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Hakone: Story of Onsen

I spent the weekend in Hakone. It was great. I had hardly any homework (gotta love having finished all your major projects), so it was a weekend of relaxation, kicked off with 3 hours of staring into space while waiting in the CIEE Study Center for everyone else to get out of class b/c I was too tired to move. 


We left campus around 3 pm on Friday, and got to Hakone that evening, checked into the inn and immediately bathed naked together in the indoor onsen downstairs (gender-segregated, of course.) That was my first onsen experience. Luckily, it was only the five of us the first night, and since it was just the three of us guys in the men's onsen, I didn't have to cover up my tattoo. Because tattoos are most often connected to the yakuza (like a Japanese mafia), people view them a lot more negatively here than in the States. I don't know if they were ever really connected to criminals, or at least any famous criminals (aside from Mike Tyson's Maori face tattoo), but mostly to bikers. Now, they're becoming more of a fashion statement, and we see a lot more types of tattoos. I explained this to my host family in April when the topic of yakuza scalp tattoos came up at dinner. I don't know why it never occurred to me that my tattoo might be an issue at public onsen. 


We discovered a hill outside the convenience store shrouded in mist. It appeared as if from a magical land, like Brigadoon. So we attempt to conquer it. We got a good 5 minutes in before the trail ended and we have to turn around. Also, we had other plans. 

The first night, the three of us guys decided to make a conbini run ("conbini" = "convenience store"), for some dinner food to eat in the room. It was balmy outside (anyone from NC knows what a balmy summer night is: warm, humid, buggy...but dark), and there was fog galore. We didn't want to change out of our yukata (provided in the rooms for the onsen), so we slipped on our shoes and entered the darkness like three hapless, modern-day samurai looking for sandwiches. I am reminded of the Meiji Restoration, when Comm. Matthew Perry threatened to attack Japan if the nation didn't start trading with the States, and as a result, for the next few years, samurai attempted to attack the American sailors and traders now living in the Japanese ports.*

*Samurai comparison not mine.



You know how hard it is to walk in yukata? Oh, the ankle chafing.

The few street lights on the way to the conbini (rather, the three streetlights in the entire city) combined with the fog and mist, created light effects never before imagined.

Too bad I left my camera in the inn.


After our little adventure, it was time for some real exploration. We took a bus to the ropeway, and then flew right over the mountains! What a feat of extraordinary skill!

We rode over the top in a box.

I did this three years ago with my parents. I love discovering things that I had forgotten about from the first trip. Maybe next time I'm in Japan, I'll end up in Saitama again.


In the ropeway station, before we made our final transfer, we found black boiled eggs. They dip them in hot springs on top of the mountains and the water turns the shells black and lightly cooks the yolk and whites. Japanese eggs are amazing. Often, with ramen, you get brown hard boiled eggs that taste like no egg I've ever had has ever tasted. Amazing. American hard-boiled eggs aren't even a proper match. 


We're in Goura now, looking for the Hakone Open-Air Museum and the water park (both covered in the next post). Ajisai have been blooming for the last few weeks, replacing the sakura that closed up in May. You can find them in a wide range of colors: white, cream, pink, peach, orange, blue, purple, sunset, and more fake colors that I'm naming for fun. The Goura station had ajisai softcream. 


Way back in November, while reading blogs about Japan to find things to do, I stumbled across an article or blog post about this, the Hakone Open Air Museum ("Sculpture Woods,") so I added it to my "may want to do if possible" list. As I mentioned before, I came to Hakone 3 years ago with my parents, but I'm geographically inept and paid little to no attention on the trip there, so I had no idea how long it would take to get to Hakone. My friends went earlier in the semester (on a date, which means smoochy-smoochy in the rain, and me having to put up with "ooh, this is where we kissed last time," all weekend), and mentioned they'd like to come back as a group. So we followed all the required protocol for such situations (created a Facebook event page), and started discussing things to do. I mentioned the museum, then immediately forgot I had mentioned it (I have a selective memory.)

It was some of the strangest, most interesting, most emotion-inspiring, and most beautiful artwork I've ever seen. We couldn't possibly see everything in one day. The photo immediately above is of a sculpture near the entrance called "The Crying Angel," and the bust was set in a reflecting pool. For more pictures (not mine) of the museum, here's the Flickr page (which soon will have to put up with my photographic attempts.) 

After a few minutes, we came upon the edge of a forest in the middle of the museum, and got separated. As I am wont to do, I wandered off, crashing through the bushes like an idiot (read: politely following the trails and bridges until I had walked them all), stumbling through the cob webs (looking at them from afar, paralyzed by fear of spiders), and discovering sculpture like none I've ever seen before (Roman nudes and Buddhist statues that you can see in many other places.)

There was art by modern Japanese artists, artists from other countries, and even things from various time periods. At the base of the hill coming down from the entrance was the Picasso Pavilion, a church-like building containing works from throughout Picasso's lifetime. I've never seen his work up close. It was mind-blowing. Now, if I could just visit the Rothko Chapel, I'd be a happy camper. Mark Rothko's work is some of my favorite.


These works of art inspired in me many a feeling. The star-shaped labyrinth made me feel as if I were a character in Wonderland; the woods evoked an ancient jungle in my soul; the underground passages a sense of "will I make it out of here alive?"

But most importantly, this view. It made me think of food.

So we got a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the museum entrance.

Of the next event, there are no photographs, as it consists almost entirely of naked people. The photographs contained herein depict the scene at the close of our adventure.

After "lunch," we hiked up the road towards Yunessun, a water resort and open-air public onsen. It's split into two halves: the water park, and the traditional onsen (the onsen woods.) In the water park, you can bathe in green tea, coffee, wine, sake, or regular hot spring water (in bathing suits.) It's all supposed to be good for your skin. It is said that Cleopatra bathed in wine. That means I'm just as fabulous as Cleopatra.


Luckily, my tattoo is on my upper back near my neck, meaning I can cover it easily with my towel without looking too conspicuous. I sat with my back away from everyone, trying to keep my towel from falling into the sake (no one likes an alcohol-soaked towel, even if they bathe in rice wine.) Mind you, this was all pretty diluted. We could smell the coffee and wine, and taste the tea (no one told me not to drink it), but I couldn't really smell the sake. I should emulate this at home. Maybe I can bathe in beer. I wonder what that'd do for my skin. After that half of the resort, we went to the other half (the onsen woods), for traditional onsen. I've never been in a room with so many naked people in my life. I got over my body-anxiety pretty quickly. After the hot springs, we got milk. Milk is great after a good nudy dip. 

We left right at closing, which, unfortunately, is half an hour after the buses stop, so we had to wait half an hour on the curb for a taxi. When we got back to the inn, we went to the convenience store for dinner, and fell asleep almost immediately after. School? What even is that?

Our plan for Sunday was to take a pirate cruise on Lake Ashi.

But alas, the weather was not conducive.



You saw that coming. Admit it.


This is what happens when you let someone else hold your camera.


The fog was redonkulously thick when we got out of the shrine, so we took pictures by the torii gate (on the lake). 

And then it was time for home. We got on the bus for Odawara, then the train, and then parted ways for the night. And now I'm dreading a sunburn from the mid-summer Tokyo weather. Granted, it's probably worse in Chapel Hill right now, but I never did enjoy the mid-summer anyway. 


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