After our epic walk on the historic Nakasendo Trail from Magome to Tsumago, we headed to the spa-filled town of Hakone. Apparently Tokyo-ites come here for the weekend to unwind and soak in the natural hot spring onsens. We drove about 320km in about 4.5 hours from the Kiso Valley to Hakone, Kanagawa prefecture.
At various intervals on Japanese highways, you can have a break at road stops that have very clean toilets, coffee and snacks. Some places also have restaurants, a mini mall and shops that sell regional specialties. We stopped at one place that offered a “Hot Menu” vending machine…
I tried one of the many coffee machines offering many different kinds of coffee. It even had a live video monitor to show you that it was making your coffee. And voila, out pops your coffee below. The taste? I’m not a Starbucks fan, but I’d buy one if there was no other choice; this was way worse than Starbucks. Be warned.
As mentioned, Hakone is famous for its natural hot-spring onsens as it is within volcanically active Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. And of course we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit one.
We had all read about the etiquette of visiting an onsen. Basically, you wash first by sitting on a stool and showering like you would in a regular shower (except you’re sitting down on the stool!). Then you walk into the onsen with your birthday suit and the specifically sized spa towel you rent/buy (we were turned away when we wanted to use regular-sized towels). And no tattoos allowed as it is associated with the yakuza.
Although the onsens are separated by gender (male or female), were we really ready to see our good friends naked? Although we all felt self-conscious at first, we soon got used to it as we hopped in and out of the different hot water pools. There were girls, women and grannies of all shapes and sizes. The one we went to (I think it was called Tenzan) was an outdoor one, and it was very atmospheric with natural rocks and gardens to look at while we soaked and sweated. It’s an experience I’d recommend.
This is Hannah taking a sip of the water from the public spring at the top of the hill from our accommodation. It tasted pure and fresh.
On the road to Tokyo
The next morning we were back on the road to Tokyo, which was about 80km away.
Tokyo part 2
We arrived in Tokyo sometime in the afternoon at our Airbnb accommodation. Paul and Greg went to drop off the minivan and us female folk went to explore the neighbourhood of Setagaya near Chitose-Karasuyama station on the Keio train line. We grew quite fond of the area as it wasn’t touristy here at all.
“Rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world (and definitely in Japan), Shibuya Crossing is like a giant beating heart, sending people in all directions with every pulsing light change. Nowhere else says ‘Welcome to Tokyo’ better than this. Hundreds of people – and at peak times upwards of 3000 people – cross at a time, coming from all directions at once, yet still to dodging each other with a practised, nonchalant agility.” (Lonely Planet)
We went to infamous Shibuya Crossing and crossed it! We went up to the second floor Starbucks to get some coffees and snacks and watch the people below.
Golden Gai alleys in Shinjuku
The Golden Gai area consists of about 200 bars in six narrow alleyways, preserving 1960s Tokyo. Apparently the area escaped arson instigated by the yakuza “for the purpose of sale to developers, thanks to the vigilance of its supporters, who gathered at night to patrol the area and deter the gangsters.” (Japan Visitor)
Paul, Elina, Chris, Mika and I visited Golden Gai during the day. (Greg and Hannah were going to have a low-key day close to the Airbnb.) Luckily, one of the bars was open and the girls were allowed in.
While we walked out of the Golden Gai area, we went past this lovely Shinto shrine.
A gate to a temple, which had these very tall, skinny trees growing up squashed right against the neighbouring buildings.
Tsukiji Outer Fish Market
Although the famous early morning tuna auction at Tsukiji Inner Market has now moved to Tosoyu Market, the Outer Market is still open for business with restaurants and shops. Most of the fish from Toyosu Market is delivered to the Inner Market so you can still eat excellent sushi for lunch. It is not a dinnertime option.
We went to one of the restaurants in the market and had some deliciously fresh sushi!
SCAI The Bathhouse art gallery
After visiting the art gallery, we wandered around Taito ward, heading towards Asakusa. We had a break at a tiny little cafe and had coffee, beers and snacks. I think we were the only foreigners there as they seated us all together away from the quieter patrons. The Japanese are a pretty quiet society…
We passed by this cemetery during our walk.
Senso-ji Buddhist temple
Sensō-ji is an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa and is Tokyo’s oldest temple – completed in the year 645 – and one of its most significant. I went here about 15 years ago on a solo 5-day visit to Japan. Assuringly, the area hasn’t changed.
