I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Friday, October 20, 2006

a day in Hakone

The first thing I'd done on Monday was buy a ticket for a day trip outside of the city, before I'd really got the hang of Tokyo. So having had such a belting day and evening, I was a tiny bit disappointed to not be spending my last full day in town, but hey, Hakone wasn't supposed to be that bad a place. I got to Shinjuku station way too early but that was cool, because with it being the first working day since my arrival I got to see what the place was like for real, and bloody hell it was manic. I found somewhere to stand and just watched everyone going their way. Awesome. It's a double-decker station too, two levels of platforms.
um, quite.

The ticket I'd bought is the Hakone weekday pass. This is a return ticket on a private train (as opposed to Japan Rail) to the edge of the Hakone area and then a ticket for unlimited travel on various forms of transport. And because I was going on the "limited express Romancecar" "SUPER HAKONE 17" service I was looking forward to a fast trip with decent views.

Well, it was fast. But I had an aisle seat, which sucked. And I was the only westerner and only male in the carriage. The mad chattering women didn't give a monkeys about looking out of the windows -- in fact when we left the city and entered countryside, they drew the blinds so this poor western bloke couldn't see a bastard thing. Even when they announced "you can see Mount Fuji out of the right hand side of the train". Sigh. Good seats on the train though: you can swivel each pair around so you can always face forwards, or have 2 pairs facing each other.

So with no opportunity for sightseeing from the train I exaimned the little guide pamphlet thing I had, the map of the area. The ticket is actually valid for 2 days but I was on a day trip, and there was a suggested itinerary which I decided to follow. There was also a big list of all the sights and shrines and museums and stuff around, and I have to admit the idea of visiting the Museum of Steamed Fishpaste did have some appeal. I had also wondered about visiting the Tobacco and Salt museum in Ginza. What the hell is going on with these mental museums?
trees, lake, fuji

Anyway. Got to Hakone-Yumoto and struggled to get out of the station. Turns out that as well as the only westerner, I was the only person that had the faintest idea what to do when getting off the train. Everyone else was going crazy for maps or at the staff or just milling and getting in my way, while I crossed the underpass and got on the bus. This was taking me to Motohakone-ko, on the side of Lake Ashi. The journey took about 40 minutes and as far as I could work out from my map, was going the wrong route. It was also constantly climbing. I wondered if I'd be struggling with the oxygen when I got out.

In this small town miles out from the city, I was very glad to discover that the ubiquitous vending machines were still ubiquitous. Stocked up on liquids, put me hat and some factor 50 on, and headed off on the next part of the journey: the walk to Hakonemachi.

Unfortunately there were no signs to Hakonemachi. Well, there might have been, but not in English or latin script. IIRC it was supposed to be a walk through a 2km or so tunnel of cedar trees, something like that anyway. But I wouldn't know a cedar tree from my elbow, and there were a bunch of all kinds of trees around. Basically I didn't really know where I was going, but I figured that if I just hugged the side of the lake I'd end up somewhere useful, if not actually Hakonemachi.

So after getting to the end of a car park and with no-one else around I was starting to think, hmm. This is wrong. But the path which looked like it was finishing didn't, and in fact got bigger and gave the appearance of heading somewhere interesting, so I persevered. Leaving the lake's side but coming across a little pond/inlet thing and a bridge, I crossed that and was confronted with two signs, pointing left and right. No idea what they said, I picked right. I think left may have said "this way to the lift, avoiding the 206 step climb to the top". Bah.

Worth it at the top though. I was in some kind of gardens/park, with a specific viewing area at the summit for looking over the lake and towards Mount Fuji. Great weather, I could see it perfectly. Since I was knackered I took the opportunity to just chill for a while anyway, staring out at the the mountain for a few minutes.

After that I carried on, 'cos I still saw no sign of Hakonemachi. And in fact the trail seemed to be getting colder, and full of puddles. But again there was light at the end, and this particular light was some kind of Hakone museum or other. I forget exactly what it was, and didn't hang around anyway because to see anything you had to pay to get in and I wasn't really in the mood for a few displays that wouldn't mean a lot to me. So I carried on through and it turned into a little harbour thing with a restaurant next to it. Quite a result I thought, because the next part of my journey was meant to be a boat. Only problem was there were no boats about, and the ones I could see on the lake weren't coming towards me. Hmm. They do seem to be going just over there though, a few hundred metres to the left... so I went on a bit further, the street turned into streets and a town with a big sign saying HAKONEMACHI. Woohoo!

Found the boat terminal and a shitload of people and a shop selling ice creams. I queued up for a bit before giving up when realising that you had to get a ticket from somewhere else first and then exchange that for an ice cream, and I'd already wasted enough time. Bah. Went back and queued up for the boat, a big-ass pirate ship, with shivering timbers and all that gubbins. Yarr?

There was a snack bar on the boat and the staff spoke passable English. That was mightily surprising. Despite having an English map/leaflet I still got the distinct feeling this whole thing was something Japanese tourists did and westerners didn't, 'cos I ran into none. Actually that's a bit of a lie, throughout the rest of the day I did occasionally run into one or two. But my feelings were torn and conflicted. When alone I was thinking, sheesh, I could do with another westerner on the scene just so I feel a bit safe in numbers; then when I saw another one, I was thinking oi! Hop it! This is my patch, I'm the bloody odd one out here, stop diluting the pool!
cable car view

Anyway. The boat sold me some crisps and a muffin and I stood on the deck taking loads of photos of water and shoreline and stuff. I bet they really piss off Loz 'cos they're so samey, but really there wasn't a lot else to do. And it was really cool and peaceful and stuff. There was a dual language commentary too, so at various points they announced what it was we could see, but I failed to remember any of it at all. So to my mind, the photos are just of stuff.

