Sulphuric Sights

Trip Start Oct 03, 2011
Trip End Dec 25, 2011

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Where I stayed
a traditional Ryokan
What I did
Went for a tour round the area on every form of public transport

Flag of Japan  , Kanto,
Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hakone is our next stop and is a few hours train ride away… and our first experience of Shinkansen, or the bullet train! Michael is definitely more excited than Amy, until she realises how fast they go as one glides through the station at an incredible speed and then her first words are "well if that crashes we're definitely going to die!" However, just to reassure you, there have been no fatalities since their inception over thirty years ago and we think it unlikely that we will be the first. The train is uber smooth, very tilty, and precise to the minute, and yet again the Japanese demonstrate their sheer organization levels with exactly where to queue neatly marked out on the platform floors. Also very exciting is that the chairs can all turn round to face different directions – very clever.

We arrive in Odawara which is the gateway to the Hakone region and are helpfully walked to the exact bus stop by a guy from the tourist info. Essentially, what we are now attempting is the equivalent of catching a bus into the Lake District on a bank holiday - just a little bit busy! The bus driver is far removed from the British variety though – he turns his engine off at traffic lights, stops for pedestrians, and the roads are so narrow he even stops for other vehicles – so polite!

We arrive in Sengoku which is where our Ryokan is – this is the word for a Japanese B&B but alas without the breakfast. Japan is a cash based society, so we hand over all our money to the owner (Japan IS expensive!), then realise we are staying in a village which is unlikely to have an international cash point (only post offices and 7-11’s are connected up to the international network, and as it’s Sunday, the post office is shut). Our charming Ryokan host unfortunately doesn’t speak English, so 'money’ and even miming cash aren’t getting us anywhere, until Amy remembers the guidebook tip and says “seben eruben” (no joke) and the guys face lights up as he points us in the right direction!

We head off to a botanical garden for what is left of the afternoon. From there, the view is exactly what we thought Japan was supposed to look like, very mountainous and with every spare inch of land seeming put to use for growing crops etc. There are hardly any pavements and hardly any gardens, and all the ‘views’ have things like electricity pylons slap bang in the middle of them – having said that, most of the UK is the same I suppose! In other words, it IS pretty, but only if you ignore some bits.

We head out for an evening meal, and it turns out to be one with a burner in the middle of the table to cook your own food, woohoo, fire! Amy orders the first thing the waitress shows us a picture of that isn’t meat, so we end up cooking our own seafood platter – it’s well fun cooking it yourself, and we feel as proud as if we have caught it with our own fair hands. The only difficult bit is eating a full blown prawn with chopsticks… Answers on a postcard please. We ended up just pulling it to bits with our fingers, but did get a few strange looks from people, which makes us think this is not the done thing. One of the things about traveling is trying to work out what’s acceptable or not. For example, until we spot one reprobate Japanese lady just walking straight across a road on a red light, we stop and wait at every deserted crossing. The other difficult bit is signs – what do they mean? We are hesitant at the botanical gardens when we spot what we think is a no entry sign, but everyone else ploughs straight through. Take a look at the photos and tell us what you think the monkey sign says – it was next to a footpath in Nikko and we still haven’t figured it out.

After tea we head back to the Ryokan to brave the onsen! This is a hot traditional Japanese bath. Michael has read the guide book and is looking forward to it; Amy has managed to get the wrong end of the stick and is really not. What you’re meant to do is get undressed, put your clothes in a basket, go into a tiled room with the bath, give yourself a thorough wash before you get in the bath, then get in the very very hot water and have a soak. What Amy thought was that (1) the bath was communal and (2) the bath was mixed sex… hence the British reserve coming to fore. But all is well, this is not the case and we both survive and Michael enjoys it so much that he takes a beer in the next evening as well, which I don’t think is THAT traditional…

Next day is bank holiday Monday, so we have a bit of a lie in (Japanese internal walls are made of mulberry paper or some sort of light wood, so we heard our fellow guests chattering away for much of the night – the Japanese are clearly only really quiet in public!). Anyway, by the time Amy has devoured her cereal, we are heading for the tourist sights at 10am, whooooops. It’s not too bad to be honest, just a little bit squished as we take a funicular then a cable car up to the top of a volcano which is a bubbling mass of hot springs. On the way up we spot one of the most famous sights in Japan – Mt. Fuji. We can just glimpse it through the haze and clouds which seem to permanently hover over much of Japan (I don’t think it’s smog though), then we turn our attention back to the very smelly volcano (which explains the smell on the bus earlier which Michael thought was Amy, ha ha), and the highlight of the day…eggs boiled in a volcanic hot springs! Ahhhhhh so cool!! They’re completely black, because of the minerals in the water, very tasty. They come with a little packet of white stuff, which we’re fairly sure is salt, but we’re a little bit cautious about it as the other day we ate a pudding which we thought came with sugar sprinkles but it turned out to be that dessicated gel that is used to keep moisture out of stuff - luckily along with a lot of Japanese writing it had ‘do not eat’ written on it in tiny letters. We can safely report that in this case if it wasn’t salt to go with the eggs, then that gel stuff tastes great with them.

Next stop down the mountain is a ferry to take us across Lake Ashinoko. The ferry is disguised as a pirate ship, and the crew are all dressed up – why wouldn’t you after all? Also very cool are the paddle boats which are disguised as giant swans and are bobbing picturesquely on the lake, along with one random panda one. They look a bit too much like hard work, so we decide to have an ice-cream instead. Alas, they have run out of sweetcorn flavour, so Michael tries Hokkaido Melon, while Amy has Purple Potato. They’re both very nice, which I suppose isn’t that surprising when you consider they’re both probably 95% sugar & preservatives anyway.

After a bit of a wander and a few more glances at Fuji, we realise that not many people are around, hmmmmm. The last pirate ship has sailed! So we get the bus back home – not quite so fun (although it’s still a bit more interesting than the UK buses, with helpful announcements like ‘the road meanders here, take care as we go round corners’) and there is the added EEK of thinking we’ve missed our connection and will be stranded in the mountains.

We chicken out this evening on the Japanese cuisine, and hit a French restaurant (our French being marginally better than our Japanese) so Michael has spag bol (but more French) and Amy has macaroni cheese (but more French) and fresh bread, hurrah! Anyone would think we had been away for a year instead of just a week.

Next stop? Takayama.

Lots of love,

Amy & Michael
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