Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Art of Public Bathing

Ok, rather than blabbering on, let's just dive right in!

Part 3:  Hakone

Ok, it's the end of day 8 and it has been a slightly more eventful day than I anticipated.  Arriving in Hakone, we originally planned to head to the hotel and have a lazy day but we decided to check out the local volcanic springs on the mountain.  Despite having sat on a train for the past 85 minutes, we then decided to jump on a train again, this one zig-zagging its way up a mountain for 40 minutes.  Next, was a tramline, which had a crushing throng pushing its way onto it.  Until now, Japan has had really polite and civilised queuing system but this was just were crushed whether you were young or old (Years of metal concerts have prepared me for this).  This took us straight up the mountain and dropped us at the next mode of transport: a cable-car.  Giving us beautiful views in the process, the cable car (or ropeway as it's known here) took us to the volcanic springs, our final stop.  Here, other than enjoying the strong stench of sulfur and watching the smoke billow (we didn't do the walk as we had limited time), you could get some eggs that are boiled in the springs, turning the shells black (to be tested on day 9).  Having enjoyed the views, we headed down the mountain and went to check into the hotel.

Getting to the hotel, we checked in and was told something about dinner in Japanese but thankfully the receptionist pointed in the general direction, so we thanked him (not really knowing what he had said) and headed to our room.  We had decided to spend some extra money to get a Japanese bedroom and it was well worth it.  Entering the front door, you arrive in the hall where you take off your shoes and don your slippers before following the hall to the sliding doors.  Opening the sliding door, we were greeted to a sight of a traditional tatami mat room, with Japanese styke table plus a seperate riverview window with seats.  Not only this, but we got a seperate toilet and a bath that uses natural hotspring water with it.  Finally, what we later found out was that during dinner, the table had been moved and our bedding laid out on the floor for us.  If you ever get the chance, I would highly recommend this or a similar room...I've talked about transporting you to the past before and this does just that.  It really lets you live in the past and makes you feel like an emperor or empress!  Especially once you put on your robes...DRESS UP TIME!

So, after some green tea and Japanese sweets, we headed down to dinner, unsure of what to expect.  Again, we were not dissapointed.  Being directed to our own private dining room, in the traditional design, we were served dish after dish after dish.  Primarily fish based, we got sashimi and sushi, aperitifs, rice, soup, grilled vegetables and various other dishes.  Two particular highlights of the meal was the shubi-shubi and the fish broth.  A traditonal monks food, the shubi-shubi starts off as a bowl of water on your tray and your server lights the cooker underneath.  After the water starts to warm, you then add some meat, seasonal vegetables, soy sauce and spring onions to create a broth/stew/soup, so that they cook whilst you eat other dishes.  Once it is ready, you ladle into a spare bowl and get to savour the dish that you helped create.  The other highlight was the fish broth.  Starting off the same, the server lights the cooker undernead and it begins to simmer away...but that wasn't the highlight.  Nope, this was the small but whole (dead, of course) octopus floating around in it.  When it Rome, eh?  Oh, I also ate a snail as small octopus and a snail.  I was not expecting this at all.  Alas, I didn't bring my camera so you won't get to see the octopus or the dinner layout.  This was washed down with a nice chilled bottle of sake, a must if you're having a meal like this.  My pictures of the meal are non-existant but my mum may have some.  If she does, I will update this in the future.

Onto the bit you were all waiting for: the nudity!  I am very sorry to reveal that the nudity involved me, so it is probably quite a dissapointment.  You see, one of the reasons we picked this hotel was that it had outdoor hotsprings included and I thought it would be a good way to relax.  What I did not realise, perhaps naively, was that swimming costumes were now allowed.  Not even a little.  Nope, you have to and I quote 'cover yourself with your little white tower' which translates to not very well covered.  Regardless, I ploughed straight in (not the best choice of words - Innuendo ed) and tried out the baths. 

So, you arrive in your robes into the changing rooms and put your slippers onto the shelves for storage.  Next is the difficult part...the disrobing.  Now, despite past incidents, I am not used to taking my clothes of in front of strangers (probably a good thing) and as such, it was a new experience stripping off in the room with only a little white towel for protection.  Still, when in Rome (my war cry for this trip).  Next, I hurried into a steamy room with an indoor pool and the taps/showers where you rinse off, which I did quickly.  Thankfully, there was nobody in, so I was more relaxed as I opened the sliding door to the cool breeze of outside...I had made it!  Victory had never felt so toasty and warm!  So, I slid into the toasty waters of the pool and relaxed whilst watching the stars.  It was incredible.  I've never been in a hotspring before and I've certainly never bathed under the stars before but it was such an incredibly relaxing and liberating feeling to just sit and cook whilst under the stars.  I even felt slightly emboldened and got out of the pool to look at the river...before the sliding doors opened behind me and I practically dove back into the shallow pool.  Finally, after drying off, I then spent some time trying all the products and having my feet prodded and vibrated and my back pummeled by some electric massagers.

As you may guess, I don't have any pictures (again, probably a good thing).  Also, what I found out after bathing, is that I had did it wrong.  I just rinsed and bathed but you're supposed to rinse, bathe, wash then bathe again.  Annoyingly, I had missed the sign because I had took my glasses this was very much a glasses off situation (finally, a plus to being shortsighted).  After an hour or so relaxing in the room's alcove, it was time to sleep on the bedding that had been layed out on the floor for us.

