Japan Day 10 - Tokyo to Hakone

After checking out, we collected some coffee from the Belken Hotel before walking back to the train station. The little coffee machine in the lobby offered “weak coffee” or “hot coffee.” Who drinks weak coffee? After pushing the button for hot coffee, it was reassuring to hear the sounds of coffee beans being ground right then and there, somewhere inside the little machine. Or maybe it was just sound effects. If Japanese toilets could have sound effects, why not the coffee machines? Coffee in hand, we walked the twelve minutes back to the train station, like a couple of hermit crabs under the bulk of our backpacks, while the other tourists waited for a cab. We quietly gloated over our ability to navigate Japan without having used a cab yet.

We kept our eyes open for a restaurant serving breakfast, but nothing was open yet. Tokyo was definitely not an early morning city. This came in handy if you wanted to walk around with fewer people, but walking leads to hunger and as I just said, nothing opened early in Tokyo from what we could see. We made it to the train station without finding a single breakfast restaurant, and so headed down to the basement where, we had come to learn, a city of endless food options would be waiting.

The basement was buzzing with a million other travelers also looking for a morning meal. Maneuvering through crowds with backpacks was not the most comfortable experience in the world, and so we didn’t look far at all. In Japan, most restaurants have window displays with plastic food to show what's on the menu. It’s like those dessert trays they used to have at restaurants, but the entire menu is on display. The first sign of breakfast-type food we found was an omelette stuffed with rice, so that’s what we decided to have. The omelet rice had a lot of ketchup, but overall wasn’t bad. We also split some cheese potatoes that were hot as lava, and a little skillet of shrimp and mushrooms in some sort of garlic butter sauce. It was a lot of heavy food for that hour, but it held us over until the end of the day.

Breakfast at Tokyo Station. 

We found a new SIM card for Fletch who had already burned through his 3 GB of data. I checked on mine too and realized with shock that the Photos app had used up 400 MB in the background, uploading all my photos to iCloud without my knowing. So a tip for all you travelers out there: if you have limited data, be sure to go into the mobile data settings and turn the toggles off for each individual app that isn’t essential. You never know what might still be running in the background. I knew that trick once upon a time, but then got spoiled in Fiji where we could buy 100 GB of data for $25. That amount of data will make your careless. But now I was determined to stretch 3 GB out for the entire month.

We went through the routine of buying tickets, and then rode the shinkansen 35 minutes to a city called Odawara, with far more foreigners than I’d seen so far. We arrived at the most touristy station we had been to yet. There was even an English speaking booth set up for everyone else buying their Hakone Free Passes. We were heading to Hakone, a mountain town known for its views of Mt. Fuji, onsen, and its scenic loop trail you could ride around via five different modes of transportation. They offered a daily pass that included unlimited use of all five modes of transportation. It was a relief to be able to ask the guy behind the counter what time lines stopped running (17:00), and if two days meant two, full, start-to-finish days, or 48 hours. We would be leaving in roughly 48 hours, but spread over three days; we did have to buy the three day pass. It was still a bargain.

The Hakone Tozan Train brought us to the main Hakone station, situated in a quaint little town in a valley between the mountains. A second train brought us up the mountainside, on a ride that was worth the trip to this area by itself. The train had an old fashioned charm about it, and the railway was supposedly one of the oldest in Japan. The track brought us up the mountainside, meaning that the view from one side was down into the valley. Out the other side, the hydrangeas were in full bloom. Bright purple and blue flowers broke up the color scheme of the otherwise luscious, green, mountainside. It was a picture out of a fairy tale.


There were three switchbacks en route, and at each one, the train would stop, the forward facing conductor and the caboose conductor (or whatever his official title may have been) would bow to their respective cabins, exit the train, and walk the length of the train to switch sides, and we would continue on in what felt like the opposite direction.

Hydrangeas in bloom along the Hakone Tozan Train railway.

Up the mountain we rode until it was time to debark at Miyanoshita Station. This was not a busy train station like the madness encountered in the cities, but merely a set of platforms with two tracks leading in either direction. A steep, quiet, and car-less road was the only exit away from the train station. We carefully made our way down the slope. A little outdoor cafe was set up on the roadside, offering a hot-spring, foot-bath for weary travelers. Its charm nearly lured us in, until we saw all the other tourists being drawn in like moths to a flame as well. The charm suddenly died with the new crowd, and so we continued on down the road in search of our Airbnb. 

