GETTING BIGGER IN JAPAN: HAKONE
The journey from Nikko to Hakone was a brutal one.
Despite the glories of Japan’s rail network, a local train and two changes of Bullet train is enough to test any person carrying a backpack the size of a small hatchback. Bear in mind also, that the person carrying said pack is me, a man for whom watching a porter carrying his luggage to the taxi is enough to bring him out in a cold sweat.
Still, I was the most brave of little men and, as far as I am aware only uttered the words “fuck this for a game of soldiers” on two occasions which I consider almost monk like stoicism.
The final stage of the journey to our Ryokan was a fifty minute bus journey from Odawara to Hakone and we had to wait at least an hour before the next bus arrived so we all headed off in different directions in search of something to eat or, much more importantly, a drink.
I had by this time, formed an improbable bond with a definingly Australian chap called Drew from Brisbane who was on the trip to accompany a friend for who the trip was a lifelong dream fulfilled.
Drew had not been outside Australia before but was, for a man not travelled, incredibly up for the game and willing to accompany me when I went in search of things offally.
As we ended up doing so many times on the trip, this time, we went in search of the red lanterns that denote the presence of an Izakaya (pub) where we knew we could get a nice cold one and some interesting grub. In this case, I subjected Drew to Skewers of Chicken hearts and gizzards which he attacked with alarming gusto. I had created a monster and, during the trip, he was to accompany me to eat many strange things including Chicken ovaries with embryonic eggs (but, more of that later)
After a couple of nice ones, we headed back to meet the others and soon piled on the bus to our accommodation. It was at this point that Yuka decided to let us know that there had been a bit of a cock up with our Inn not having room for us that night and farming us out to two other places. Ten of the group were deposited at a small inn miles from anywhere where a curfew of 10pm caused havoc amongst those who, by now, were in full beer mode. I was heading off with our guide and my assigned roommate, Adam to a small B&B type inn with three rooms about two minutes walk from where we should have been staying.
We got the better end of the deal. It was a tiny family run place and the old lady who had waited up for our arrival was a sweet as a berry. She showed us to our respective rooms where our futons were unrolled on the floor, Yukatas laid out and slippers provided and then, just to make sure that we were all set, she produced a bottle of rather fierce looking Plum Sake that she had been making.
It proved to be the perfect lubrication for Adam, Yuka and myself to sit up until the small hours talking about life in general.
The next morning, slightly fuzzy headed, we went to pick up our companions who were less than whelmed with their own lack of opportunity to drink the night before which may have been added to by my production of pictures of our own evening’s libations. The word “bastard” was used more often than it should have been.
Before breakfast, I had decided to go for a walk in the neighbouring area. Japan is a crowded place (about 100 million people, I think) and living space is at a premium which is why it was a shock to come across a large house in spacious grounds with beautifully manicured gardens. It wasn’t the only one. The houses here were stunning and patently cost an arm and a leg. Most were surrounded by fences covered with barb wire
When I returned to the inn, I asked Yuka about it and she slowly drew an extended finger across her face from ear to mouth. “Yakuza” she said quietly.
Well, that explained it. The Yakuza are Japan’s answer to the mafia except they make the sopranos look like they really should be in a choir. These guys with their leather jackets, Mercedes and tattoo’s are the real deal. The sort of guys who, if they have displeased their gang leader, cut off their little finger as a sign of apology.
Just as well I did not get the urge to wander any closer to their houses.
Hakone, it transpires is one of Japan’s primary holiday resorts because of its pleasant climate and extraordinary scenery. It attracts the rich and, obviously, the dangerous and the region is littered with stunning housing complexes, smart restaurants ranging from high end French to, more bizarrely, a number of German Wurst shops and enough attractions to keep a family occupied for a few weeks.
For the same reason, I found little there to beguile me and I felt slightly heavy hearted when we set off to hit the tourist trail first thing in the morning.
My mood was little improved when I saw that our first “excitement” was a trip on a boat that had been decked out to look like a Japanese pirate ship but was, in fact, just a ferry. Ooh, the excitement almost made me faint.
Actually, I did nearly faint at the next stage of the journey when it transpired that I was going to be going on a cable car. A cable car that, as cable cars tend to do, head skywards for quite a long time.
To say I hate heights is an understatement. They make me whimper like Greyfriar’s Bobby and I had to be dragged kicking and, indeed, screaming onto the car by my new chums with promises that it “ would not be that bad”
Actually it wasn’t. Primarily, because I spent the next forty minutes staring at the floor and mumbling a mantra of good luck like I was rainman.
At last, however, my mood lightened when I realised that their might be some food involved. First of all, an ice cream made with wasabi, that fiery horseradish that we usually use to drown out all taste from sushi.
More importantly though, black eggs.
The region we were in was volcanic and not far from Japan’s most famous of mountains, Fuji. From our vantage point, we could see up the hill to the sulphurous pools of water above and there were plenty of signs around warning us not to breathe in etc.
So, what do you do in such circumstances? You start climbing of course. In this case, in search of black eggs.
The locals believe that eggs cooked in the sulphurous pools bring good luck and longevity. Seven years per egg, in fact. Baskets of white eggs are trundled up to the top of the mountain on a creaky looking pulley system before being dipped in the hot water and then served to locals and tourists alike.
I had a couple. Not much too them really. Just ordinary tasting eggs with shells turned back by cooking in the sulphur. But, at least you now have to put up with me for another fourteen years.
More touristy nonsense followed before we settled down for lunch. The night before Yuka had told me about The Gyoza Centre of Goza. My Jodrell Bank like ears had picked up as she described them as “ the best” gyoza she had ever had.
That’s some claim.
Gyoza are small dumplings akin to the ones we are all familiar with in Chinese restaurants. These though, came to Japan via Korea with the migration of thousands of Korean workers when Japan occupied the Korean peninsular.
Well, I can’t say these were the best in Japan, because I have not tried them all, but damn, they were some good dumplings and I ate plenty just to make sure. I even got talking to the owner ( or pointing and saying “arigato” a lot which equates to the same thing) and he showed me the kitchen and where the dough and fillings were made which I am told he had never done before.
I felt a whole lot better after that and even decided to join Drew and his companion, Tanya, doing a bit of tourist stuff which included a pleasant stroll around Hakone’s excellent open air sculpture museum with enough Miro’s and Moore’s to keep even me happy particularly as there was a pool to soak my aching tootsies.
Hakone is also famous for its Onsens. Hot springs baths using mineral water from the surrounding mountains have proliferated in the area in recent years and are one of the main reasons for the huge popularity of the region along with the cool mountain climate.
We had been recommended one in particular and I set off with Drew and Tanya to find it. What followed was nearly two hours of pure purgatory as we took one wrong bus after another punctuated with frantic calls to our worried guide.
After the fifth wrong bus, I again resorted to discussing a “game of soldiers” and left the other two to do their best to find the place which they eventually did. I headed back to the inn with its own small mineral bath outside and soaked my aching tootsies until everyone returned and we headed out for an agreeable but un-noteworthy group supper.
So, that was Hakone. Harmless enough and, if I had been interested in anything but food, it would have made an agreeable stopping point. As far as I was concerned, it was merely a footnote as I EAT MY GLOBE
Mind you, there were those dumplings and I can at least say I have tried a black egg.
Next stop Takayama and the BEST belly pork ever.