Discovering Japan

A girl wearing kimono poses for her father at a festival to celebrate children's growth and pray for their future well-being, at Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

A side trip from Tokyo proves to be a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.

There are a number of worthwhile experiences  just three hours by train from Tokyo. As exciting as Tokyo is, it was good to get away to less busy, greener and cooler locations for a couple of days. We first rode the early train to Kamakura to visit three of Japan’s “must see” temples, then caught an afternoon train to Hakone to view Mt. Fuji the next day.

Kamakura is a seaside resort on the east coast of Japan. Inland from the beaches is the Hokokuji “Bamboo Temple”. We entered the temple grounds through an arched gateway to a manicured garden of dwarf maples and miniature pagodas. Surrounded by ancient trees and bordered with brilliant white pebbles, the temple safeguards the sacred Buddha Shaka Nyorai statue.

Beyond the temple,a network of narrow paths with stepping stones and low boardwalk bridges wind through a forest of someover 2000 bamboo. Amidst the bamboo, asecluded tea house served us matcha green tea and sweet matcha cookies; it was a tranquil place. After tea, emerging from the bamboo, we followed the path beside a long, low cliff lined with “yagura” or cave tombs holding the ashes of past feudal lords.

Next, we caught a taxi across Kamakura to the landmark Great Buddha at Kotokuin Temple. Cast in 1253, the 13m-metre high bronze statue weighs 93 tonnes and is so big you can walk inside it — which we did. The Buddha has survived numerous typhoons, as well as a 15th century tsunami which destroyed the Buddha’s original temple home; a beautiful garden lies beyond the Buddha.

Lunch at a nearby noodle house was pork ramen noodle soup with porcini mushrooms and spiced with rosemary. Practising our chopsticks and spoon skills, we slurped from our bowls and managed quite well. We then walked (10 minutes) to the Hasedera Temple.

A garden with pools and water features marks the entrance to the Hasedera Temple. Here, we respectfully washed our hands in a rock bowl before starting our climb to the temple; we passed by tinkling prayer bells and groupings of miniature Jizo Buddhas — guardians of the souls of deceased children.

The Hasadera Temple buildings were magnificent. The Kannondo Hall holds a revered 9.18m metre gold-leaf wooden statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. In the Kyozo building, a large rotating wooden Sutra bookcase stands in a bed of tiny stones engraved with prayers. Beyond the temple, a path led us up through the woods to an observation deck with wonderful views over Kamakura and the surfing beaches of Sagami Bay.

Later, we caught an afternoon train to the mountain spa town of Hakone in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Lakes, forests, mountains, hot springs and spas are popular Japanese retreats.

Our ryokan onsen (spa) was a short walk from Hakone Station and was to be our first ryokan stay. On arrival, we left our shoes in the lower foyer. After which, we stepped up onto the lobby’s tatami matting in our slippered feet and were greeted with a deep bow by our hostess.

Our room overlooked a rushing weir and forested mountainside. Futons (beds) were laid out on the tatami matting under a central, hanging light. A single low table with two cushions and a television were the only other furnishings along with an electric kettle, tea and little cups. The ensuite Western/Japanese toilet had toilet slippers, a warm seat and a control panel.

We changed into our yakatas (kimonos) to bathe before dinner and stepped down to the ground floor baths entering through his ‘n’ hers curtains; there is no mixed bathing in Japan. Leaving our yakatas in the changing rooms and wrapped in our towels, we walked out into our respective baths.

My wife joined unclothed ladies of varying ages, shapes and sizes sitting on very low stools, washing meticulously in front of mirrors. Having difficulty operating the hand-held shower, my wife was assisted by two Japanese girls wearing nothing but friendly smiles. Scrubbed clean, she joined them in the thermally-heated exterior mineral pools where they were intent on practising their English. My experience was similar — but without the charming company. 

Our ryokan hostess recommended a cafe for dinner just a five-minute walk from the ryokan. It was popular and we joined a fast-moving queue. Soon seated, we shared a selection of prawn, fish and vegetable tempura with dipping sauces and rice. Back at the ryokan, an open window and the soothing sound of the burbling weir lulled us to sleep.

The following morning, we had planned to take the Hakone Ropeway cable car. This highlight runs from the northern end of Lake Ashi up over bubbling volcanic pools to great views of Mount Fuji. Unfortunately, a recent earthquake had temporarily closed the ropeway. So we had an extended cruise on Hakone’s lovely Lake Ashi on an — unlikely — replica pirate ship.

The forest rises from Lake Ashi to Mount Hakone in one direction and to Mount Fuji in the north. It was a clearish day, giving us glimpses of Mount Fuji in all its snow-capped splendour. We cruised as far as the giant red torii gate — which marks the entrance to the Hakone Jinja Shrine at the foot of Mount Hakone — before turning back to disembark. 

During the feudal Edo Period, the nearby Hakone Sekisho Shiryokan Checkpoint controlled the passage of people and goods along the Tokaido Highway between Kyoto and Tokyo. Originally built in 1619, the reconstructed checkpoint’s main gate and village includes a small museum which tells the checkpoint story. We walked through thecheckpoint gate and  out along a remaining section of the old road’s stone pavement. Cedars planted beside the highway for shade 400 years ago have grown to giants.

Need to get a move on

For the train ride back to Tokyo, we purchased bento box meals. The service from Hakone to Tokyo, including a Shinkensen (bullet train), takes two and a half hours. The immaculate Shinkensens have run at speeds of up to 320 km/h during 54 years of fatality-free service. They arrive and then depart within two minutes. – we hustled.