A Travellerspoint blog

Exploring the Hakone area, minus views of Mt Fuji


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large_5550_14319998528816.jpgSwitchback train.
It was another early start with the alarm for 0600 for a shower, breakfast and packing up after 5 nights at the Tsukiji Business Ban Hotel. I left at 0700 and got to Shinjuku Station rather quickly but as it was a collection of different stations (different rail companies and then the metro), I spent considerable time finding the office and departure point for the bus to Hakone [Hakone-travel-guide-280113]. I reckon the instructions given had been a bit misleading and I eventually found it.

It was 0810 by the time I got my ticket and the next bus to Hakone was 0830 which could drop me off at Sengoku about 5 minutes from my hotel. The alternative was to wait till 0900 for one that could drop me outside my hotel. I chose the former.

The journey was on the motorway for around 2h followed by about 20 minutes on roads in the Hakone region.large_5550_14319998594683.jpgLargely brown scenery at this time of year.The weather had deteriorated along the way.

I hopped off at Sengoku and after a wrong turn (which was fruitful as I found the ATM to get more money), I found my hotel. I dropped my pack there, grabbed some dumplings from a nearby café and started my afternoon exploring the Hakone area.

I started by taking a bus downhill to Hakone-Yumoto; it wasn’t a short ride and it was windy. The rain got heavier. When I got to Hakone-Yumoto, it was too wet to explore so I hopped on the switchback train to Gora.

The switchback train consists of two carriages. It takes its name from the nature of the tracks … it zigzags up its hilly route but doesn’t switches back at some stops, ie. the front becomes the back and the back becomes the front.

The route itself wasn’t too beautiful at this time of year. The sakura had gone and the leaves weren’t out.large_5550_14319998663698.jpgCable car.I didn’t have any pink nor green but only the greyish brown of bare branches on the mountains slopes.

Upon reaching Gora, I wandered around briefly before hopping on the cable car (funicular railway in some countries) to Sounzan where I changed immediately to a rope-car (gondola or cable car in some countries). That took me to high up to Owakudani [Owakudani-travel-guide-1328809] where I could stop to explore the volcanic area before continuing to its final stop at Togendai.

The weather had kinda fined up enough to fully explore the volcanic streams, pools and vents. It hadn't fined up enough to get even a glimpse of Mount Fuji [Mount-Fuji-travel-guide-1336977], which is supposed to be the highlight of visiting this area.large_5550_1431999874475.jpgRopeway.I could get a glimpse of the water, which I guess must have been Lake Ashi.

Having just been to White Island in New Zealand only weeks before, the volcanic area was pale in comparison. I explored it fully but quickly, covering all the areas that were permitted. High winds started and I thought I’d better make my way back to the rope-car.

To my surprise, the rope-car was still operating. Unfortunately, they closed it within minutes of me joining the queue. There was no refund for the unused portion of the expensive ticket and had to pay for a separate bus ticket back down to the lake. I waited for the bus indoors in the souvenir shop for as long as I could. When I eventually had to queue up, it was in the cold gale.

Down from the mountain on the shores of Lake Ashi, all was calm and sunny.large_5550_14319998815206.jpgLargely brown scenery at this time of year.I had enough of bad weather this trip both in Nikko [Nikko-travel-guide-283488] and the Hakone area. It was time for me to head back to the hotel and wait for dinner and a hot soak after.

The Hakone Mount View hotel turned out to be an excellent choice as it was a hotel set up to give a ryokan feel. It had an onsen and diners would eat in smaller dining rooms of about 8 tables instead of one large hall of 40(?) tables for the entire hotel. The corridors were all dark and atmospheric with piped in koto music. My single room including sumptuous dinner and breakfast cost me less than JPY13000.

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Shopping


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large_5550_14319924731782.jpgCollapsible ladder in the toilet of the shopping centre.
Today was the day that had been allocated to rest and shopping. While I don’t normally have much brand loyalty, I do rather like some of the cheaper-end stuff Uniqlo (a Japanese value fashion brand). I had been told about GU, their budget brand just the day before, so I decided to check both brands out in Ginza [Ginza-travel-guide-1320159], the most famous shopping district in Japan.

While Uniqlo was cheap by most people’s standards, it wasn’t cheap enough to buy at whim, I’d seriously need and like an item before spending $35-40 on it. On the other hand, I found lots at GU priced at $7-20 which prompted me to buy if I somewhat liked it and it suited me.

I managed to hit the JPY10000 threshold which allowed me tax-free purchase from a special desk.large_5550_14319924778603.jpgDon't push the door to open it, just the button ... the door will slide open.Good job I was buying at GU as the tax-free counter at Uniqlo had long queues - it appears half of mainland China was shopping there.

