Thursday, September 13, 2007


(Hienkaku, Hakone-Yumoto)

Given how relaxed the previous evening had left me, I decided to roll with it, and indulged in the ultimate luxury, and did not set myself an alarm for the morning. Which didn’t stop everyone else in the hotel getting up and making a ruckus, but never mind. It was the thought that counted.

The days plan consisted of doing the classic loop of the Hakone area. It started with the train from Yumoto Station to Gora station. This was the weirdest rail set up I’ve ever come across. Instead of running from station to station in a straight line, it zig-zagged. At every station, the train changed directions and started up a new line. Disconcerting at first.

At Gora, it was a cable car up a pretty steep slope, and from there to the Hakone rope way. I admit, after the Trans Alpine route, all this transport hopping had me wary, but this was a much more relaxed atmosphere, and everything was out in the open, so there was plenty of opportunity to gawk at the forested hills.

The rope way went up, and up, to Owakudani, a sulphur venting pit, described as a little bit of hell. As I wandered out of the rope way station, I happened to glance out the window, and OH MY FUCKING GOD MOUNT FUJI!!!!!!!!



I’d be marvelling at the mountains all around me, how big they were, and there in the distance sat Fuji-san, easily twice as big as the tallest of them. That perfect cone shape stands out a mile.

I had a moment like this in America last year. On the first day of the tour, we were in the bus heading into the Cascade Mountains. I was gawking at them, because they disappeared into the clouds and still had snow on them, and then I saw Mt Rainer, which popped up through the top of the clouds well and clear.

You have no idea what a mental slap in the brain with ice cold water and lemon juice that is. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to take mountains for granted. The timing was good for the sky to be clear enough. I’d assumed Fuji-san would be hidden by clouds and haze. I am so lucky, so very lucky, and this world is will never stop surprising me.

Owakudani was a funny little tourist gimmick. There wasn’t much geyesering or venting to be seen, although there were signs everywhere telling people not to loiter too long, as the fumes from the ground were toxic. At the top of the little trail through the area was a hut selling eggs, which had not just been cooked in the ground, but by the ground. Their shells had turned black from the gasses. They were only available in packets of six, so I bought some and joined the throngs of people standing around narrow tables, tap-tap-tapping and peeling their eggs. It was wicked fun, actually. There’s nothing like communal egg eating to make people giggle. As I hadn’t yet eaten for the day, I nommed down a couple. I prefer my eggs soft boiled, but I don’t think cooking in a hell pit is a precise art.

The girls next to me couldn’t peel to save the world.

All the while, Fuji-san sat, looking over my shoulder at my eggs.

It dominates the landscape. It isn’t a mountain range, it is one giant mountain that dwarfs the ranges around it. I couldn’t do anything but stare at it, whenever it was visible. To think I intended to climb in. I wouldn’t dare now. One of the Norwegians A and I met at worldcon climbed Fuji-san. He said that tallest mountain in Norway is approx 2500m (rough memory guess there), and that the climbing on Fuji-san starts at 2500m. If Vikings have trouble climbing it, there’s no hope for me.

I got back on the rope way, which dropped me off down by Lake Ashi. From there, a sight-seeing cruise would go down the lake, and I could get off at either Hakone-machi or Moto-Hakone.

Said sight-seeing boat was the corniest, cheesiest pirate boat I have ever seen. It even came with fake sails. I’m glad the audio play they pumped over the speakers for the whole cruise was in Japanese, as even to me it sounded damn awful.

I hopped off at Hakone-machi, as there was supposed to be a good ancient cedar avenue between Hakone-machi and Moto-hakone. First, food. At Noah’s, I had a “chinese bowl”, and I could tell it was definitely chinese by the brown glug of sauce over everything. You know that sauce; greasy, thickened with cornflour, probably packed with MSG. Ah, a taste of home.

(Yep. Glug.)

After minimal wandering, I found the Hakone Check Point, which is a reconstructed set, not the original. The English signage was minimal, but it was interesting to note how it controlled the flow of traffic between Edo and Kyoto. Hakone is reputed to be the hardest part of the highway to pass through, and not just because of official restrictions, but because the landscape itself is daunting. This one tiny little check point controlled everything.

(There's that stupid mole again! She can't hold a camera and control her facial expressions at the same time.)

The material museum that was included in the admission ticket (I was handed a coupon book with the Hakone Free Pass that gave me a dollar discount), had even less English signage, but there were some great illustrations of exactly what happened to people who tried to avoid the check point by going through the mountains. Crucifixion. Crushing. Beheading. Etc. Serious business.

I didn’t quite find the cedar avenue. Again, lack of English signage, and lack of proper detail on the three maps I had. I ended up just walking to Moto-Hakone along the main road. I think, I can’t confirm it though, that the cedar avenue actually ran right beside the road. Which would make it a not particularly peaceful walk.

Along the docks to the other side of the inlet, where I found a beautiful floating torii. The large orange gate was set just in the water. Smoke drifted through the trees and out over the lake, as someone was burning off debrie from the typhoon. I don’t know why, but I love each and every torii I come across. They’re simple, elegant things, with so much potential to be something extraordinary.

(There she is again, jumping in my picture! I think she's stalking me. Also, her profile freaks me out. For srs.)

From the torii, I hiked up the stairs and across the road to the Hakone Shrine and treasure museum, which was full of tour groups and half blocked off by a TV crew setting up for recording. What I saw of it was lovely. The prayer walls in particular were full of blocks of wood, covered with wishes. I found a couple in English, and reading them felt like an enormous intrusion of privacy. It felt right that I couldn’t read the majority; wishes should be secrets.

