Posts Tagged With: hakone

Hakone in the Mist

Man does not live on hot springs baths alone, so the original plan for today was to include a short cruise on Lake Ashi, the scenic lake on whose shores Hakone sits. It became clear pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen, because it was this kind of day:


On and off drizzle, wind, and heavy fog rolling in off the lake made the prospect of a cruise pretty unappealing. The boat operators thought so too: the cruise was canceled as our bus pulled into the parking lot. However, our tour lead is nothing if not flexible, and so the day’s itinerary was immediately reshuffled accordingly.

Our first stop thus became Narukawa Art Museum, a privately-owned museum that sits above the shores of the lake and offers a commanding view of it. Today the view was more opaque than commanding, although if you like fog you would have been impressed. The museum’s collection is small and pleasant to browse, almost all contemporary stuff in a spare, almost Scandinavian setting.



A guide gave us a short presentation about the collection and some of the artists’ techniques, and we were turned loose for an hour or so on our own.



As you can tell from that last photo, the Japanese are heavily into ridiculously detailed carvings, frequently out of a single piece of marble, or jade, or whatever. A raging case of OCD is a big plus if you are in this line of work. Speaking of which…

Our next stop was the workshop and store of a nationally-recognized master of marquetry, which I confess is a word that I had never heard before. You know what it is, but in case you didn’t know what it was called either, Google defines it as “inlaid work made from small pieces of variously colored wood or other materials, used chiefly for the decoration of furniture.” If you go to Google Images you will immediately recognize it as this stuff:


I had never really thought about how it is made, but the process and skill are level are extraordinary. The craftsman basically shapes short (an inch or two, sometimes more) rods of different types of wood — each with its unique color — such that their cross sections represent every shape in the final image, then fits and glues them together like a thick jigsaw puzzle. He then cuts slices through the assemblage to make multiple copies of the finished image. In some cases those slices are as thin as a piece of paper; he uses a wood plane to shave off a slice of absolutely uniform paper-thinness. There are no paints or dyes or used; all of the colors are the natural wood. And even the most finely detailed features in the image, which look they have been drawn on using a pen, are made using microscopically think slices of wood, shaped with a jigsaw whose blade looked to be about the thickness of a human hair. It was a very, very impressive demonstration, and here is the master in action (using a wood plane):


In addition to planar objects such as coasters and hangings, he also makes bowls like the one you see in the foreground. You can see that it is resting on a glued-together stack of cylinders (they are actually triangular, hexagonal, and octagonal in cross section); the bowl is created by carving (i.e., hollowing out) a stack like that one. And he also makes puzzle boxes — you know, those fancy wooden boxes with hidden panels that you have to find in slide in the right order to open it. He makes phenomenally complex ones: he demonstrated one that required seven steps — and I swear there was not a seam to be felt — then held up one that required fifty. He said the most complex that he had seen required — wait for it — seventy-two steps to open. I mean jeez, it would take you 20 minutes to open the damn thing even if you had correctly memorized all the steps. And if you haven’t, well, I can promise you that the only way you ever going to see the inside of that box is with a saw or a sledge hammer.

And speaking of wood, Hakone is also known for having a small cedar forest. There is an easy strolling path along its edge, adjacent to the historical road that connects Osaka to Tokyo. On this misty, drizzly day the forest looked like this:


The trees are tall and the place feels ancient, rather like Muir Woods with its redwoods.

Our final stop of the day was another art museum, the Hakone Open Air Museum. It is, fortunately, not entirely outdoors since the weather had not yet started cooperating. It comprises three very modern gallery buildings spread out over a park-like area criscorssed by poaths that connect the buildings and dotted with sculptures by (to our surprise) very famous Western artists: Henry Moore, Brancusi, Giacometti, Modigilani. And one of the gallery buildings was devoted entirely to an impressive Picasso collection, which we were rather surprised to find here.

After walking around all day, however, our personal highlight of the Open Air Museum was an outdoor hot springs foot bath at a temperature of 41C (106F). You pay 100 yen (about $1) for a towel, and you can soak your aching tootsies for as long as you like. Of course, when it is raining — which it was — then your enthusiasm for doing so is somewhat dampened, literally. However, that was not going to stop Alice:


Dinner this evening was a another artistically-arranged 10-course traditional Japanese meal. (The courses are quite small, so it is not the feat of gluttony that it sounds like.) And afterwards, we were given a lesson in “gift wrapping cloth) by Mariko. As you may know, the Japanese are big on gifts, and the presentation no less than the gift itself is very much a part of the ethos. If you buy something at a department store, they will wrap it for you in such a transcendentally artistic way that your heart breaks when you are forced to open it later. But for many occasions — visiting friends, for example, or possibly even having your tires rotated — mere paper will not do. No, special cloth is used for this purpose, and Mariko gave us each a couple of brightly colored swaths, each about a meter on a side, then showed us how to wrap a gift in it.


It looks deceptively easy when she does it, as a few of our travel mates will attest:


“That folds over…no, wait…bring that corner over to…hold it…my shirt is tangled in that corner…no, fold it… wait, I lost my hand…. aaaarrrghhhhhh”

It wasn’t pretty.

And that pretty much wraps up Hakone. Tomorrow we take the bullet train to Kanezawa, where we will stay for a few nights before heading on to Kyoto.

After all this discussion of artistic stuff, I will close this entry with a nonsequiter about toilets. Well, it’s not altogether a nonsequiter, just mostly. One of the common factors binding all of the aesthetics that we witnessed today was a very high degree of the fastidiousness for which the Japanese are justly known. This mindset makes for delicate art but makes the whole issue of, um, elimination somewhat problematic: there is noting fastidious about what you are doing in the bathroom when, say, suffering a bout of digestive upset. So in order to preserve everyone’s delicate sensibilities, many toilets — on the trains, and in our hotel rooms — are equipped with noise machines. While you are proceeding with your unspeakable excretory business you push a button and the machine emits a continuous loud sound — water running, white noise, or the sound of continuous flushing — that prevents the sounds of your personal biology from impinging upon the attention of whoever is in the next room. I have to say that my reaction to this is, “C’mon, people, grow up!” I mean, really.