Some interesting things I learnt while shopping in Japan:

It is necessary to take off one’s shoes when using the fitting room. Yes, one would have to do that anyway if trying on trousers but if visiting the fitting rooms multiple times to try on shirts, it does get rather painful.

I’ve read that shops also offer women face masks so that their make-up doesn’t smear on pull-over dresses that they try!

When one sees a “Push” sign on a Japanese glass door into a shop, it doesn’t mean the opposite of “Pull”. You don’t push the door. Instead you push the sign and it activates the sliding mechanism. That’s instead of having sensors that open the sliding doors.

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Washed out in Nikko


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large_5550_14319921035466.jpgGoj?not?; five-storeyed pagoda.
I had set the alarm for 0640. I downed a simple breakfast with canned coffee, warmed up in a bain marie of boiling water. I was tired but I tried hard not to waste too much time getting ready.

I made my way to Asakusa [Asakusa-travel-guide-1311131] station by metro, which required a walk to the train station of the same name. I hopped on the direct 0810 train to Nikko [Nikko-travel-guide-283488] with two minutes to spare, only to have it leave late by two minutes.

We snaked through the city area passing the Tokyo [Tokyo-travel-guide-285666] Skytree. The high-rises gave way to suburbs which in turn gave way to countryside. There were stops along the way and I had been told to take the last two carriages as the other ones would disconnect for another destination.large_5550_14319921175235.jpgWet day in Nikko.Heeding that, it was a stresses 2+ hour journey to Nikko.It turned out to be my only quiet time in many days to attend to emails, admin, filing and reviewing photos.

It was miserable when I arrived in Nikko. I took a bus to the World Heritage Area which was only 5 minutes away from the station. It would probably have been a 30 minute walk on a nice day. I knew Nikko would be a chore today and I wasn’t wrong.

The rain was heavier than the previous days’ drizzle. It was much colder than the previous days with a single digit maximum. I should have come yesterday as the weather was glorious (and brave the weekend crowd) or tomorrow (when the weather would also be wet but at least warmer).

Nikko was supposed to be beautiful. It was, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it, holding and umbrella with one hand and keeping the other warm in my pocket.large_5550_14319921118605.jpgWet day in Nikko.I explored the temples and even climbed up to one of the higher ones.

At the end, I visited Rinno-ji’s Hon-do which was being restored. A huge building had been built over the actual temple, and it was being re-built in entirety. This glimpse into the complete re-build was quite unexpectedly the most interesting part of the day - at least I was dry, but it was still cold.

The weather wasn’t suitable for exploring Nikko’s surrounding beauty. I skipped the waterfall and lake and returned to the station area to grab bowl of hot noodle soup before hopping on the train back to Tokyo.

From the station, I headed to a nearby public bath Jakotsu-yu and had a good soak. It was much needed after the day’s cold weather. The water comes from underground springs and was tea-coloured. There was an indoor hot pool, an outdoor hot pool, an outdoor cold pool (which I did try out, the first time I’ve done the alternating hot and cold dips). Most interesting was the electrified water in one corner of the hot pool.

I felt much better after warming my core temperature and grabbed dinner at pedestrian mall. My difficulties ordering were resolved with picture menus and mainland Chinese waitresses.

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Cycling, Harajuku, Yoyogi and Roppongi


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large_5550_14319907491348.jpgRenting a bike to cycle near the Palace moat area.
I woke to a lovely clear sunny day, in fact, the only nice day forecast for my entire stay in Japan. It was perfect for cycling around the Palace moat area, something that’s only possible on dry Sundays.

I took the tube to Nijubashimae and found the place for borrowing free bicycles near exit 2. I thought I wouldn’t be allowed it because I didn’t have my hotel phone number handy. But fortunately, the staff weren’t strict enough to insist on it.

The 3km cycle track consists of closed-off sections of normal road, with traffic lights still operational. It was still quite far from the palace itself and allowed a little more than a glimpse of the building (actually, even dismounting and walking closer to the buildings doesn’t get you much of an improved view).large_5550_1431990797562.jpgCycling near the Palace moat area.

Near the turnaround point, I stopped briefly at a scenic spot by the moat. One of the staff who happened me nearby told me off as I guess there were other people waiting to use the bikes. So I quickly made my way back only to be stopped by a pair of cops.

Without understanding what they were asking in Japanese, they appeared to query the condition of the bike. I indicated it was the free rental bike and they appeared to be satisfied after asking to see my passport (not sure why that makes a difference as locals can borrow the bike too, I think).

The bike ride was short and sweet, and it couldn’t have happened on a better day with glorious blue skies.
Next up was Harajuku, the epicentre of the Japanese teen fashion scene. The crowds at the station area was unbelievable as the stations (tube and train) served traffic for Harajuku, Meiji temple and Yoyogi Park.large_5550_14319907843843.jpgGlimpse of the Palace.

