grand meal which also included a youzu liqueur appetiser, an assortment of artistically presented pickles, vegetables and tofu, crispy tempura, sushi, and cherry blossom ice cream for dessert. It was absolutely delicious. The perfect way to round off my first full day in Japan.
The next morning after a bit of a lie in, we ate all that we could of a baffling Japanese style breakfast (lots of pickles again, as well as rice, miso soup, rice porridge, tofu and a whole baked fish, complete with face) and then set off to explore Hakone.
Apparently the way to "do" Hakone is to start off on the funicular railway up from Gora, admire the views from there and then take the cable car over and down the mountain to Lake Ashi. So that's what we did. A small section of the cable car was closed due to volcanic activity (!!!) so we took a comfy but winding bus ride round the mountain and took the cable car down from the top. The views from all parts of this journey were quite spectacular. In parts of the forest, steam rises from hot springs under the ground, which is very atmospheric and even a little eerie. It may have been the first day of spring, but by the time we reached the lake, at 700 m above sea level, it was decidedly wintery. So when we arrives at tje cablecar station I bought a very stylish blue bobble hat and unmatching red gloves.
Once at the lake, which in many ways looked a lot like Bassenthwaite or Derwentwater, we stopped for a brief but tasty lunch of katsu curry and then hopped on a pirate ship to take us across to the other side! Thank goodness for bobble hats and gloves as we were able to brave the upper deck of the ship and watch the beautiful views all around us. The lake is fairly long and thin and only has a shore in one side, which is not overly populated, apart from a couple of hotels and a small shrine with its red wooden gate in the water. On the other side, thickly forested mountainside falls steeply to meet the water's edge. It really was beautiful.
On arrival at the other end of the lake, we were greeted by a number of very nice craft shops and delis selling local delicacies. We bought strawberries and candied ume (somewhere between a plum and an apricot) and talked in English to a friendly German who owned a shop exporting Japanese crafts.
A particular specialty of Hakone is a type of woodwork known as marquetry, and we saw some incredibly intricate examples of this. We were just admiring some pots and crockery in one craft shop when the owner approached me to try to open a door in the back wall of the shop. It turned out it was a tick door and she seemed to have great fun watching me figure it out. After that we happily paid our 300 yen and went through the door into a tiny little museum of wooden trick boxes, desks and cabinets. Some of them took more than twenty moves to open. And some of them were opened in such ingenious ways that it was almost unbelievable. We bought a couple as souvenirs of our visit and headed back to the lake.
Having covered funicular rail, cablecar, coach and boat, it was back on a bus again before we completed our journey by conventional railway back to our little station in Gora.
After that we took the dreamily named Romancecar (a limited express train) back to Tokyo and headed home to Tokai.
All in all, a wonderful, relaxing first weekend in Japan.