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It’s hard to think of a more iconic image of Japan than snow-capped Mt. Fuji. It’s also hard to actually ever see snow-capped Mt. Fuji: the mountain is only visible 30% of the time. However, we tend to have good weather karma when on travel, so our hopes were high. It seems that, perhaps only briefly, the rain and gloom that marked our first week has lifted, and by the time our bus reached the outskirts of ¬†Tokyo the skies were clear and sunny.

It’s an hour or two drive from downtown Tokyo to the mountain, so our tour lead Mariko used the time to (a) give us a Japanese lesson (I can now ask a variety of questions whose answers I will not understand); (b) talk about Japan’s (poor) attitude towards women, about which more in a moment; and (c) sing us a traditional song about Mt. Fuji, a.k.a. Fujiyama. (The -yama suffix means “mountain”.) More about that song in a moment as well.

Cool electronic gadgets notwithstanding, Japan is decades behind the West in things like gay rights and treatment of women. Mariko herself is a prime example of the latter. She is an attractive 40 year old (though could easily pass for 30) who is educated, has lived abroad and traveled extensively; and who is articulate, energetic, and good-humored. In any Western country she would have guys knocking down her door. In Japan, she is basically poison. An independent, educated woman with a career is more or less synonymous with “spinster” in this country: the stereotype is real that Japanese men want a subservient wife with few interests of her own who will stay home with the children. This is why Mariko is 40 and unmarried, which is practically criminal: some guy is missing out on a really good bet. But that’s the mindset here.

The excitement level among our 15-person crew ramped up as we approached the mountain: the weather had stayed clear and we got a gorgeous view of Fujiyama from the bus. (No snowcap, though. The mountain is 12,400 ft tall and can get snow at any time of year, but the odds are much higher in the winter.) Fifteen minutes later we were at the visitor center….and a layer of clouds had moved in, completely obscuring the upper half of the mountain. Here are a couple shots of the visitor center that I took to sublimate my disappointment.

fujiyama-002 fujiyama-001

Notice that in the visitor center signage the mountain is called “Fujisan”. The -san suffix is a general-purpose form of address applied to a person: you would call your friend John Doe either “John-san” or “Doe-san”. In calling the mountain Fujisan the Japanese are in effect anthropomorphizing it, which is not surprising considering that the mountain is itself a Shinto deity. It’s not a bad choice of deity, either: large, powerful, and unpredictable. Fujiyama is an active volcano whose last eruption was a little over 300 years ago and which is considered by geologists to be overdue for another one.

By the time we left the visitor center there appeared to be some optimism-inspiring motion of the clouds, and so Mariko directed the driver to take us to a vantage point at one of the five lakes that are adjacent to the mountain. (There is a lot of recreational boating on those lakes, and a fair number of condos on shore; it’s a popular resort area.) In any case it was a good move, because not long after we arrived at that venue, which had some nice gardens as a bonus, this was our view:

fujiyama-010In case you were wondering, that puff of white at the peak of the mountain is just a wisp of cloud in the background, not an impending eruption. In any case, working against a 70% probability that we would not get to see the peak at all, this was a big win and we were very excited.

We then set up the mountain. The way up is divided into 10 “stations”, and the road ends at station #5 at an elevation of a little below 8000 ft. Above that, there’s a foot trail to the summit that takes about 6 hours to complete. It’s a popular climb, as you’d suppose: during the ten week climbing season (July through mid-September), over 100,000 people trek to the summit. We were not going to be among them; most tourists stop at station 5 as we did. Very unusually, the weather at the station had stayed clear for us, allowing a view of the peak. So here we are, two-thirds of the way up Fujisan, with the peak in the background.


Don’t erupt yet, please. Thank you.

Satisfied that we had beaten the odds, we headed back the mountain and straight into one of those experiences that make Japan… um… Japan. Remember that traditional song that I mentioned? (Oh, by the way, in addition to her other virtues Mariko has a very sweet singing voice.) As we headed down the highway out of the park we reached a stretch that had a musical note painted on the road surface. A few moments later the bus started to hum.

Yes, hum. The Japanese have engineered a quarter-mile stretch of road with thousands of little ridges built into it, like micro-speed bumps, whose spacing is such that they cause your vehicle to vibrate at a pre-planned pitch. Yes, as you drive down this stretch of road your car hums the traditional song about Mt. Fuji. I mean holy crap, how Japanese can you get? We were impressed.

We drove for another hour and a half to the resort town of Hakone, where we will be spending the next two nights. Hakone is a hot springs resort — Fuji is an active volcano, remember? — meaning that its specialty is geothermal mineral baths in all the hotels. Our hotel is a typical one and caters mostly to Japanese clientele; once checked in we were each issued sandals and a yakuta, which is the traditional house robe, kind of like a simple version of a kimono. We wear the yakuta and sandals around the hotel rather than street clothes. It’s kind of like being at a grand-scale pajama party. Here’s a picture of our whole group at a traditional Japanese dinner this evening (except for me, since I took the shot).


You can see Alice, third from the right in the back row. Mariko is kneeling, second from the left. My robe is the same as the ones that the two guys on the ends are wearing.

It’s a pleasant hotel, and they even have free ice cream in the lobby (woo hoo!). Alice has already had a session in the hot springs pool. (This is done au naturel, men and women separated.) Tomorrow we will be exploring the area a little more.


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