I grabbed some lunch at a roadside lunch-bar which had a lesser-known quiet upstairs eat-in area overlooking the crowds.

Having filled up, it was time to walk through the wooded paths to Meiji Temple. It was a nice to be greenery so close to the city. A bank of richly decorated barrels was seen on the right hand side in one area leading to the temples. On the opposite side was its Western counterpart which was pale in comparison in its beauty. If I remember correctly, these wine barrels are to commemorate the initial opening up of Japan and the acceptance of the good elements of global culture.

The temple area consisted of building in dark wood. They were quite sombre and didn’t have the rich colour and gold seen in some other Japanese temples.

I thought I’d do justice to the Harajuku area with a good wander before straying away from the area.large_5550_14319907568103.jpgCycling near the Palace moat area.The crowds were amazing, especially in Takeshita Street which appeared to be a main alley. I did get to see a few people dressed in their quirky teen-fashion outfits like Little Miss Bo-peep etc.

I found the entrance to Yoyogi Park nearby. There were a few punk rockers near the entrance dancing to music. Apart from that, the park was full of people picnicking, walking their dogs and generally having a good time. There were lots of stalls selling street food and I was ready for Lunch Part Two.

I continued to Shibuya [Shibuya-travel-guide-1311183] crossing, reputedly the world's busiest pedestrian crossing. Starbucks upstairs gave a good vantage point to observe the merging of the crowd from all directions. I stayed a couple of cycles before moving on to explore the area.large_5550_14319907586491.jpgAnother rare selfie, this time with the sakura.

It was nearly dark when I got to Roppongi [Roppongi-travel-guide-1311836] by tube. There wasn’t much that interested me in the big mall so I walked around the bar district. It was still a lot early and the bar scene wasn’t too obvious apart from the low-key signage. Much of it appeared to be upstairs in the high-rise. The touts weren’t out yet perhaps.

My tummy wasn’t feeling quesy from the day’s greasy street food. I stumbled upon exactly what I wanted at the Hub English Pub which offered a salad and wine for JPY1000. It was too good to be true as they were closed that evening for a private function.

Instead, I grabbed dinner from the convenience store which I enjoyed in the comfort of my room.

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Tsukiji Tuna Auction & Shinjuku


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large_5550_14319878671003.jpgWaiting for the tuna auction.
The alarm rang at 0240. I got ready quickly and walked in the drizzle to the Tsukiji Fish Market’s Fish Information Centre. There were about 10 people waiting for me in the queue at 0300. We were each given a high-viz jerkin to indicate that we had been confirmed into one of the 120 slots for visiting the auction (split into into two groups).

We were ushered into small waiting room where we sat on the floor waiting to be led into the tuna area at 0500. I had the cheeky idea of going back across the road to my hotel room for a lie down but this wasn’t permitted.

A little before 0500, we were led into the tuna area. There were rows of frozen whole tuna laid out on the floor. Each one had a small slice that had been carved out near the tail. Nearby, there was a table of these slices available for inspection (labelled to match the fish which it came from).large_5550_1431987873860.jpgTuna up for inspection and auction later.

The inspection process consisted of looking at those slices, looking at the fish, hooking a small piece out of the tail cross-section. The small piece obtained would be rolled around in the fingers and/or put into the mouth to check the texture and flavour (I guess). I saw them spit it out into a bucket but one tester did it on to the floor.

Then came the auction. I didn’t get a good view but it was no different from any auction with the rambling of numbers; that part was pretty uneventful. The first auction of 2015 saw a 180 kg tuna sell for a relatively low price of JPY4.51 million (about USD38000, or USD211/kg). Soon, our allocated 20 minuteswas up and we had to make way for the second group.

The intermediate wholesale area wasn’t open for visitors till 0900.large_5550_14319878774546.jpgTuna up for inspection and auction later.So, I walked back to the hotel through the outer market area where shops were open for sushi. I wasn’t hungry yet but I was tired enough to grab about 3 hours snooze from 0600.

Back at the intermediate wholesale area around 1000, things were quietening down. Some stalls were washing up but I got enough of an idea. Fish, roe, crabs, squid, prawns etc. To be honest, I thought Busan’s fish market was more interesting and had more unusual stuff that I hadn’t seen before.

In the afternoon, I explored the Shinjuku area. There were the usual shops, department stores, pachinko parlours and in the Kabuki-cho red light district, girlie bars. I had a picnic lunch from the convenience store in Shinjuku Park.
After lots of wandering and resting, I was back in my hotel completely exhausted around 2200.

After a couple of days in Tokyo [Tokyo-travel-guide-285666], I had come to the conclusion that the world’s largest urban area isn’t as expensive as most would think. Hotels, food, shopping and transport are cheaper than in New Zealand but this is helped to some extent by the strong Kiwi dollar for now.

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Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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