We said goodbye to Tokyo and headed off to Hakone, a little mountain tourist town, famed for its onsen (hot springs). We got the shinkansen (bullet train) to Odawara, and then a lovely little old school train up to Gora, with beautiful views as we ascended.
We dropped off our bags at our hotel, and headed out for some lunch at a little place called the Gyoza Centre – delicious. Although much cooler up here, it was such a lovely, sunny day, so we visited the Open-Air Museum. This is a beautifully landscaped park, full of sculptures by Japanese and international artists, which also features a really nice Picasso gallery.
Later that afternoon we headed back, by which time our room was ready for us. We were staying at the Gora Kadan, a ryokan. These are traditional Japanese inns, which was a completely different experience. Rooms at a ryokan are laid out in the traditional Japanese style, there are usually onsen facilities (so there are usually many ryokan in hot spring areas), staff are extremely attentive, and top quality food is served, usually in your room. Our attendant, Sho, looked after us during our stay, and was really very warm, helpful, and diligent.
Just inside the front door of our room was a small entryway where we left our shoes, and then there were tatami reed mats covering the floor from the hallway onward. Paper screen doors divided each section. The main area featured a low table and floor chairs, where meals were served. This also doubled up as the bedroom – after the evening meal the table was moved aside and our attendant laid out futon bedding on the floor, and in the morning he tidied it away into the big wardrobes down the side of the room.
Next to the main area was a small sitting area, and outside we had a patio with a fabulous stone tub, which was filled by hot spring water piped in. It was all very classically Japanese; minimalist, neat, efficient, but with top quality in the small details. We really felt like VIPs – this was definitely the luxurious honeymoon part of the trip!
We were given yukata (a light, kimono style robe) to wear around the hotel, and our attendant showed us how to wear these, ensuring we wrapped them with the left over the right (as it is only ever worn the other way for funerals).
The next day we had grand plans of visiting Lake Ashi, taking a cable car to get there and boat ride across it, and also perhaps seeing Mount Fuji if it was clear both here in Hakone and around Fuji. However, it was very much raining, so we decided to wait it out and have a wander round the nearby Gora Park first. We headed to the covered greenhouses, where we spotted some old favourites, and some rather more unusual blooms, as well as delightful bonsai displays.
We also found the Craft House within the park, which offered taster sessions in pottery, glass blowing, glass etching, and flower arranging, so we ended up going for a glass-blowing session. It was all very well organised – you pick what item you want to make, what type of design, and colours, and then you go in for your session at the allotted time. The staff were very friendly, and while they did most of the skilled work, they got participants involved in just enough of the ‘easy’ bits and made us feel very clever indeed. Gareth and I both chose glasses, one with pink and blue swirls, and one with green spots (choosing the colours and design almost took longer than the actual session!).
After that it was still raining heavily, but we decided to brave it to Lake Ashi anyway. To get there, first we took a funicular further up the mountain. Then, we were supposed to have taken a cable car, however part of it was closed due to volcanic activity in the area, and the remaining part was closed due to the high winds. So we got the replacement bus service instead.
The following day we left Hakone, heading down to Kyoto on the shinkansen. We were a little sad to leave the ryokan, which had been simply wonderful, not least in the level of care we had from every member of staff we came across. It had just the right mix of rustic and luxurious, in a beautiful mountain setting. The Gora area itself was quaint and lovely, and very relaxing to be in.