Day 12

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Monday, May 31—Hakone/Tokyo

As Advertised: Today you will embark on a full day of exciting touring to Fuji and Hakone. By aerial ropeway, you will visit Mt. Komagatake, the 2nd highest peak of the Hakone Mountains, for a sweeping view of celebrated Hakone National Park. Arriving in the hot spring resort of Hakone, you will then board a boat for a relaxing cruise on Lake Ashi. You will then drive up Mt. Fuji to its 5th Station for incredibly breathtaking views of the surrounding lake-dotted environs. Your day will end at your hotel in Tokyo.

The day started as planned with breakfast in the Grandvert Restaurant, which offered the usual lavish buffet of both American and Japanese foods. Kyoko had urged us to try the black eggs, which are a specialty in Hakone. Unlike the “hundred-year-old eggs” found in China, which are black inside as well, these just have black shells, because they are cooked in sulfurous volcanic hot springs. Eat one of these eggs, Kyoko said, and you will live five years longer. Eat two and you will live ten years longer. Eat three, she concluded, and you will live till you die!

I honestly dont remember whether we ate the black eggs or not. What we did get was an unusual fruit that we liked but were unable to identify. For some reason I suspected it was lichee, and our English server confirmed this. For nearly 50 years I’d been intrigued by this fruit, and this was the first time I’d had a chance to eat it. My curiosity had been piqued by the description of the aphrodisiac “Rahadlakum” in Robert Wright and George Forrest’s Kismet: “’Tis sweet with the meat of the lichee nut / combined with a kumquat rind.” Kumquats I had been disappointed to discover were just ordinary small citrus fruits, but lichees remained exotic. Now I had eaten one!

Rain and wind put the kibosh on most of our planned activities for the day. Marc Bokoff said there was no way their insurance would cover the liability of the aerial ropeway in the wind, and the cruise on Lake Ashi, while possibly still relaxing, would hardly be scenic. So, when we left the hotel at 9 a.m., we headed instead for the Narukawa Art Museum on the shore of Lake Ashi, which opened in 1988 and features modern Japanese paintings, with the emphasis on the last half of the twentieth century. On our bus ride, Kyoko told us that Ashi means “reed,” so Ashinoko is Reed Lake. It is the source of many lake and rainbow trout and is also frequented by blackbirds imported from the United States.

Arriving at the museum, we put up umbrellas for a short dash to the covered escalator that would take us to the entrance. Perched on a cliff above the lake, the museum’s large windows and outdoor balcony provide a spectacular view of Mount Fuji on clear days. Although the view from the observation lounge was disappointing the day we were there, the exhibit inside was not; it featured a wide variety of kaleidoscopes that were as beautiful as they were ingenious. Other exhibit areas displayed a variety of traditional and modern paintings. In one of the two gift shops, I bought a package of eight postcards of some fruit still-life paintings I especially liked by Yukihiko Kurihara.

All too soon we were herded back onto our buses to go to a small shopping center for “retail therapy.” I have no idea where this collection of souvenir shops was, but it was obviously designed to attract tourists. Dodging from one shop to another in the rain, I bought nothing, but others in our group managed to find gifts to take home to friends and family (since I had most of my family with me, my need for gifts was limited).

By now it was lunchtime, so we drove on to the Sengokuhara Prince Hotel for lunch: salad, corn soup, a small chicken thigh with salsa, hash browns, one broccoli floret, coffee, and orange sherbet. The dining room was very elegant, but the food was meager and the service poor. Because the hotel’s public restroom facilities were too limited to accommodate such a large group, the bathrooms in several of the ground floor guest rooms were made available to the women, which was a thoughtful gesture. I was amused to see Suzi, the guide on the other tour bus, not only brushing her teeth but also taking advantage of the hair dryer to fluff up her rain-soaked locks!

