Day 4 – Atami to Hakone, Lake Ashi Cruise, and Tokyo Shinjuku
3:30am I am awakened numerous times and am in bad wear from sleeping on the Tatami Mat. During one of these sleep intermissions, I decide to use the bathroom. Somehow, I manage to groggily don the appropriate shoes and sit on the john. But, no sooner than my tush has touched the porcelain shrine’s seat than I get accosted by the Possessed Japanese Toilet from Hell. Some nondescript (remember, I’m still two thirds asleep) Japanese folk music starts to play from the control console, the seat begins to rumble with the ‘Auto on heat’ feature, and a jet of water wooshes from the toilet to places best left unmentioned. Yes, I was most definitely in a foul and grouchy mood now. I return to my mat after deciding that automatic toilets are most definitely a bad idea, or at the very least lacking an ‘auto safety’ timer that turns off all functions during the groggy hours for those of us lacking hand-eye-foot coordination before our morning tea or coffee.
[Nathan] After a wonderful night’s sleep on the tatami mats (Marc said it was the most uncomfortable night that he has spent) I was up at 4 AM to watch the sunrise, however the weather was not cooperating with me. Rain had arrived, driven to the island nation from a typhoon swirling somewhere out in the middle of the Pacific. Instead of braving the elements, I cozy up in the small sitting area and channel surf for a little while. I left the sound off the television, focusing on the sound of the waves crashing into shore through my open window.
This trip has been very interesting for me so far, I am typically a night owl, sleeping in as late as possible. However, the shifting of time zones has worked out in my favor this trip. I am up early each morning, and am amazed at watching how the world starts it’s day. While sitting next to the window, I notice a small fishing fleet leaving Atami Harbor, heading out to sea. This scene is reminiscent of one that you would see while watching a classic Japanese Drama film.
The New Akao Hotel, where we are staying, is definitely not new and showing the age of a 30 year seaside hotel that you should expect. While it is not the fanciest or most luxurious, this hotel does offer a unique experience that I strongly believe every traveler to Japan should have. Impeccably clean, full of amenities and good service, this seaside queen of a hotel which was once one of the jewels of the hot spring inns has seen better days; don’t let the hotel’s age and wear dissuade you, however, from enjoying the memories that will come from staying there.
Breakfast is a treat, located in the main dining room of the resort. With simply more choice’s than you can shake a stick at, you will be able to fill your stomach with either traditional Japanese cuisine or more standard western foods that you would expect at a high-end hot breakfast buffet. [Marc, again] Our suggestion: do what we did and mix up western cuisine with samples of Japanese morsels. You never know what you will like/love/adore until you try it, and cuisine is an integral part of any cultural experience. Our tour company, Super Value Tours, has done an excellent job in designing an itinerary that allows us to sample many different types of traditional Japanese cuisine, ones even worldly gourmands like us on the Pacific Coast with an over-abundance of Asian and Japanese options had never tried before.
After breakfast we check out and make our way to the Owakudani valley, which translates literally into Big Boiling Valley. Climbing high into the mountains on steep and twisty roads with fog so thick that you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of the bus, we continue our Japan Journey. The topography of the valley to us seemed more like a collection of pools, ponds and springs nestled in between outcropping hills than what one typically associates with a valley. The austere deep brown and slate gray colored soil is covered in milky gray-white bubbling hot spring water laden with sulfur that oozes and flows in small streams and ponds throughout. As expected, the heavy smell of sulfur permeates the air, and adds a unique olfactory experience.
At the top-most walking trail, there is a tourist stop overlooking a large spring with bubbling water where the locals cook a special delicacy –blackened hardboiled egg. Due to the mineral spring water content and process, the eggs are charcoal black on the outside but look, taste and smell like any other hardboiled eggs. Nathan and I are offered an egg each by our hosts, and graciously partake. Legend has it that eating these rare eggs will add 7 years to your life. Maiko, our guide, has been here numerous times and often partook of the eggs, estimating she has added enough years onto her life to last well into the 23rd century! Here, atop the valley floor while our group is busily devouring the blackened eggs, we encounter a local school group, presumably out on a field trip. The children are very friendly and sociable, well mannered and not in the least bit rowdy as would be expected of, say Americans, in their early teens. Curiosity being many a popular trait amongst the young, we are approached with simple questions as where are we from, and Nathan is making friends left and right. We snap a photo with the kids, and exchange emails, proffering our business cards. Of course, this starts another dialog about our company and captures the intrigue of the student’s English teacher, to whom the cards are passed as the senior most representative of the school and children; we remain fascinated about the nuances of Japanese culture as it relates to social position and business cards, learning something new every day.
Our newfound friends depart as briskly as they came to continue their adventures, and we soon wrap up ours in the valley, walking to the adjacent ropeway (ie sky tram) station. Along the way, we stop and ogle at the many confectionary and traditional sweets being sold in the stores, and buy yet another ice cream cone. Soft serve ice cream is so prevalent on our trip through Japan, it seems almost impossible go a few hundred feet and not run into a store selling some. Every shop from mom and pop trinket store to clothing, to restaurants along the street sells green tea (Macha), vanilla and chocolate. Our shop here at the ropeway station was different in that blueberry ice cream was also on the menu. I order Green tea as I’ve gotten quite hooked on the flavor, and Nathan orders blueberry which is indeed a delectable alternate. The machine here is different than most, requiring a small ‘cartridge’ of ice cream that is ‘pushed’ by the machine into a soft-serve squishy spout to form our cone; a neat innovation allowing even the most modest shops the ability to sell ice cream year-round. Nathan ogles machine longingly, commenting that it would make a nice gift or souvenir reminder of Japan.
