Wow, that is the best way to describe Hakone, simply Wow. We spent some time yesterday looking over materials, Sam was invaluable at being able to read what we didnt have in English. Hakone really is an awesome place with a lot of history, like most places in Japan. However, there is something awesome about staying on the side of a volcano, even if it is dormant.
Our day started with one of the most crowded train rides I have ever been on, and that includes the Yamanote line in Tokyo at rush hour and the 6 train in Manhattan during rush hour. I mean, every stop people kept getting on, and somehow they kept fitting, it was ridiculious. In addition, it was a bit chilly and with everyone inside the train cars you couldnt even see outside because it was so foggy. Our goal was to reach the city of Gora, which sites about 500m above Hakone. To get there, we went up the side of the mountain through a series of switchbacks; here the train would basically go all the way forward the reverse changing from the track they just used. The infrastructure at work here is simply remarkable. After about 20m of this we reached Gora. Here we caught a special train to take us even higher (see picture)
This train was much shorter, but it seems this particular area, near the city of Gora, is much steeper and not a place where the switchback system could be used. We were actually quite glad because of the crowdedness of the previous train and the crying baby which, I am surprised to say, was louder then any other baby on a vehicle I have ever heard, and she just would not stop. Thankfully my Zune came to the rescue with Papa Roach, so it wasnt so bad for me :).
Upon reaching the city of Souzan, the end of the line for this car, we made for the Hakone Ropeway which is as awesome as it sounds. Our first stop was Owakudani and some “different” out door hot springs. But first some shots from the ropeway en route to Owakudani.
So what you are seeing here is a picture of the ropeway vehicle which is essentially a gondola and something my Dad would never go on 🙂 I took a few scenery shots, but these ones came out the best and are the most impressive I feel. The main draw of Owakudani are the old sulfuric hot springs which are due to the elevated volcanic activity in that area, that was my understanding at least. Now, its not going to erupt its just smells very interesting and makes you feel high if you expose yourself for too long, but it as a really great time.
After this, we boarded the Ropeway again, our next stop was Togendai, and a trip across Ashinoko (Lake Ashino). Some here are some shorts from the other side of the mountain.
So Lake Ashino was formed by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago which carved out what is called a caldera. This is effectively a giant crater in the middle of a volcano range. So this lake is actually up in the mountains, pretty cool stuff, but not as cool as the ship we got to cross in, it has a pirate 🙂
This lake stretches all the way back to Hakone, but it was much more comfortable then the packed train we used earlier. On the way back Sam noticed a shrine visible from the river so we decided to check it out.
I dont have any idea what the shrine is used for or what it is honoring, but Japanese shrines are always pretty cool and have a lot of stairs, which is fine by me, not like the mountain hiking made me all that tired 🙂
Our final stop of the day was the “disappearing path”, which is found underneath the water gate you see above (orange thing) and basically allows you to talk out into Lake Ashino, however, the path disappears as the tide rises and reappears as it pulls out. Its pretty neat stuff.
After this we decided to head back to make sure we could get our dinner at 7:00pm. However, what I did not realize is that we arrived via boat in Hakone, but on the other side of a large hill. We needed to take bus back. I had thought the boat would drop us off down the road from Hakone-yumoto station, but it turns out I was wrong. It is now against my advice to ride a crowded Japanese bus through the mountains if you have motion sickness. I swear, when it snows up there those drives cant go more then 2mph, if they go at all. I mean super hairpin switchbacks, it was killing me, I was so close to puking. But we made it back to the ryokan safely and laughed about it later.
Dave decided we should hit the outdoor onsen, which are awesome. First here is the deal about onsen water. If you have ever taken a dip in a hot tub in America you know that your hands get wrinkly after a certain amount of time. This is because it is not mineralized water. Onsen water comes directly from the Earth and so is naturally packed with minerals. Because of this you can stay for a significantly long time and your hands simply will not wrinkle. Japanese women often use onsens to reduce wrinkles, the water here really is super amazing. So, many places in Japan have indoor baths that use this water, but others have them outside as well. So we ended up sitting totally naked, cause you NEVER wear clothes in a Japanese hot spring, its exceptionally rude and unclean, in an outdoor onsen, looking out over a river. It was basically the coolest thing ever, though it would have been even cooler if it was about 40 degrees outside, but you only notice that as you walk to the onsen, which I admit, does feel pretty weird. But walking back, you dont even feel the air cause your body is so warm.
So this was one of the most awesome days ever. I really gotta hand it to Sam and Dave as I let them plan everything, I said I just wanted to go on the Ropeway, which was like a universal thing for all of us. I am sad to be leaving the Ryokan because we have had so much fun, but it is time. Besides, its hard to eat some of the food here when it has eyes that are looking back at you. Dave and Sam got a kick out of me just staring at the raw shrimp last night. We also had “shabbi shabbi” which was awesome. Basically you head a bowl of water and drop a ton of fresh veggies in it, and then you grad a piece of raw meat with your chop sticks and drag it around in the bowl. The water is so hot it cooks the outside of the meat and most of the inside. It was actually pretty delicious, though I am looking forward to stopping at the Hard Rock Cafe in Ueno on our trip to Mito 🙂
So I have tried to make it a point to learn something interesting about Japan each day, well yesterday, thanks to Sam, I learned two things. The first thing is that, aside from Hokkaido, Japanese houses do not use insulation. The same is true with our Ryokan. According to Dave this is something that Westerners have a hard time with because we expect we will be warm when we are inside. The Japanese dont think you should be able to tell when you are inside vs outside when moving through a structure, it adds to the aesthetics. It seems kind of weird, but its not all that bad to be honest.
The second thing I learned about Japan is that, aside from western restaurants, meat is NEVER cooked for you. Instead you are given the means to cook the meat so you can decide how much to cook it. Most Japanese would never go all the way to Well cooked, its just part of their culture; also explains the popularity of YakiNiku places, where you walk down a buffet line picking up raw meat that you cook at a grill built into your table.
So, I am excited to start the next leg of my journey and see Mito, before I head south to Hikone. Wish me luck, Hakone was awesome.