After lunch, it was on to the Fifth Station of Mount Fuji as planned. On the way Kyoko told us that July and August are the peak climbing season for the mountain, which is climbed by 300,000 people a year, 30–40% of them foreign visitors. The average annual temperature at the summit is 20° F., ranging from 2° in January to 42° in August. There are four different routes to the top (with alternative routes for descending), and climbers usually hike most of the way in the afternoon, spend the night in a rented hut above the seventh station, and leave at 2–3 a.m. in order to reach the summit (3,776 meters or 12,290 feet) by sunrise (at 5 a.m.). There is a Shinto shrine at the summit, and it takes one hour to walk around the crater.

Although Mount Fuji is not a very tall mountain in world terms, it is the tallest in Japan, and it is over five times as high as the tallest mountain in Alabama (Mount Cheaha at 2,407 feet). There are ten stations on each of the four routes. The Fifth Station (Go-gome) we went to is on the Kawaguchiko-guchi/Yoshida-guchi Route—the most popular and the second longest route, located at 2,305 meters, right at the timber line.

Needless to say, there were no “incredibly breathtaking views of the surrounding lake-dotted environs.” There was rain. There was so much rain that I failed to take any notice of the exterior appearance of the Go-goen Rest House. Inside, it was a typical souvenir shop, though there was a restaurant (not open at the time) on the second floor. We had each been given a small plastic-laminated blue ticket printed with images of Mount Fuji and a little bell. I evidently wasn’t paying attention and so didn’t understand that we were to exchange the ticket inside for a souvenir “good luck” bell. So Barney got the bell, and I kept the ticket.

Most of my brief stay was taken up by a visit to the restroom. The free toilets were outside, reachable only by an uncovered staircase. Given the wind and rain, I opted to spend the requisite ¥50 to use a toilet inside, but there was still a line. Afterward I ventured upstairs to see the plaster model of Mount Fuji (showing the climbing trails) and a bear (Kyoko told us there used to be bears—the small Japanese kind—on Mount Fuji, but there are no more) and to photograph the typical souvenir foodstuffs below. Barney, meanwhile, was using the time to buy postcards and mail them, postmarked from the Fifth Station Postal Agency, to his father and a stamp-collecting friend.

All too soon we had to leave this scenic place and begin the long trek back down the mountain. Our drive into Tokyo was broken by a stop at an especially nice rest area.

Arriving in Tokyo, we checked into our hotel, the Keio Plaza, got our strayed bags into our room, and then went out exploring in Shinjuku. The shopping area near the hotel boasted many electronics stores, including Yodobashi Camera, where I finally succeeded in my quest for an extra battery for my Pentax digital camera. It was starting to rain, so we went back to the room for umbrellas, then ventured out again.

For supper we had hamburgers at a Wendy’s, after which we returned to Yodobashi, where Barney comparison-shopped for digital cameras until they closed at 10. Back to the room and to bed about 11.

View (on a better day) from the Narukawa Art Museum (museum in foreground) across Lake Ashi to Mount Fuji

An elaborate kaleidoscope at the Narukawa Art Museum

A high-tech kaleidoscope

A whimsical kaleidoscope

Barney (far left) in one of the gift shops at the Narukawa Art Museum

Barney buying postcards at the Mount Fuji 5th Station Postal Agency

The Mount Fuji model and bear

A sign above the stairs at the Go-Goen Rest House (restaurant above on the second floor)

This photo (not mine) of Yodobashi Camera gives an idea of the overwhelming effect of its many signs and posters. I leave it to the reader to imagine the sensory overload of all this neon at night, especially in combination with dozens of equally lit-up establishments all around.

This street-level view gives an idea of the Yodobashi experience. The entire establishment not only crosses a street to encompass stores on two blocks but also uses all of the perimeter for sales racks and kiosks of various sorts in addition to the jam-packed interior.

Numerous salespeople, neatly dressed in the Yodobashi uniform, wait on customers. Their knowledge and expertise is doubtless impressive, but those we encountered had scant English, so, given our complete dearth of Japanese, it was difficult to get much information.

If this is not the Wendy’s where we ate, it easily could be, as the streets in Shinjuku look much like this at night.