Hakone Tozan Train departing Miyanoshita station.

This apple sculpture was designated on the map in a way that both Fletch and I thought it was going to be as tall as a person. We were both very surprised when we walked by and found this. 

There was only one main road in the little area, and so we found our lodging without any issue. A cute little building, simply called “Guest Villa,” had a downstairs and an upstairs apartment. We had the downstairs unit, and opened the door to find a studio area with two futons. Not the kind of futons that we are accustomed to in America, which fold up into a couch during the daytime, but mats that roll out onto the floor and can be stuffed away into a closet during the daytime. The bathroom was clean and spacious with all the same amenities you’d find in a hotel, and there was even a coin-machine that was a combination of a washer and a dryer, all in one. The place was obviously designed to be rented out, hotel-style, and not someone's home.

Deciding to rest for a while, we turned on the TV to see what fun Japanese channels we could find. We spent a while watching a doctor drama called "Black Forceps". Even though we couldn’t understand the language, the plot was all to easy to pick up. A young, punk kid with a brilliant mind, was really a better doctor than everyone else, but completely arrogant, and so had to learn to get over himself and find his place. When we tired of the doctor show, we found a news channel that reported an earthquake in Sendai had halted all the trains. We were lucky to have left that area before our travel plans were affected.

We eventually ventured back out to explore the little town area and its one main street. We walked across the street to 7-Eleven and found the equivalent of a Japanese biker gang in the parking lot. That was fairly amusing. When I think of Japanese people, I don’t usually think of hard-core motorcycle riders dressed up in black leather. Walking the road, Fletch also pointed out several high-end cars, much fancier than the cars we had seen in any of the cities so far. Hakone was appearing to be the Aspen of Japan.

It was nice to be out of the city, away from concrete jungles and too many people. The mountain air and natural beauty were refreshing. Hakone would be a perfect stop for a couple days.

As we wandered around, we passed by the same white couple twice, and so finally stopped to chat and introduce ourselves to our fellow travelers. It's funny how when there are fewer people around, everyone becomes friendlier. They were from Belgium, and had arrived the day before. Despite their limited time in Hakone, they told us several places we should check out and pointed out their favorite places on a nearby map like they had been there for ages. Enjoying the chat, we mentioned sushi for dinner, but they said that was out of their price range. So getting hungry, we parted ways and went off in search of the sushi restaurant that had been recommended in the apartment’s welcome book.

The sushi restaurant was indeed expensive. $20 for an assorted plate that would hardly be more filling than an appetizer. We should have trusted the other backpackers. A quick web search brought up a restaurant half a kilometer away that appeared to have a good selection of foods. We headed off in that direction, stopping to look at other menus along the way. One of these places was a ramen shop, with a new-looking sign carved out of unfinished wood, and black calligraphy spelling out its name. Its simple elegance was inviting, as were its prices. And looking through the window, we saw our new Belgian friends seated at the bar.

I like the simplicity of Japanese restaurants. Instead of having a menu the size of a phone book, there are usually only a handful of dishes to choose from, all varieties of the same kind of food. A Japanese restaurant in the US would offer every type of food we associate with the country: sushi, udon, tempura, gyoza… but in Japan, you would rarely find those all in one spot. In Japan, restaurants are much smaller, and just focus on a single type of food. That food is mastered to perfection. The place we were sitting at had a couple different ramen dishes, and a couple other soupy type dishes. Rather than trying to order ramen with no meat (it usually comes with a nice slice of fatty, roasted pork), I ordered a soupy dish with fish to try something new. Apparently sensing that I had no idea what I had ordered, the chef leaned over the bar to show me the bowl of little teeny tiny white fish, the size of orzo, and asked if it was ok. I smiled and nodded and soon was handed a bowl of rice covered in the shirasu, along with a bowl of broth on the side. I just assumed to pour the broth over everything else, and greatly enjoyed the hot meal that was a little bit sweet and a little bit bitter. The combination of flavors was perfect and immensely satisfying.

Boiled shirasu bowl and soup. 

After dinner, we walked back with the Belgian couple and stopped for a chat in front of their hostel. They mentioned hiking somewhere to see fireflies. Apparently there was a window of only a couple weeks during the year when the fireflies were mating. How lucky that we were in this area, at just the right time, both for the hydrangeas and for fireflies. We told them where to find us should they decide to go for the hike and then headed back to our room. They never showed, and so we called it a day.