First you enter the outer gate, Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate). Then you pass through the Nakimise, a 200-metre shopping street, which leads to the temple’s second gate, Hozomon. The shopping street has been around for several centuries, no doubt to cater to pilgrims visiting the temple. Nowadays, the shops are full of souvenirs, arts and crafts aimed at tourists.
You can have your fortune told at the temple but shaking out sticks and reading your luck on the piece of paper that corresponds to the number on the stick. Both the girls had good fortunes.
As we headed out of the temple area to find something to eat, there were more lanterns lit up in the adjoining streets.
Our two families are big fans of Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki, and its films: My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, The Secret World of Arietty, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Howl’s Moving Castle.
What’s notable about Studio Ghibli films is that they usually feature a heroine, a young girl, and themes always involve preserving, and not destroying, nature and the environment.
On our last day in Tokyo, Chris took all three girls on a tour of Studio Ghibli. Chris had to go to a travel agency in Sydney to buy the tickets and only a certain number are allotted to tourists. Unfortunately, entrance tickets were sold out but an all-day tour with entrance tickets were available. Since they were pricey, Chris said she’d take the kids. Greg, Paul and I spent the day doing our own thing.
Chris’s day out with the girls
“On our last full day in Tokyo, I took Elina, Mika and Hannah on the ‘Ghibli Museum & Ghibli Film Appreciation Bus Tour’. Having missed out on getting tickets to the Ghibli Museum, this was our only way of seeing the museum. At first we were disappointed that we had to be shepherded around other sites before getting to the Museum at the end of the tour. However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it was a very thoughtfully organised tour that gave us much more historical and cultural context for understanding one of our favourite Studio Ghibli films, Spirited Away.”
“Spirited Away is set in a magical bathhouse in Japan, and on our day tour, we saw the real life hotel/bathhouse, the Hotel Gajoen Tokyo, that director Hayao Miyazaki visited that inspired the movie bathhouse. We saw its grandeur, its many levels, and gardens (including the spectacular toilets that featured a quaint bridge over a small stream). Plus we enjoyed a huge buffet lunch (that sadly was comprised mostly of American rather than Japanese food – why?).”
“The next stop was the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, which featured recreations of historic buildings, including beautiful old bathhouses. All were reminiscent of scenes from Spirited Away. Unfortunately our exploration of this open air museum was cut short because Elina was stung by a bee*. Then we got to experience the full Japanese para-medical response to a minor incident (!).”
*Elina gets stung by a bee on every overseas holiday we’ve had (Jolanda)
“Finally we got to the Ghibli Museum. Just as well because the kids were hyped up, ready to explode with anticipation and excitement! Inside the museum, we saw some animation production processes, a Ghibli original short animated feature viewable only at the museum, and a playground with a huge plush ‘cat-bus’ that the kids climbed all over, while throwing plush soot sprites at each other. My favourite exhibit was a meticulously detailed recreation of Miyazaki’s house, complete with piles of old newspapers, cigarettes, and walls covered with hundreds and hundreds of fantastic drawings in various stages of completion. You could just imagine the genius at work!”
Japanese kawaii stores
Japanese kawaii culture is huge in Japan. They cutify almost everything. Elina loves cute things, and kawaii things in particular. So while she was on the Studio Ghibli tour, I went in search of her favourite cute things: Sumikko Gurashi, described on their website as “the characters living a quiet and solitary life in the corner.”
I got her a few things from Sumikko Gurashi store in a mall in Tokyo, which had many kawaii stores in one area.
What I couldn’t find was her second favourite kawaii character: Gudetama, created by SanRio, the same company that makes Hello Kitty. This is a bit unusual because Gudetama, aka Lazy Egg, is not upbeat and cutesy rather it is grumpy and is barely existing. Gudetama prefers to do nothing. And yet, it has risen in popularity in Japan and around the world. It’s my sort of kawaii character!
Tokyo is also where we say goodbye to Chris, Greg, Mika and Hannah. We go on to fly to Osaka, and they go on to fly … nowhere. As it turns out, they didn’t fly home. They thought they would fly out of the airport they flew in: Haneda. But apparently not, they were supposed to fly out of Narita, which is about an hour away. They ended up missing their flight, despite a speedy taxi breaking all kinds of speed limits, and stayed a few more days to catch the next available flight back to Sydney. We commiserate: Paul got the day mixed up on a midnight flight from Sri Lanka to Sydney a few years back. I’m sure we all have stories to tell about missed flights…