Smells Like New Jersey

Having been in Tokyo for just over a full month, I decided to head out into the country somewhere for the weekend. In part, this was due to the fact that my parents were coming to visit for Thanksgiving, and would want to go somewhere other than Tokyo for a day or so, and I needed to find out how difficult it is to travel around Japan by rail. But more than that, I needed to get out of the city for a while.

I am not, by nature, a City Person, having been born and raised in the wilds of Central New York[1], so prolonged periods in urban environments make me a bit twitchy. This is true even of Washington DC, which is a pretty minor city as such things go, so you can imagine how nerve-wracking it was for me to be spending all my time in Tokyo, or at least the suburbs thereof.

To be fair, though, I'm also not a real hard-core Nature Boy. I'm perfectly content to sit on my ass and watch tv all day during basketball season. And while I don't object strongly to spending a whole day walking from place to place, there needs to be something there worth walking to and from. Just about anything will do- bookstores, temples, scenic views- so long as, at the end of the walk, I can easily obtain hot food, cold beer, and a good night's sleep. But I need to at least have the option of going outside, and getting away from the urban world for a little while, and this is noticably absent in Tokyo.

The goal, then, was something vaguely rural, but within easy reach of touristy crap and the train back to civilization, or at least Komae. On that basis, I opted to head for Hakone, a mountainous region with hot springs (onsen, in Japanese), nice scenery, a few temples, and a reportedly impressive view of Mt. Fuji. Another big factor in the decision was the fact that the route to Hakone passes through Odawara, which is the end point of the rail line which ran within a hundred yards of my apartment [2]. Thus, it was probably the most easily accessible resort-type area outside of Tokyo, for my purposes. And I'm lazy enough to make that an important factor.

The big question was the weather. It had been nice off and on, but mysteriously, the weather always managed to be pretty crappy as the weekend drew nigh. The Armed Forces Network has apparently decided that it would compromise the security of American military operations in East Asia if accurate weather forecasts were available in English, so I had no idea what sort of weather I'd be facing. For a variety of reasons, though, I was locked into leaving town that weekend (or else not going at all), so I was hoping and praying to be greeted by clear blue skies when I woke up on Saturday morning.

Alas, to cop an image from William Gibson, when I rolled out of bed on Saturday, the sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel[3]. It wasn't actually raining, but looked as though it might think about raining a little later in the day. Probably at some point when I was out in the middle of the woods.

Still, I was committed to this (and my guidebooks assured me that there are indoor museums in Hakone, should the heavens open), so I threw a couple of spare shirts in a bag (in case of rain), stuffed some books and money in my pockets, and headed for the train.

The ride to Odawara was, for the most part, completely uninteresting. I sat in a half-filled subway car- by mutual unspoken agreement, pretending to ignore the other people, while they pretended to ignore me- read my book, and occasionally looked out the window at the passing suburban landscape. The urban sprawl around Tokyo goes on for an impressively long way, and we were never really out in "the countryside" in any meaningful sense. The trip took a bit more than an hour, and passed through a long sequence of towns so indistinguishably grimy that I was half afraid I had slipped into some Hanna-Barbera reality, and a lazy group of animators had spliced in a loop of the same rock, palm tree, Asahi Beer sign, and featureless apartment complex over, and over, and over again.

Toward the end of the trip, green and rugged-looking mountains began to come into view (luckily, just as I finished my book, which gave me something to look at other than the rest of the passengers). And then the train rolled to a halt in Odawara.

Odawara is sort of a funny place. It's an old castle town, and was actually a town of some importance back in the sixteenth century. It was the seat of power of the Hojo clan[4], who had their way with this part of the Kanto plain for several decades, before they were defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 1500's, and emigrated to America to prosper in the hotel/ restaurant business[5]. It's in a great location, backed up against rugged forested mountains, and facing out into Sagami Bay, and is a fairly large city today (200,000 people according to a brochure I got at the castle).

It's also, in spite of the great setting, dirty and uninteresting. Every scrap of land seems to be occupied either by railway tracks leading somewhere else, or factories energetically producing huge clouds of smoke.

The city fathers seem to be aware of this, though, and have apparently decided that a city of Odawara's size and historical significance really ought to have a few cultural amenities- some historical sites, say, maybe a few museums, a library, maybe a zoo. And with typical impeccable Japanese logic, they have decided to provide all these things. In the same place.