We board the scenic Hakone Ropeway heading down the mountain to the adjacent ferry boat station. By far the largest cable car we’ve ever ridden in, this Japanese technical wonder sat over 15 people comfortably with scenic views all around. Although the wild forests have been replaced with planted trees to reforest the region with cedars and cypress, the resulting look and feel of the forest is very geometrically planned but soothing nonetheless to look at. We descend into the foothills below gracefully through the clouds that hang like white cotton sheets upon the mountain. These clouds, while somewhat limiting visibility lend an eerie and mystical sense to the journey downward, exposing another facet of Japan’s wonder and natural beauty which travelers can witness in any season.
Arriving at the foot of the mountain, we walk the few dozen feet to the nearby Lake Ashi ferry boat terminal and boat docks, passing more interesting shops and stores along the way. We quickly grab a drink and some sweets to snack on later in the trip, and hustle to our awaiting ship that will ferry us across lake Ashi to Hokone town where we will be enjoying lunch. Our boat is a Pirate ship, fully bedecked in colorful regalia, pirate mannequins, and pirate flag. Past this décor, however, is a very pleasant smooth riding vessel sailing gracefully across the lake. Today’s weather as we sailed was on the cooler side, too frigid for some in our group; while we didn’t’ believe it was necessary, the group ‘bought up’ into the first class lounge which is essentially a large quiet living room where you can cozy up on comfy yet plain sofas and lounge chairs. There is much to look at as you sail lake Ashi. Natural rock outcroppings are covered in greenery, with a handful of small islands dotting the lake. One island even contained a Shinto gate, indicating a possible shrine or sacred site. Off the port side, we spotted an expansive Shinto monastery with a tall onion-shaped brown roof and the structure blended into the natural surroundings seemlessly. Also prevalent along the shore of lake Ashi were a handful of golf courses.
Upon on arrival at the other side of lake Ashi, we saunter down a few blocks for our five minute walk to the Hokone Hotel. While we will not be staying here, we are partaking of our “western style” buffet lunch. I must confess that even to a worldly traveler, a break from the new and novel ethnic cuisines is not always a bad thing. Truth be told, although our buffet was definitely in the style of western cuisine (mostly French or Italian in ingredients and presentation) some nuances or ‘fusion’ of Japanese was inevitable in a few of the dishes. The outcome, a high quality meal you would expect at a nice French or Italian a-la-carte restaurant in any major metropolis, with a few minor pleasant surprise twists (the pea soup mousse shots, for example). Along with braised beef short ribs, grilled chicken (teriyaki, of course!) and fish, there was a tantalizing selection of hearty, healthy and flavorful salads. Deserts were also quite divine, featuring traditional French pastries and cakes, along with homemade Gelato and Sorbeto. Yum! Fully satiated, we rejoin our bus which has made its way to join us here at the hotel for our pickup for today’s final ride to Tokyo Shinjuku area to check into our hotel. The ride is mostly uneventful, as we are given an opportunity to nap; Nathan and I are too excited to catch much sleep, so I hammer away at the keyboard writing our blog, while Nathan snaps a few photos of the scenery.
Arrival at the Keio Plaza hotel is pleasant and seamless. Once again check-in is smooth as Super Value Tours has pre arranged the room particulars and keys; we simply drop by a special desk, pickup our keys, and are on our way to our room. On our way, we pass the central lobby with towering massive floral arrangements tastefully dominating the center. The rooms are typically elegant and luxurious, as one would expect from a member hotel of the Preferred Hotels affiliate. World-class touches of luxurious linens and bedding, simple modern furniture and high-end amenities remind us that we have arrived at a modern metropolis and the Keio Plaza is a shining gem; the Keio Plaza is strategically located just three minutes walk to Shinjuku station… we estimate it would take longer to navigate Shinjuku’s maze of passageways in off-hours than to walk there. From here, many shops, restaurants and attractions are within easy walking or metro distance.
On the typical itinerary, tonight would be free on our own to discover the many dining options in and around Shinjuku station; for us, however, the Japanese National Tourism Organization is hosting us at a nearby trendy eatery, “Oto Oto”. We walk the short 10 minute distance, marveling at the amazing towering skyscrapers and the unique architectural novelty that each embodies; it’s easy to see from spotting these how Tokyo can be called the City of the Future, with forward-looking design and an innovative approach to structures and space. Upon entering the restaurant, for example, you immediately feel as though you have walked into an upscale trendy eatery featuring the best of Chelsea in New York, Hayes Valley in San Francisco, or Covent Garden, London. The interior architecture and design is reminiscent of a stylized bird’s nest meets Jenga Puzzle, with curving beams and lattice work intricately woven to create private spaces without solid walls. Our meal is best described as a Japanese Tapas spread, with various tantalizing morsels of different types of Japanese cuisine served in portions of two laid out before us. Selections included sashimi, beef carpaccio, fried dumplings, steamed dumplings and other tidbits.
After a delectable early dinner which concludes at about 9pm, we return to our hotel to freshen up for going out; Maiko had offered an optional extra bonus tour of Shinjuku station which we are looking forward to. We lie down for “just 5 minutes”, and immediately drift swiftly into sweet sober slumber, awakening four hours later… a word of warning and caution which we often forget and need to be painfully reminded of: lying down after long active days of travel, no matter your intentions of how short the rest, can often be the last event of the evening…. Our explorations of Shinjuku will simply have to await our next visit.
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