Guide to Japan: Hakone

Our first reservation on the Shinkansen was at 2:00pm from Shinagawa station. We bought lunch at the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo–a healthy selection of pot stickers, salad, bread, yogurt, and juice–so we could eat at the station before boarding the train. And just like that we were off to Odawara station. The ride was pleasant except for the lack of luggage storage, so we sat with our large roller bag in the row with us. Luckily the seats were equipped with generous leg room! When we arrived at Odawara station we searched for the bus that would ultimately take us into the mountains of Hakone.

To note, we decided against a much easier route from Tokyo, via the Romance car (recommended by just about everyone we consulted) because we had already purchased the Japan Rail Pass and were once again determined to get our money’s worth. We would, of course, later regret this decision. Upon finding the bus terminal (after inquiring with a friendly rail worker) we were completely confused as to which bus to board and how to get tickets. I approached a woman who appeared to be a transportation employee and showed her the station we needed to get to on my phone. She looked at me like I was crazy and said “No. Train, train.” and pointed us back to the train station. But lady, Google Maps says we need a bus! After a lot of embarrassing pantomiming on my end, she said “Bus 5, but traffic, traffic!” At that point we were much more concerned with missing our ride than a little traffic so we hoisted our luggage onto bus number 5 and settled in.

The bus was an adventure: We sat among what looked like the cast of the Shahs of Sunset. The designer-clad girls had a boatload of luggage and it took a grueling ten minutes and some serious Tetris skills to make all the luggage fit. Ian sat the entire ride with his feet holding up the pile so it wouldn’t topple over. On our way out of town I caught a view of Mount Fuji, let out a sigh of relief, and smiled…that is, until traffic came to a crawl. And I mean crawl. We could’ve walked up that mountain faster with the whole damned bus strapped to our backs. Of course hindsight is 20/20 and we would have been much better off paying for the non-JR train, but it wouldn’t be a Carlson family vacation without a little bus adventure! At least the ride was scenic. We bumbled along switchbacks with sweeping views of the valley, and saw the occasional waterfall. We spotted orange trees, snow, the beautiful river, and trees that seemed to grow straight of the sides of the hills at unnatural angles.

We eventually arrived at our bus stop and transferred to the slow, quaint Hakone-Tozan train for the remainder of the journey.

Very Wes Anderson.

The ride was only 10 minutes and we passed the Hakone Open Air Museum which had sculptures perched on the hillside on display. Back when we were stuck in traffic on the bus I had to call our hotel to push back our reservation pick-up time, which was more complicated than it sounds since it involved me trying to decipher AT&T’s international calling features and a severe language barrier. So we weren’t sure if anyone would actually be there to pick us up, but when we arrived at Gora station, I managed to spot a man holding a sign for our hotel shuttle.

Turned out we were among a slew of Japanese vacationers and because our hotel didn’t cater to more than weekenders, the shuttle, ridiculously, had no luggage storage. We were forced to line the narrow, cramped aisle with our huge bags, of course making a scene in front of all the other guests.Mercifully it was only a 15-minute trip to our hotel, the Hotel Harvest Hakone Koshien. A very zen-like hotel that we luckily found extremely relaxing despite the crazy journey to get there.

Our goal was to get right into the Japanese baths, but we were so unsure about proper etiquette that we sat in our room studying the “bathing instructions” the receptionist had handed us upon arrival.

We knew we had to wear our yukatas (basically a casual kimono) with nothing on underneath, which were hanging in our closet. But then I had to Google how to properly tie a yukata (left lapel over right, a woman’s belt cinched higher at the waist than a man’s, or maybe that’s a kimono and it didn’t matter?).

We put on our wool yukata covers to keep us warm and slipped on the mauve, open-toed shoes that were provided to us. I immediately mistook Ian for one of the Golden Girls.
As we walked to the baths we passed the outdoor ponds, an arcade and not one, but two karaoke rooms, which sounds cheesy, but apparently this is a thing in Japanese hotels. On the bathing floor there was a square, wooden island elevated on smooth floor where you put your slippers and tagged them with your name. You could place your slippers on a warming shelf, that legitimately looked like a luxury wine cooler.

After that easy step, we nervously stood outside the two bath entrances (one male, one female) intensely observing what others were doing.

Kim’s experience: I walk into what I guess is the ladies locker room (the only identifier is a hanging drape with blush pink kanji) and see a few kids and mothers in bathing suits.