Having finished with what I wanted to see, I headed back into Moto-Hakone to look for the Old Tokaido Highway, which is a section of the original highway between Edo and Kyoto. Surprisingly, I found it easily (a handy sign near a bright pink shop on the main road), and set off. Every map I had featured the Amazake-Chanya Tea House not far up the highway, where I would be able to catch the bus back to Yumoto.

Right. You’re sensing a pattern with my luck, aren’t you?

None of the reading I did for Hakone mentioned that the Old Tokaido Highway was a deathwish. I think I would have remembered that. A pity, because that’s useful information to have, and had I had it, I wouldn’t have gone.

For starters, when the books talk about the ‘paved highway’, they don’t mention that the ancient Japanese idea of paving is to find the most lumpy uneven mismatched rocks possible, and then throw them on the ground. It was just as bad, if not occasionally worse, than the trail down into the Grand Canyon.

It was also wet, and littered with leaves and branches from the typhoon. Everything was slippery. The majority of my attention was focused on where I was putting me feet, otherwise I might have enjoyed the walk, as it went through dense forest and bamboo groves. It was very quiet, and far from the road. I only met two people coming back the other way.

It started as a niggling little thought; if I twist my ankle, fall and shatter my knee, trip and knock myself out and drown in an inch of water, no one will find me for days. This thought got bigger with every minute, with every sign I walked past that was full of kanji and no English. Along with it was the growing realisation that I had no real idea how far the tea house was, and that, holy shit, it was five o’clock, it was going to get dark soon. You know, dark. Not light. Here, in this overgrown death path in the forest.

Those aren’t nice thoughts to be carrying around.

(Without flash. Dark. Rocky. Sad face.)

Then it got worse. The path started to go down hill. Going up an uneven rocky slippery surface is much easier than going down one. There was a moment where I just stopped, and stood frozen in the growing dark, afraid to go on as I was convinced I was going to fall and break something and ruin my whole trip, yet unable to go back. There were no easy escapes to be had. But lo! I heard cars, the actual road was up ahead, always a good sign. A burst of speed and I found the road, and better yet, a sign saying the tea house was 400 m further. With a definite distance in hand, I powered on. The last stretch of the highway was easier to traverse, as the paving was long gone, thank goodness.

I staggered into the Amazake-Chanya tea house, and with my pig-japanese and their pig-english, ordered myself some freshly made warm mochi (seriously delicious, these ones had no filling, and were just the glutenous rice jelly covered in green tea powder), and a cup of amazake (a warm drink made of fermented rice broth, which was sweet and amazingly delicious), and sat down to wait for the bus.

According to the timetable, I had missed the last bus by 10 minutes.

I specifically did not think about this for a while, and enjoyed my mochi and amazake.

The tea house staff told me the walk to Hatajuku, where buses still ran to Yumoto, would take an hour. Depressing, but oh well. At least this time I wouldn’t be walking on a deathtrap ancient highway. Instead, I’d be on a well used mountain highway with no curb for pedestrians, sharp corners, and mad Japanese drivers. A different sort of deathtrap, but at least they wouldn’t have to look for my body.

It was getting dark.

The tea house manager told me again the walk would take an hour, it was dark, the highway was not a good place to walk in the dark, and that he was going home to Yumoto, and he would drive me there. It took a bit of language wrestling to get this across, but when I finally understood, I just about kissed his feet. I don’t think he had any concept of what an enormous boon he was offering me, and apologised, actually apologised, when his father was late in turning up to swap shifts.

We had ourselves a great mangled conversation on the drive down to Yumoto. I startled myself, with how much I was able to converse in Japanese, although his English was much better than he allowed himself. The road was pretty intimidating, and also not lit.

He dropped me off at my hotel. I won’t butcher his name by attempting to spell it here, but I owe him a great debt. Domo arigato gozaimas.

Funny, had this happened in Australia, I’m not sure I would have accepted. A and I talked about this. There is a much higher basic level of trust operating in this country, not merely because trust is polite, but because it is tested. Whereas, you all know what happens if you accept rides from strangers in rural Australia, right? Right. You get horribly butchered, they never find your body, and then make a movie out of it.

You know what Amazake Chan-ya is, right? It's fucking Rivendell. It's the Last Homely House. It's that inn in the Dragonlance books in Solace which has a near identical name. It's the safe haven in all those epic tales.

I tracked the mud from the Old Tokaido into the hotel. Sorry, gomenazai. Yamasoba was closed when I set out for dinner. Either that, or it was a Tardis in disguise, and has zipped off to serve mountain mushrooms in another dimension.

So, what’s the moral of this story? Check the fucking timetable before you go. Don’t ever, not even when you have company, it’s dry and you have many hours of daylight, don’t ever walk on the Old Tokaido Highway.

And do, most definitely, do go visit the Amazake Chan-ya tea house, where they serve great home made sweets and drinks, and rescue poor fools like me with a smile.


  1. Anonymous25/9/07 09:05

    I want to go play in these places where you are playing. I want it so badly. I wish I had the balls to just save up money and then go. Just go. Not worry about jobs or bullshit or bills- just go, for a month, and see things.

    Maybe when Jacob's older. Maybe we'll go together.

  2. Anonymous5/5/08 22:16

    I just did the Hakone tour with my daughter who is a Jet. But we did it clockwise, in the opposite direction from what you describe. We took the same cheesy pirate ship. The cedars were something, though, a lot like the redwoods in California. You had to cross the highway to walk through them. All in all, Hakone was a great adventure - but based on your story, I have to go back for two reasons -1. It was overcast and rainy so we never saw Fuji-san - bummer, and 2. I didn't eat a black egg because, as you say, they come in a 6-pack, and I was too cheap to buy six to eat one. If what they say is true, it cost me 7 years off my life....