Thus, when I entered the castle courtyard (having come in through the north (back) entrance of the Odawara Castle park), I saw an elephant. Yes, an elephant. See, the city zoo is located insinde the grounds of the restored castle. There were a dozen monkeys in a cage near the elephant, and some squawking tropical birds beside them. The town library is in the parking lot on the west side of the castle, and there's a kiddie amusement park butted up against the back of the complex, with a beautiful Shinto shrine squeezed between it and the library. Only in Japan.

The original castle was torn down in the late 1800s, during the Meiji reign's frantic burst of modernization, but the castle was rebuilt after the original design in 1960. And, to their credit, this is an ongoing restoration effort- one of the gatehouses was rebuilt in 1971, and the main castle gate restoration was finished in 1997. And the restoration has done quite a nice job- going back out of the park, and coming in through the main gate really drives home the point that it would've sucked mightily to have to attack one of these castles[7]. They've also restored some of the grounds, and made a nice park out of the whole thing.

The rebuilt donjon of the castle now contains a museum (with an observing platform and the obligatory souvenir shop on the fourth floor) housing objects from the castle's heyday, and relating to the military history of the Hojo clan. It's a very well-done museum, with the Way Kewl swords and nasty-looking spears that I expect- nay, demand- of a museum in a castle, and also a wide assortment of household items from the sixteenth century. It's also labelled in English, which was a pleasant surprise, though the English labels were sometimes lacking. Several walls held hanging maps depicting the castle area at the time of the battle, with troop movements lavishly described with colored arrows and plentiful kanji writing. These inevitably bore English labels of the form "Map depicting the battle."[8]

The view from the top of the castle is quite impressive, providing a nice panorama of the bay (and eventually the ocean) off to the west and north, the mountains to the east and south, and the city spread out below. This also served to drive home the fundamentally uninteresting nature of Odawara itself, so I headed back down to the train station, to make my way up into the rugged, green, and inviting mountains.

The ride to Hakone-Yumoto, one of the oldest onsen resorts in Japan, took twenty-odd minutes, and I got out there to have a look around (you need to change trains in Hakone-Yumoto to get further up into the mountains, so this seemed like a good place to have lunch...). The less said about this stop, the better.[9] After lunch [10], I caught a new train, and headed for Gora.

From that day forward, whenever somebody waxes poetic about the superlative ingenuity and engineering savvy of the Japanese, I chuckle inwardly at the memory of the train ride to Gora. The train was a tiny creaking relic of a streetcar, rattling and bouncing its way over the mountains on a single line of tracks (forcing three switch-back stops where the train sat for five minutes on one of the rare stretches of double track, waiting for the train headed in the other direction to get past, so the journey could continue). This is not one of the world's finer railway experiences.

Gora itself is pretty much what you expect from a touristy area. The square by the station is crowded with cabs and buses waiting to take passengers to the many local hotels, and everything is expensive. I was inexplicably charged 500 Yen to enter Gora Park (which is a nice park, but not five bucks worth of nice), and the Hakone Museum of Art charges another 500 to get onto their grounds. I was more tempted by this, the museum being highly praised in both of my guidebooks, but it was getting late, and I had faint hopes still of reaching the other side of the mountain (where the most impressive attractions are) before everything closed.

From the front of the museum, I took a cable car to the "top" of the mountain (Soun-zan). It's actually no more than two-thirds of the way up, but the Soun-zan station is where the cable-car ends and the tramway which goes the rest of the way over the mountain begins. The view from this station was quite impressive, looking back over the thickly forested valley below. The trees were just starting to turn, and I suspect that, had it been a week later, or even just a sunny day, it would've been stunning. As it was, it was a beautiful scene[11].

The tramway (which, as a recorded voice informed me in stilted English, is the longest in some large but indistinct area), or "ropeway" as it's called locally, runs from Soun-zan up over the shoulder of the mountain to the Owakudani solfatura[12]. Or the "Owakudani Sulferous Vapors Emissions Region," as the tramway sign put it. When we got into the car (five Japanese people, plus me), we could smell the rotten-egg stink of said vapors, lingering from the car's passage through the clouds en route to us.

One of the other passengers was a little old lady hell-bent of fullfilling every American stereotype of the Japanese tourist. She was bent nearly double under a load of camera gear and crappy souvenirs, and from the moment the car cleared the station busied herself taking flash pictures looking back over the valley below Gora and Soun-zan[13].