Already I’m off to a bad start as I’m buck naked under my yukata. But, but the bathing instructions!  There are two doors on either side of a large glass window that looks onto the mountains. I follow the swimsuit-clad moms through the door on the left and see individual showers with curtains where you presumably wash before bathing. I wrap myself up good after showering and unknowingly start for the co-ed pool, which I’m about to enter nude. Thankfully my hand hovers over a small sign featuring a pink bikini before I actually open the door to the co-ed area and make a fool out of myself in front of the fully-covered bathers. I scurry across to the other door where I see several standing and sitting showers and, thankfully(?) a handful of naked ladies. I shower at one of the sitting showers, unsure where to put my big towel. No hooks, or dry area in sight. While shampooing I discreetly observe the other Japanese women who have obviously been doing this their whole lives. I realize I’m not actually supposed to have my big towel in the bath so I haul it out of there and throw it in my basket and come back with only a hand towel covering my bits. ¡Ay, caramba! Finally I’m ready to bathe. In the next room is a large soaking tub and three smaller tubs, one deep for standing, one shallow with jets in the middle, and one for reclining. All four look onto the mountains whose peaks are shrouded in fog. It’s quite a sight to behold when reclined in a bath and steam is rising from both the water indoor and the rain outdoors. I mostly stay in the large bath with just my feet submerged but there’s also a sauna and a cold plunge pool. I slowly get the hang of it all and no longer feel shy about flashing a boob (or worse!). It’s completely relaxing and serene and the view is incredible. After bathing, I pad over to the lounge where folks are drinking and enjoying more breathtaking views of the valley.

Ian’s experience: I had many of the same close calls that Kim encountered. Most notably nearly walking naked into the co-ed pool filled primarily with kids. Eventually I realized my mistake and entered the glass-enclosed bathing area. The men’s side (which we later learned alternates daily) had a sauna, an outdoor deck, an outdoor L-shaped tub, a large soaking pool that was a little cooler, a cold plunge pool, and three connected, but different smaller tubs/pools. Eventually I figured out a sort of rotation between all the areas and alternated between hot and cold. I found myself most relaxed in the outdoor pool with the mountains visible all around, the rain streaming down, everything steaming, and the sun beginning to set. The elevation of our hotel was about 2,200 feet and the surrounding peaks were several thousand feet higher. It was incredibly peaceful and I felt lucky to be there. After about an hour I cut myself off and headed to the traditional Japanese shower.

After the bath we headed to the gift shop for whiskey (sadly just for Ian) and lemon drops and saw all their local delicacies, like boxes of black eggs, or kuro-tamago. The Owakudani valley we’re in is actively volcanic–and so they boil eggs in steel baskets in water that contains sulfur and iron which makes them turn black.

Because the hotel restaurant was pretty much our only option within 5 kilometers of the hotel we had a choice between a very expensive dinner buffet and a very, very expensive prix fixe menu.  At $60/head the buffet was steep, but surely entertaining.

Like a true Japanese buffet you had the choice of western-style place settings or “bento” plates with compartments. There was a vast array of raw fish, a miso soup station, rice cookers galore, cold noodle salads, delicious meat and cabbage filled dumplings, beef sliced to your liking, tempura everything, vegetarian options of tofu, eggs, and of course, veggies, and a whole dessert bar that featured strawberry everything. This was actually perplexing as fruit can sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars in Japan and just that morning we saw single strawberries selling for $9.00 in the grocery store! We didn’t question our good fortune and took advantage of the white chocolate strawberry fountain with mini donuts, cream puffs, marshmallows, and fruit. We also tried a variety of mochi, ice cream, tartes, mizu yokan (another red bean paste dessert), and more. The best part of the whole experience was observing how the Japanese eat and what they choose so in the end it was worth the splurge. After dinner we turned in for the night on separate beds that were soft as boards, but we were so tired from the travel, spa, and food that we fell fast asleep.

The next morning we woke up early to don our yukatas and take a quick soak before check out. Unbeknownst to us, the hotel management alternates the men and women side of the spa…so as we headed to our respective corners, we were soon confronted with some full-frontal views of the “wrong” sex! It took no time for us to realize our mistake and we both turned around and passed each other in the hallway red-faced and laughing. Who knew?! After that slight hiccup, round two of the baths was just as nice as the first. Afterwards, we hit up the breakfast buffet, quickly finding ourselves piling plates with yogurt and fruit (seriously superb oranges and pineapple!), bacon and sausage, eggs, french toast, pastries, and lots of juice. There were also more traditional Japanese options like sashimi and rice. I couldn’t help but admire how the Japanese pay attention to detail. I greatly appreciated the small slit they put in the orange slices where the rind meets the flesh for ease of eating!

With our bellies full, we were off to Kyoto.

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