Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hakone Area

Today John and Daisuke and I got up early and took the train to the town of Odawara, where Daisuke’s sister and mother live. This town is on the edge of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, which is, as you might guess, the home of Mt. Fuji. Ironically, though, it turns out that the closer you get to Fuji-San, the harder it is to see because mist and mountains block your view. Actually, John says one of the best views is from the beach in Hayama, where he lives.

The Sano family owns a fish-cake factory, and on the way into town we stopped by and said hello to the family, who were still at work. I got to try a fish cake. It was sort of like gefilte fish, and sort of like those processed chicken cutlets you get in school cafeterias. Not bad. What was bad was a treat Daisuke’s sister had just brought back from Okinawa. It was an individually packaged serving of tofu fermented with yeast, called Tohuyou. It looked like a little cube of pate smothered in ketchup, and it smelled like miso paste (so far so good), but it tasted like vegemite, which itself tastes like a salted barnyard, so not so good.

From there John and Daisuke and I went to the grandest hotel in the Hakone area (in fact, it’s one of the grander hotels in Japan), called the Fujiya. It was built starting in 1878, and is an imposing building constructed in a heavy beamed, Craftsman style. (Or so it seemed to me—I know the Craftsman style was actually borrowed from Japan.) Every celebrity in the world seems to have stayed there, from Mark Twain and Helen Keller to John Lennon. (And I’m thinking that would have been quite a dinner party.) Lunch was very continental, with a beef fillet, grilled whole fish, consommé, and crème caramel, served by slick-haired waiters in Tuxedos who looked like they came straight out of Shanghai in 1930.

After that, we saw the town’s other main attraction: hot springs. Japan, like New Zealand and Iceland, has thousands. This particular one was mostly outdoors, with hot but relatively unscented mineral water (no sulfur fumes) spilling over rocks and into big pools about 3 feet deep. Except that it was single sex (the guys had their own area), it reminded me a lot of Orr Hot Springs in Ukiah—another situation where I realize this is the original. I knew the Japanese like their bathwater extremely hot, so I was nervous, but I’m guessing this wasn’t much over 100 F. I was able to stay in a while. It was relaxing, and I pretty quickly forgot that I was stark naked in the company of some of the most etiquette-obsessed people on earth. Everyone relaxed, chatted, washed each other (it’s considered extremely rude to take a bath without being completely clean to start with) and just generally seemed to forget that they were Japanese. Or so it seemed to me, although of course the public bath is one of the older rituals in Japan, and the experience is actually a quintessential Japanese ritual.

I’m glad I didn’t swear of Okinawan food, however, because the other thing Daisuke’s sister brought back from her trip there was some of the best pork I’ve ever had in my life. Okinawa is justly famous for the meat, and it was delicious. We ate it for dinner, along with vegetables and noodles boiled in a hot pot, in a dish called nabe.

Next: Nicole conquers Tokyo.

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