As we cleared the ridge of mountain separating Soun-zan from a view of the other side, she turned around, looking for new items to attempt to photograph (or buy souvenirs of). The rest of us were studiously ignoring everything, until we heard her gasp. "Oooooooooohhhhhh!!!!!" Mt. Fuji had just come into view.

Prior to this trip, I had never really understood the incredible significance attached to this mountain. I mean, it's an impressive mountain, and was volcanically active in recent history, and makes a nice picture, but I hadn't seen anything to suggest why one would want a calendar containing just photographs of this one mountain from slightly different angles, let alone why anyone would go to the titanic effort of carving thirty-six separate woodblock pictures of the same inverted-waffle-cone shape. It's a mountain. Move along, people.

Even being in Japan, I couldn't quite figure it. I mean, on a clear day, I could see Mt. Fuji from my apartment (as seen in this picture from near my apartment) . It loomed fairly impressively on the horizon, but thanks to the vagaries of perspective, there were a number of other mountains which loomed almost as large.

At this point, though, sitting in a swaying tramway car just above one of those other mountains, it became a little more clear.

The mountains around Hakone are reasonably impressive in their own right. They're at least comparable to anything that would be called a "mountain" on the East Coast, and make up for some of what they lack in height through their volcanic origin and rugged steepness.

Fuji absolutely dwarfs the lot of them. It's almost impossible to describe the sheer mass of the thing, seen from the top of Soun-zan.

Though the sky was still covered with leaden clouds, the view of the mountain was crystal clear. You could see snow dusting the top of the cone, with black rock peeking through in places, and the red and gold trees on the lower slopes and foothills.

And there's nothing close to that size within a hundred miles. The "hills" between Hakone and Fuji were "mountains" in their own right, and would've looked damn impressive from the valleys between them, but with the giant volcano dominating the horizons, they looked like the rolling hills of, say, the Midwest. I now have a mental image to associate with every cheap-fantasy-novel description of a lone mountain rearing impressively over open plains, and it's a good one.

I still wouldn't make 36 different woodblock prints of the thing [14], but I'm a little closer to understanding just why it's such a big deal in Japan. Even as far away as we were, it's an awesome sight.

Still gaping a bit, and with mildly impaired vision from all the reflected camera-flashes flying around the car, we disembarked at Owakudani. Which requires a brief digression into geology.

The whole Hakone area was formed, as far as I can tell, by a process very much like that which formed Yellowstone Park in the US. A very long time ago, there was a truly gigantic volcano on this spot, which blew itself apart in what was, no doubt, a pretty spectacular manner. Most of the central part of the former mountain sort of sank into the earth, leaving a deep valley ringed by steep mountains- this valley eventually filled with water, becoming Lake Ashi. The other remnants of the volcano are the hot springs in the area (water heated by molten rock underground), and the Owakudani solfatura (water heated by molten rock underground that has a high level of sulfur in it...).

At this spot, most of the way up the mountain, huge clouds of sulfur steam come boiling out of the earth. There are yellowish rocks everywhere, and some industrial-looking apparatus that seems to be collecting sulfur for some purpose, but most of the site is given over to a well-designed little nature park. There's a trail winding from the tramway station through the stunted vegetation of the area (complete with signs helpfully explaining things like "Only those plants which can survive in these harsh conditions can grow in this harsh area.") up to a viewing platrform near the main "Sulfurous Vapor Emission Area", and a "spring" where grey and sludgy hot water bubbles out of the ground. The whole area is permeated by the rotten-egg stink of the sulfurous steam (it's enough to make the eyes water when one of the bigger clouds blows through), giving an effect sort of like being in Patterson, New Jersey in August.

It's also packed with people, the Japanese being firm believers in the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing in the company of 15,000 other people. And they're all trying to get their picture taken in one of two places- in front of the main sulfur spring, with reeking steam billowing over their shoulders, or on the main observation platform, with Mt. Fuji behind them. This makes getting a good look at anything something of an awkward process, involving a lot of ducking, and dodging, and muttering "sumimasen" to people whose family photos have now been ruined by the incursion of a view-blocking gaijin...

The other huge draw at this spot is a true testament to the money-making genius of people in Japan. Perhaps inspired by the smell of the area, they sell hard-boiled eggs here, eggs which have been boiled in the gray and sludgy waters (mud, really) of the "spring." A half-dozen of these blackened eggs can be purchased for 500 Yen, and they were being eaten by the bucket.[15] The ground was thick with eggshells, as proof of the best way ever invented for getting rid of slightly suspect eggs...

