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Episode 17: Of Eggs and Pirates

18: Virtual Yokohama Ramen >>

So my moribund campaign of touristic activity recently got a much-needed boost when my cousin Hanna materialized in Tokyo and consequently in my apartment, instantaneously doubling the number of the young long-haired blond(e) blue-eyed Finns in Tokyo. And since Hanna happens to have an extra X chromosome to replace my Y, and looks the part, I finally found myself relegated to a second-rate attraction in the eyes of passing Tokyoites. I can only wonder how many cases of whiplash were caused by her ten-day stay...

At any rate, equipped with this excellent excuse for not sitting in the lab writing my thesis, it was finally time to head off to what was in fact probably the last major Tokyo-area attraction I hadn't visited, Hakone National Park. As it happened, I had recently "won" a "2nd prize" awarding me a night in an ryokan for the low, low price of Y10,000 per head; careful reading of the small print revealed that a) the price goes up by Y2000 for groups of less than 4, b) the price is not applicable on Saturdays or before holidays and c) most hotels listed actually have lower rates without the magical coupon. Then again, this was about what I expected for the 2nd prize of a free raffle at a 100 yen shop.

So instead I ended up booking a room for two at Kappa-tengoku (äŷ, "Kappa Heaven") for Y6600 per head, two meals included. On a Thursday evening we bought our Odakyu Hakone Weekday Passes, an additional Y4100 that included the fare to Hakone and back and use of practically all forms of transport in the Hakone area for two days (not mere hyperbole, as you will soon find out). After 90 minutes of staring at concrete, with trees and mountains starting to show up only during the last stretch past Odawara, we got off the train at Hakone-Yumoto and started looking for our minshuku.

- It was supposed to be pretty close to the station...
- According to that sign, it's right outside.

Out the station entrance, a few steps forward.

- Hey! It's up there... or at least the sign says Kappa-tengoku... Oh dear. Maybe that's just the bath and the hotel is somewhere else...?

I wasn't terribly convinced, and neither was she. Kappa-tengoku was up the hill, right next to the station, and the sign was on a small, dilapidated-looking concrete building painted blood red. We looked at each other, shrugged, and headed up the hill. But the red house wasn't the minshuku, in fact, it didn't seem to be in use at all. A stairway led up past it, turned into a lantern-lit hillside path, and then another little stairway that ended at another somewhat more decent-looking concrete building.

An atypical guest

Bedding, Japanese style
And inside turned out to lurk one of the better minshukus I've been to: friendly staff, spartan but Japanese-style rooms, decent food (although some minus points for the cockroach that scampered over my leg while we were eating dinner...) and above all a very nice little rotenburo (outdoor bath) up on top of the building. Dinner was self-service teppanyaki, ie. a sizzling hot plate and lots of beef, squid, chicken, and random veggies to grill on it; in the morning the indomitable Hanna, who had happily eaten all foods Japanese from red bean paste to raw horse sashimi finally met her match in -- surprise, surprise -- nattoo. But, Hakone Yumoto being an onsen town, the traditional breakfast raw egg had been half-cooked and lathered in soy souce, this being known as an onsen egg (̻) in Japanese.

More eggy things were yet to come. In the morning, we took a little train recycled from Switzerland (the carriages still had "St. Moritz" tags on them) up to Gora, the train negotiating its way through 3 Y-shaped switchbacks to manage to task. From Gora to Sounzan the means of transport was a funicular (rope-pulled train), called a "cable car" in Japanese, and from Sounzan to Owakudani the trip was in a suspended cable car, called a "ropeway" in Japanese. Confused yet?

Descending to the Boiling Valley

Cracks in the earth

Yum yum!
Owakudani (Ͱë) means "Great Boiling Valley", an aptly named gigantic volcanic rift full of hot springs, yellow water trickling down amidst the rocks and the stink of sulphur (the active ingredient in rotten eggs) everywhere. A path led from the ropeway station into the valley itself, where you could see and smell the springs up close and personal. In the middle of the action a little stall was doing brisk business selling eggs boiled within one of the pools, where the sulphur of the water reacted with the egg shell to blacken it, forming bizarre eye-shaped patterns. Freaky appearance aside, the eggs inside were fully boiled and quite tasty. According to tradition each egg you eat will add 7 years to your life, so the both of us have now had our lifespans extended by no less than 21 years. Whee!

First view of Fuji

Some more volcanic activity

A better view of Fuji
Meanwhile, the main attraction of the Hakone area had been peeking around the corner, the venerable Japanese icon of Mount Fuji. It was in fact the first time I had actually managed to see it on Japanese ground, although I climbed the thing during J2J and sighted it in the distance a few times from an airplane. It's big, and viewed from Owakudani (elevation ~1000m) it looks much lower than its real height... but definitely still a pretty sight.

Having decided not to sample egg-flavored ice cream (!) and to head to less stinky climes for lunch, we took the ropeway onward and down to Tougendai, on the northern shore of Lake Ashinoko. Traffic across this crescent-shaped body of water is handled by nothing less than a fleet of pirate ships, encrusted with detail and complete with beer-bellied pirate captain figures standing on deck. Alas, the sails are just props masking the motors that actually run the ship, and even murder and pillage is kept to minimum (the prices in the on-board gift shop, that is).

Forward ho!

The entire synthetic ship

And its proud synthetic captain
At the other end of the lake are the twin towns of Moto-Hakone (Ȣ, "Real Hakone") and Hakone-machi (ȢĮ, "Hakone City"). The pirate ship passes by one of Japan's famous "floating torii" (cf. Miyajima), a red shrine gate seemingly floating in water, and another first for me. The torii wasn't all that big, at least when viewed from a distance, and I'd assumed the shrine behind the gate would be of similar size -- so I was rather surprised to find out that Hakone Jinja stretches quite a way up the nearby hillock and, set in a grove of towering 1000-year-old cedars, is in fact not dissimilar to Nikko's Toshogu Shrine. Definitely worth the walk out from the harbor, only a kilometer or so.

A diminutive floating torii

Guardian of the fountain

Enshrined cartoon character
After a cup of sweet, warm and lumpy amazake (ż), we climbed on a bus back to Hakone-Yumoto and started the long trip back to Tokyo, albeit only after souvenir shopping. Hakone's top meibutsu (̾ʪ, famous local products) seem to be fish cakes and pickled squid, but fortunately we managed to score a few steamed cherry dumplings instead.

Wedding, Meiji Shrine

Elvises, Odaiba

Tourist, Imperial Palace

Mobile kitty, Kawasaki
And that was two days out of 10. The stories of the Y6000 izakaya trip in Kabukicho, the world's smallest 7-course Chinese banquet, Elvises in Odaiba, free vintage sake tasting, plum blosson season in the Imperial Palace gardens and the obligatory pilgrimage to the shrine of the mighty Kanamara-sama will have to wait for another day, but in the meantime, pig out on the pictures:


I'm currently attending the IEEE Virtual Reality 2001 conference and its delightfully named companion, the 2nd Int'l Symposium on Mixed Reality, both in Yokohama -- closer to my apartment than the university lab, as it turns out. Attendance may be free for us student volunteers, but proximity to the culinary pleasures of Chinatown is a severe drain on the wallet...

18: Virtual Yokohama Ramen >>