Rolling out of bed (quite literally) on day 9, it was time for a quick shower and some breakfast.  This was particularly memorable for me as I got to have BACON.  Sweet, sweet bacon.  In case you haven't guessed, Nepal doesn't have a huge amount of bacon.  After breakfast and after a leisurely stroll to the station (along a lovely canal area), it was time to clickity-clack our way back up the mountain via the mountain tran but this time, we managed to get seats on the best side for some stunning vistas.  As we crawled up the mountain, you get to see steep hills covered in thick forests, which are an explosion of gold, reds and browns.  Peppered through these views, are old bridges and houses, creating a perfect scenic view.

*I still cannot get over the fact that trains have urinals nor the fact that they don't feel the need to frost over the window of the urinal room - Robbie's insecurity*

After a less crushing tram ride straight up the mountain, we jumped back onto the first cable car which took us to Owakudini, the active volcanic hot springs.  Sadly, due to landslides, we couldn't get to the peak but we did take a walk up around some of the steam vents/springs which were really interesting to see (and smell) plus you got a great panoramic view of the valley as well.  I even got to have a traditional Japanese sweet: two small pancake like items with black bean paste and icecream between them.  Next, we walked up the shack that sold freshly spring boiled eggs (Harvest Moon flashbacks) with pure black shells (blackened by the minerals).  I did eat one and it was quite tasty but as I don't eat many boiled eggs, I don't have anything to compare it with.  I was told it tasted similar though.  However, you are supposed to get a few years of life added for each one you eat, so that's an added bonus if it's true.  I was also surprised to see that everyones favourite Japanese character, Hello Kitty, likes the black eggs as well.

Riding the 2nd cablecar down the mountain, we were treated to a view of Lake Togendai surrounded by the hills and forests.  After a quick walk down into the village (and seeing but not trying purple sweet potato ice cream), we then boarded the gaudiest looking boat I had every seen which took us across the lake in an absolutely fabulous fashion.  We managed to get a spot right at the front so we could really enjoy the trees rushing by us and we also managed to see an old temple hidden in the trees plus a vermillion Torii gate as well.  I did not anticipate how cold it was...

After disembarking, we arrived at Hakone-Macho (Please insert joke here - Humour Ed) which was an admittingly undescript small village/town.  However, there were some really interesting mosaic wood items which are made by glueing different kinds of wood together in a pattern by hand.  Nice looking but expensive, even by Japan's standards.  After a quick coffee to defrost (it was pretty cold on the boat) and a box of waffles with ice cream and maple syrup, we walked down to an old Checkpoint, which gave a fascinating look into how it was to travel in days long gone.  Outfitted with dummies to show how it would have looked all those years ago and equipped with various items, it described how all travellers had to pass through these gates to be inspected, and that often, they would be kept in a guest room that was filled with weapons to intimidate them.  It also showed some of the criminal catcher tools they used to use: brutal looking weapons that look more to maim, than catch.  It was here, oddly enough, that I finally found some chopsticks I liked.

Finally, we took a pleasant walk down the Ancient Cedar Avenue, where the trees have been for hundreds of years to the next village area: Moto Hakone.  Here, we just caught a bus back to Hakone Yumato, where we were staying. 

Six methods of transport in one day...I think that's a personal record!  After arriving, we had a quick look around the shops, tasting lots of their products before heading back to the hotel.  Despite being in a communal dining area this time, we still were given a Kaiseki style dinner, so lots of sashimi and fish with a kettle filled with fish/broth which was a nice touch.  No baby octopi this time but I did get a bit of their parent...there was (much) larger pieces of tentacle in one of the dishes, with the sucker attached.  Quite tasty actually!  Also, we then got brought a dish of sashimi, where it had the whole fish on the plate, pinned so it looked like it was swimming.  I felt like it was staring into my soul as I ate parts of it.  Once again, I need to get pictures of this but I will hopefully have them soon. 

Next was the baths again and I managed to get it right this time!  Rinse, bathe, wash, rebathe.  Nice and relaxed, I finished packing then had a beer and typed.  Also, I tried out a drink that we had won in a 7-11, some kind of fizzy milk drink...I was all ready to assume that it would be disgusting (I mean, fizzy milk) but it wasnt awful.  It was actually drinkable.  I wouldn't go out my way to drink it but if I had to, I could. 

So, that brings me to now.  A quick morning bath (in a different bathing room: they switch) after a bacon filled breakfast and here I am, making my return to Tokyo like Gojira in the sequels. Sightseeing is my destruction.

Pick of the week 

Ovenless Chef - Ok, I don't have an oven, which has made my culinary tasks slightly more difficult.  I will admit, I was starting to get stumped about to vary my meals.  Then I came across this!  A huge variety of ovenless recipes across every type of dish: from sweets to syrup to meals.  Hell, I'm even trying the chicken and cheddar dumplings from it tonight!  Check it out, even if you have an oven!

Music of the week

Hmm, I'm going to have to go with a firm favourite of mine and a band that is especially good to have a beer to.  Korpiklaani - Beer know you want one!

Well, that is another part completed!  Only two more to week, Tokyo part 2!  Until next week, stay classy internet. 

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