By this time, the sun was sinking in the west, and it was pretty obvious that I wasn't going to make it to the lakeside before everything down there closed for the night. Still, I had come a long way, and I didn't want to take the train back from Gora, so I caught the tramway down the other side of the mountain, to Togendai, on the shores of the lake.

Amazingly, this spot was almost deserted, though that shortly began to make more sense, as there was basically nothing to do there. Anything worth seeing was at the other end of the lake, and reached by boat. While waiting for the boat, there wasn't much to do other than admire the scenery (which I did, with a couple of other Americans), or paw through overpriced souvenir crafts-type-things (which I also did. It was a long wait).

The boat was this horribly tacky faux-pirate-ship deal, about which the less said, the better. The minute it pulled up at the dock, 200 Japanese people showed up from out of nowhere (joining the eight or ten Americans who had been waiting), suggesting that there probably is something worth doing in the area, but it's labelled exclusively in kanji.

As the boat sailed slowly down the lake, a recorded voice (alternating between Japanese and really stilted English) informed the passengers of the various interesting items surrounding the lake, all of which were reolutely ignored by most of the passengers. The sun had dpped below the mountains by this point, and the scenery all had the odd hazy quality that everything here takes on at twilight. It's a beautiful lake, all in all.

By the time the boat docked, it was almost five, and the crowd quickly dispersed, most of the people taking the waiting cabs and shuttle buses off to their resort hotels. Having no particular place to go, I opted to stroll along the town docks in the general direction of the Hakone Shrine. This dates back several hundred years, and is famous for having a large torii[16] standing several meters out into the lake, making a nice picture-postcard shot for all the folks on the boats plying the lake.

I figured the Shrine itself would probably be closed, but the sunset was gorgeous, and it was a pleasant enough walk in the cool evening, so I made my way down to the main entrance. The Shrine itself is up a steep hill, a good way back (and across a major road) from the lake torii, in a surprisingly dense wooded area. Though there was some light lingering from the sunset (the clouds which had filled the sky all day had begun to break up while I was at Togendai), the woods were very dark, ad I was just about to turn back when lights flicked on in the long row of stone temple lanterns lining the main path through to the Shrine.

This appeared to be a good omen, so I kept walking. A hundred yeards or so further down the path, I turned right, and headed up the steps toward the main buildings, which most definitely were not lighted. About halfway up the hill, though, there was a brightly lit building to the side of the path, which turned out to be some sort of archery hall, where a small group of people were practicing traditional Japanese archery.

A good while ago, back when I was a freshman at Williams, I took Religion 101, which (in part) consisted of a survey of most of the more interesting of the world's religions. One of the books we read for that class was titled Zen and the Art of Archery, written by an American (I think) who had gone to Japan to study archery (duh) from a Zen monk. It was a fascinating book, but there were a number of elements in the description of the actual lessons which didn't quite fit with my Robin Hood mental image of what constitutes archery.

The class probably could've benefitted from the judicious use of videotaped practice sessions, as it's a lot clearer now what they were going on about. This isn't your Errol Flynn sort of riding-on-a-horse, shooting-wings-off-flies sort of archery. Every movement was stylized- the feet are held just like so, the arm goes here, the string is pulled back sloooowly, like this...- and the archers moved like the room was filled with some invisible molasses.

It was, all in all, surprisingly peaceful, and had an almost contemplative air about it. It was a real shock to hear the sudden twang of the released string, and see the arrow flashing through the air, after the slow and ritual movements preceding the launch. The whole scene was captivating, and a small group of people stood outside, spellbound.

The mood was spoiled somewhat by the fact that the archers were not, in fact, good- after build-up like that, it's a bit of a let-down to watch arrow after arrow sail serenly past the target and smack into the wall- and was eventually broken entirely by the arrival of a boorish group of Australians, evidently part of some sort of tour group. But after the long day of struggling with public transit, it was such a relief to have peace and quiet that I left the Australians, wandered up the hill for a look at the main shrine (little to see in the dark, save faint light from a back room glnting tantalizingly off gold relics in the main hall), then back down to the shore of the lake.