Nice journey though. Arrived at the other end just as another pirate ship was doing the return, and I did briefly ponder just hoping back on that one. Mainly because the boats had a first class compartment that I could have paid a supplement to go in, and my addiction to fat cat travel was nagging at me. But I resisted, and instead followed the crowds to the bus service taking us all to the Hakone ropeway terminal.

The Hakone ropeway is a cable car system. It looks like they're extending it from the current terminus all the way down to the boat bit by the lake, but right now it's a shuttle bus ride. Got there, bought an ice cream and some drinks and got in the compartment. Bigger than the Singapore one, smaller than Hong Kong, less scary than both. A pretty tame ride but good views again, of Fuji and some natural spa things and a whole lot of trees. I thought it was supposed to stop at a place where you can buy black eggs, but actually it just went to a change point where you can board the Hakone cable car.

Unlike the ropeway, which is a cable car system, the cable car is a railway. Funicular I think, not sure. Steep though, almost as mad as the Peak Tram (which isn't a tram) in Hong Kong. I couldn't get a seat but didn't want to wait for the next one. Turns out as well as a tourist thing, this is also a commuter route. It stops at a bunch of places down the hill, with platforms that are so steep they're stepped. I think. But I stayed on all the way to the end, which was another change point, this time onto a train that was actually a train.

This was actually the last stage of the journey, train back to Tokyo notwithstanding. Definitely a commuter route, actually this one filled up with schoolkids on their way home. But I had managed to grab a seat on this and settled down, trying desperately to not get confused. Since I was on the way down the huge hill (mountain? something is telling me that Lake Ashi is actually a lake formed in the crater of what used to be a volcano, but that might be bollocks) that the bus had climbed earlier in the day it was no surprise that the journey was still steep. But what really freaked me out was that we kept arriving at a station travelling in one direction, and leaving it by reversing back out. We basically zig-zagged our way down, finally coming back to Hakone-Yumoto.

Hakone-Yumoto was actually a decent-ish sized town, and I considered looking for somewhere to have a pint. But instead I bought a reservation for the next train (required, on top of the price of the pass, for the faster trains) and bought some food and 2 cans of lager from a stall at the station. Stood at the end of the platform waiting for my train to arrive and took a few photos for Mark's benefit. I thought perhaps I'd got a seat in the front carriage, which would be fantastic as the whole front is a window (the driver sits up top), but I was in the first row of the second one. Oh well, it gave me the chance to write a load of notes and drink my beer.
bar at the Rose & Crown

Until I got interrupted, that is. This train wasn't a full-on no-stop train like the first one. Wait, no, that first one had stopped once, but this one was stopping about 4 times. Anyway. Some people got on and the train filled up fast. And a Japanese couple had got on having been unable to get reservations next to one another; one of them was next to me, the other in a different carraige. Through a little English and a lot of gesticulating and staring at tickets it transpired that they were asking me if I'd mind shifting, taking the fella's seat so they could sit next to each other. Sigh. I SUPPOSE SO, here, you take my seat ticket and I'll take yours.

Oh, yours is in the front carraige and is considerably better than mine. Ace! No, it's no problem, the pleasure's all mine, enjoy this rubbish seat with your missus next to you.

Heh. So it wasn't the best seat in the world but definitely better, even though it was now an aisle seat. Mind you that got fixed when the bloke in the window seat got off at another intermediate station and I shuffled across. That would have worked better had another Japanese businessman got on with the window seat reserved, but he let me stay in it. Probably part of that whole "forgiving foreigners anything" thing. Heh.

Back in Tokyo I grabbed another drink before the tube home. I had an awful lot to drink from vending machines throughout my stay, but FFHS why did virtually none of them sell diet coke? Not a single one in the entire Hakone region had any, and I swear only about 4 or 5 -- out of hundreds! -- had it in the city. Grr!

After dropping my bag off at the hotel I thought I'd go out and try to visit one last bar. Near BIC Camera when walking back from Ginza on Sunday I'd found a place called The Rose And Crown, a good old British boozer. I thought perhaps they'd speak English in there. I was wrong. Still managed to have 3 pints and a plate of fish and chips though, plus I spent an hour or so chatting to the Japanese guy sitting next to me who actually lives in Acton. He was amazed that I was so comfortable with the Tokyo subway system, impressed with the beer I told him to drink (some oatmeal stout or other IIRC, a decent microbrew of sorts whatever), and generally a nice bloke. Kinda showed up my appalling pronunciation though as he couldn't understand any of the placenames I said I'd been to, despite being actually from Tokyo (22 years there, 3 years in London so far). Oh well.

I liked Tokyo. I got on well with it. I was ashamed at my ignorance and the way I'd picked up none of the language, but after an initial 36 hours of being a scaredy cat I felt like it was somewhere I could visit again, and wanted to. Not like Singapore, that's for sure. The day trip to Hakone had actually been recommended to me by a user on FlyerTalk and I made sure afterwards to say thanks, as I'm convinced I'd have never known about it otherwise. Turns out that having beautiful weather and a good view of Fuji is a pretty lucky combination. So yeah, Tokyo, cool.

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