Sunday, October 28, 2007

Day #14 - In search of Mount Fuji

How hard can it be to spot a 3778m high volcanic cone? That was the question that plagued us on our journey down to Kyoto and back up from Tokushima. Each time, I would get a seat on the north-facing side of the train and sit with camera in hand; and each time, the clouds would descend, the mist would roll in, and Mount Fuji remained obstinately invisible.

So for our last few days, we thought that we could go to one of the more favoured spots for Fuij-watching, up in the mountains to the west of Tokyo. Hakone is a popular destination for Tokyo's population at the weekends, either because of the views of Fuji, or the large number of hot springs. Most of the hotels have their own private baths fed from these springs, so we thought that it was time for us to strike out on our own and stay in a traditional hotel and experience the pleasures of Japanese bathing.

View from the cab of the Hakone mountain railwayThe Hikari shinkansen, charmingly but inaccurately called the Romance Car, took us from Shinjuku as far as Hakone itself; after a quick stop for lunch (and at the only place that we'd been to which actually gave us miso soup - eating out in Japanese restaurants in Sydney, you get the impression that the Japanese have miso soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day), we hopped on to our next train, which switchbacked its way up the mountains, gaining some 1000m in elevation before dropping us off at Ohiradai, where our hotel was.

Hot springs at Owakudani, seen from the cable carWe dropped off our bags, then hopped back on the train to continue the ride up to Gora, where we changed rides again, getting on to the funicular that runs up to Sounzan, which signals yet another change, this time for a cable car. This then takes you up to Owakudani, where you see the first real indications that you are in hot spring country. You're also supposed to be able to smell the sulphur in the air, but I can't say that it was that noticeable. From here we were also supposed to be able to get our first real view of Mount Fuji, but who would have thought it, Fuji-sama was once more hiding behind the clouds. From Owakudani, the cable car descended a bit to Lake Ashi, and we crossed to the other end on a very kitsch mock pirate ship. If there's a reason for those ships, I'd be interested to know it. With the sun now setting, we continued our quest to use as many forms of transport as possible in one day, and got on the bus back to Hakone, then back on to the mountain train up to Ohiradai and the hotel.

By now we were quite used to sleeping on tatami and futons, but this was the first time that I experienced the low ceilings -when it came to dinner time, I had to stoop continually to avoid braining myself on the roof beams. Fortunately I was able to turn those stoops into polite bows to the other guests, so I didn't look too much like a chicken scratching for corn.

After dinner, it was bathtime. This meant same-sex communal baths, so if you feel embarrassed about being naked in front of strangers, then it's not for you, and you're greatly missing out. As it happened though, I had the male baths at the hotel to myself. The baths themselves are not for washing in - you're supposed to have cleaned up first; instead, you just sit there, enjoying/enduring the heat and whatever company is there. I was worried that I would come out looking like freshly cooked lobster, but actually the water was just about the perfect temperature for me, so I was able to soak in solitude.

After the baths, there was enough time to watch a few incomprehensible Japanese game shows, then off to bed.

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