There wasn't much light left- some faintly glowing clouds still, off in the west, and a couple of stars peeking through the rapidly dissolving overcast, and the lake was surprisingly still, all boat traffic having ceased with the fall of night. And, as I stood there staring out at the still lake in the gathering night, I realized that, rural though the area was, this was the first time since leaving my apartment that morning that I had actually been alone.

It took eight hours, three trains, a cable car, a tramway, and a boat, but I finally managed to find the peaceful rural atmosphere I had been hoping for all day. And it was worth the trip.

I stood there for a few more minutes, then picked my way back through the pitch-dark woods, to the closed-up waterfront, and caught a bus back to Yumoto. Where I caught a train back to the noise and bustle and gratuitous use of neon that is Tokyo, as calm and relaxed as I had been since arriving in Japan.

Quick Postscript: Sunday was a stunningly beautiful day- sunny, pleasant, not a cloud in the sky. Had I waited a day, I would've had perfect weather the whole time. Go figure. Notes:

[1] The State, not the City.[back]

[2] Runs noisily past my apartment, from 5am through about midnight. This is another factor in favor of getting the hell out of Dodge- er, Tokyo- for the day.[back]

[3] An old television, not one of the new ones, that replace the static of a dead channel with a cheery blue screen (coincidentally destroying the whole point of the Gibson line for future generations...). And one without sound, 'cause the sky wasn't actually hissing and crackling the way a dead television channel normally would. But you get the idea...[back]

[4] Those should both be long "o"'s, with a little bar over them, but I can't do that in ASCII characters. The other way to represent these sounds in Roman letters is to double the letters, but "Hoojoo" looks even more ridiculous than "Hojo," so "Hojo" it shall remain.[back]

[5] OK, I made that part up. Actually, they were the last group to stand against Hideyoshi, which evidently peeved him somewhat, as after the fall of Odawara Castle, he forced the leaders of the clan to commit suicide, then confiscated their lands. Having successfully unified Japan, he then attempted to invade Korea with noticably less success, and died in 1598 or so. His regime promptly fell apart after his death, and he was eventually succeeded by Tokugawa Ieyasu (in 1603), who was not nearly so happy-go-lucky as Hideyoshi, and whose descendants ruled Japan with an iron fist until 1868. [6][back]

[6] Oh, yeah. I bought a history book.

[7] Hideyoshi knew this, for what it's worth, so his strategy consisted, basically, of getting together 200,000 men, parking them just outside of bowshot from the walls, and waiting for the Hojo to give up. Not, perhaps, the most dynamic of battle plans, but pretty effective. See note number [6].[back]

[8] "Excuse me, what are the kanji characters for 'Well, DUH...'?"[back]

[9] Oh, all right. I headed off from the station to find a couple of notable shrines, and wound up climbing an appallingly large and steep hill, then getting horribly lost in a warren of twisty little streets with not a hint of an English character. It was a gigantic waste of time.[back]

[10] Lunch was a bowl of katsudon, which is basically Japanese "comfort food." A big bowl of rice, topped with breaded, fried pork cutlet, and fried egg. It's much less disgusting than it sounds (and one of the very few contexts in which I will willingly eat fried egg), and made up for the time spent fruitlessly climbing appallingly big hills.[back]

[11] Alas, the best viewing spot was (quite intentionally) occupied by the Gora local museum, charging 500 Yen to enter and appreciate their panoramic view through plate-glass windows. There was a small scrap of balcony that was free of charge, though, and occupied by an interesting statue of some sort of gnomish-looking mountain spirit, so I looked from there.[back]

[12] Which I have seen rendered as "sulfatura," "solfatura," "sulfatara," and "solfatara," and thus feel justified in spelling any damn way I please.[back]

[13] I had neither the heart, nor the Japanese ability to explain to her why this would net her a lovely collection of pictures of glare spots. So I laughed at her to myself, and pretended not to notice. Like everybody else in the car.[back]

[14] Nor would I take 36 pictures from the same damn spot, as one German guy seemed intent on doing. He shot the better part of a roll of film from a single 10m X 10m observation platform...[back]

[15] I was later told that there's a superstition that each egg eaten adds seven years to your life. Perhaps this accounts for the astonishing number of really, really old people I see on the bus every day- as I generally loathe eggs, especially hard-boiled, I'm never going to find out.[back]

[16] Those big red-painted temple gates that look sort of like the Greek letter Pi, and serve, in the US, primarily to denote the tackier sorts of Asian restaurants.[back]

Last modified: 11 December, 2001