It’s funny, isn’t it, how the places you anticipate before the trip turn out so differently in reality, and often the ones you had no expectations of just blow you away. Well that is how it was for us with Hiroshima vs Hakone. Hakone is touted as a super relaxed calm spa town surrounded with onsens (hot springs) and amazing views of Mount Fuji which you are meant to see by using a combination ticket of ropeways, cable cars, buses, trains and even a pirate ship that crosses lake Ashi. People come from all over the world to stay in resort hotels, languish in hot baths and hike in the lush mountain greenery. In autumn, the foliage would be at its most stunning. As I have said, Hiroshima knocked us out because we had absolutely no expectations about it. Hakone was totally underwhelming and this is why.
I had worked hard on the Hakone part, checking all the transportation around the area, and saving articles about what to see there- the Open Air Museum, the Lake, Owakudani Geothermal valley, Kowakien Yunessun Hot Springs, and many other places in the area, which appeared to be chock full of exciting things to see and do .I booked two nights in the cheapest place I could find which was not super luxurious, but had private bathroom. It still cost nearly $300 for two nights, much more than any other place we stayed in Japan. Many places were booked up six months in advance and I felt happy to secure the Emblem Flow Hakone right next to Gora station. (It also had a restaurant which was good as I had heard that many places around close very early because people book accommodations with full board in fancy expensive restaurants and don’t go out to eat) . This turned out to be most fortuitous as we shall see.
The first complication we had was that the special Hakone Tozan Railway, which was meant to bring us from Odawara station to Gora station, was damaged in the Hagibis Typhoon, and the website said it would not be running for several months. This concerned me somewhat as we were arriving at Odawara Station from Hiroshima. This Tozan Railway, a super steep train taking one through the stunning mountain scenery was something I had waited to see. The Japanese, in typical efficient style, laid on a replacement bus between Odawara and Gora that ran pretty much along the same route. SO that problem was solved. But once we reached Gora we found it to be a tiny little place with hardly any shops, restaurants or anything whatsoever to do, and it rained steadily for the two days we were there. After settling into the hotel we went for a small wander around and found pretty much nothing to do in the drizzle. WE arrived at around 4.30pm and things tend to close at 5pm. All the museums and other activities finish by then. My Japanese friends told us to do the hot springs. But getting all my kit off in front of strangers in the rain did not really appeal to me. (Maybe I have not grasped the fascination of this hot springs thing) So we returned to the hotel, which had a fantastic dinner of curry, had a beer and called it a day. I forgot to mention that we very fortunately did get a glimpse of the elusive Fuji san from the train as we were arriving at Odawara station, me waking D up so we could get a few fleeting shots. This again turned out to be a great stroke of luck.
So having purchased our Hakone Free pass at Odawara station which covered the train and bus to Hakone, the ropeway, the cruise and reduced entrance to various museums, we set out the next day to do the Hakone Loop. It poured with rain. Visibility was nil. On the cable car before the ropeway the commentary breezily noted that on our right we could see Mount Fuji on a clear day. The Filippina girls in our pod giggled. We all giggled. At the bottom of the ropeway we saw the pirate ship but not the far side of the lake. We got back on the ropeway and went back to Gora. WE tried to go round Hakone Park which was free with our JR pass, but it was all outdoors, and pouring. We went back to the hotel. The whole thing was a washout. Never mind. The next day we were returning to our beloved Tokyo for a whole five more days.
We returned to Tokyo on a fast train which took about 45 minutes. We stayed in the same Asakusa district but a different hotel, not particularly recommended, as the Red Planet was full. Anyway we loved being back in Asakusa, and being now familiar with the neighbourhood was great. We had made a booking for Tokyo Free Greeter to meet us and take us around somewhere for a couple of hours. Our greeter, Takuya Hayashi , in his email complete with photo, told us to meet him next to the Hachiko Dog Statue ( if you don’t know the dog story click the link!) in Shibuya. Having walked around Shinjuku and Harajuki the previous day, we said we would like to go to Shinjuku Park, which had been closed . But as we exited the train station it was raining again so walking around the park didn’t seem such a great idea. So Takuya suggested we go to the Tokyo Municpal Building which affords a free view of the city from the 45th floor (as opposed to the Tokyo Tower or the Sky Tower both of which cost money) . We said great. He also took us to a Starbucks which affords a view of the famous Shibuya Scramble crossing purported to be one of the busiest in the world. To me it just looked like a zebra crossing, but maybe we were there too early.
We returned to Odaiba area which we had visited previously ( where the fake Statue of Liberty is) to go to the Borderless Teamlab Digital Museum, something I was afraid would be another tourist trap and letdown, but was in fact well worth it and quite enjoyable. Lots of people love it because it is extremely instagrammable. We loved it because it was fascinating, weird and ultimately very Japanese. WE were also lucky enough to stumble into the building across from Borderless called Megaweb Toyota city Showcase. It seemed to have some kind of fair going on. Apart from the display of Toyota cars there was a display of samurai dancers and loads of stalls with food samples from all over Japan, and huge mascot dolls who wished to hug you and have your photo snapped with them for some reason! Another thing we did was to walk a lot. Specifically to see the Tokyo Illuminations, which are all over the city in late November. The Japanese love illuminations, and they do them very well. Practically every plaza and shopping mall is full of them.
To wrap up our trip we met up again with Aki and Mayumi, as we had promised to take them out for dinner, to thank them for being such amazing hosts. They were joined by Endo, another Servas host whom we had not met before, as he had just had a new grandchild when we first came to Tokyo. They took us to an izakaya, sort of pub/restaurant, where we sat on the floor at low tables, and proceeded to order dish after dish of fish and vegetables, washed down with sake, and some other alcoholic drink. It was all amazing, even the fugu. I told Aki he had to eat it first, and if he didn’t fall down dead I would try it. Frankly it just tasted like fried fish, nothing that exotic. The Japanese at the table behind us were all totally rolling drunk, their ties unknotted and their suit jackets who knows where. It was all a great adventure. Japan was a great adventure. It will take some time for it all to sink in. Hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned for our next trip…