Exploring Hakone

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May 13th 2018
Published: May 13th 2018
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I wake in a cold sweat. I don’t know whether we’re supposed to wear our traditional gowns and kimonos to breakfast, and it’s a bit early in the day to be relying on alcohol to ease our embarrassment if we get it wrong. Issy says that she doesn’t want to come to breakfast, and I suspect this has got a lot more to do with not wanting to embarrass herself by wearing the wrong thing than lack of hunger. My suspicions are confirmed when she asks me if I could please bring her back something to eat. Only about half the people in the dining room are wearing the traditional dress, so I don’t feel quite so much like an alien as I did last night.

We can scarcely see the lake from our balcony through thick clouds, and it’s supposed to rain for most of the day. We decide that we should probably stick mainly to indoor destinations today, and choose the Pola Museum of Art as our first stop. The Museum is in a forest. The building is very modern and impressive, and we read that it was only opened in 2002. It houses around 10,000 works including pieces by Renoir, Monet, Picasso, and a number of Japanese artists.

Issy’s discovered some new buttons on her camera and is very keen to try them out. The signs telling you whether or not you’re allowed to take photos in the museum are a bit confusing, and there are signs saying that photography is "OK" right next to signs saying that it is prohibited. I err on the side of caution, but Issy has decided that the urge to try out the new buttons on her camera far outweighs her fear of getting caught committing a heinous crime. I wonder what they do to you here if they catch you taking photos of things you’re not supposed to. I assume that at very least they’d make sure you deleted them, but I wonder how they’d do this. I don’t think I’d be very happy if someone took a hammer to my precious camera.

We walk out of the gallery into pouring rain.

Next stop is the Hakone Venetian Glass Museum. This is set in a reproduction Venetian garden, complete with canals, trees with crystal for leaves, and a ten metre high arch with more than a hundred thousand pieces of crystal hanging off it. We suspect that this would look really spectacular on a sunny day. This isn’t a sunny day. It isn’t even remotely a sunny day. It’s a very rainy day, and the rain is getting heavier by the minute. Like most places we’ve been to here, the museum has a large supply of umbrellas for use by its patrons as they walk between buildings, and the main game here at the moment seems to be trying to get hold of one of these before someone else does so that you can get to the next building without drowning. The museum is excellent, and some of the coloured glass pieces are spectacular.

There seems be a bit of a theme going here around trying to reproduce little bits of Europe in the middle of Japan. We leave the Venetian Museum and pass the "Musee du Petit Prince de Saint-Exupéry à Hakone", which looks just like a small French village.

The rules around what you can and can’t do in the buses here are very strict. There are signs saying that you’re not allowed to eat or drink, or talk loudly, or talk on your phone, and that you must have your phone switched to "manner mode" while you’re on the bus. We‘re not exactly sure what "manner mode" is and whether or not this is a feature peculiar to Japanese phones, but if it stops the person sitting next to you on a bus yakking inanely to one of their random friends then we decide that "manner mode" would make a great Japanese export. The bus rules are strictly enforced. A group of University students get on the bus and start yakking away, and the bus driver then makes an announcement in Japanese. We don’t understand any of it, but when he finishes there is immediate silence, so we can only assume that he has given them a severe telling off for making too much noise.

We catch the bus into the small town of Gora for lunch. From here we board a cable car, and then transfer onto a gondola called the Hakone Ropeway which take us up and across the Owakudani volcanic valley. The valley looks like the moon. It is completely devoid of any vegetation and there is sulphurous steam gushing out of vents in the ground all across it. There seem to be a lot of pipes, walkways and buildings down in amongst the vents, and the Google machine tells us that the whole operation is run by the Hakone Hot Springs Supply Corporation, to supply hot water to all the onsens in the area. I hope that the Hakone Hot Springs Supply Corporation pays its workers well. The walls of the valley are very steep and look like they might collapse at any time, and the walkways and buildings look like they’re sitting right on top of some of the strongest steam vents. We read that until 2015, tourists used to walk up to the rim of the valley, but they had to close the path because the increased volcanic activity was making it too dangerous, and new steam vents were suddenly popping up all over the place. There are signs everywhere telling you what to do if the valley starts erupting, and the main suggestion seems to be to run away as quickly as possible. As we stand on the rim of the valley the wind is blowing freezing rain at us horizontally and we are both soaked. We decide we might come back again tomorrow when hopefully the rain and clouds will have gone away so that we can see a bit more and it’s not quite so icy.

We get back on the gondola. An announcement comes on alerting us to the spectacular views of Mount Fuji. This sounds wonderful, but Mount Fuji’s about 30 kilometres away, and we can’t see more than a few metres past the windows through the thick cloud and pouring rain.

We rest up back at the hotel and then tackle the challenging task of trying to work out how to put on our traditional robes, so that we at least have some chance of looking like we fit in when we go up to the dining room for dinner. I think that Japanese people must all have small feet. My heels and toes are hanging over the ends of the slippers, and I need to take really short steps to stop them from falling off. We know that if we put the wrong flap of our gowns over the other flap we will cause everyone great offence, but we’re still not quite sure exactly which flap is supposed to go over which. We walk nervously up to the dining room. Our waitress gives us each a piece of elastic to put around one arm of our gowns to stop it dipping into everyone’s food when we serve ourselves from the buffet. I hope that they give these to everyone, and that they haven’t just picked on us because we look so clumsy. I think I might have felt less awkward and uncomfortable last night when I felt like an alien.


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