Golden Week! It’s the favorite holiday of all people Japanese. The week-long holiday celebrates four different occasions; a former Emperor Showa’s birthday, Constitution Day, Green Day & Children’s Day. With four major holidays in one week, the government decided to make it a full week-long. All week offices are closed and people travel far and wide. Unfortunately the holiday this year was a bit more tame than usual for obvious reasons (see Tohoku Earthquake). However I have still been able to enjoy the occasion. Let me tell you how.
The work week was very short. I only worked three days! At 9 PM Thursday night my holiday began. I started with a light dinner with Emma and two students. The next day, Friday, I hopped a train to a small town away from Tokyo called Hon-Atsugi. One of my new friends, Trevor, works and lives there. We cooked some dinner at his apartment and set out to find a special bar.
Trevor had found a real gem of a joint. After World War II General Douglas MacArthur oversaw the occupation of Japan. Over the course of six years he built and maintained a garage for his automobiles. Since then, his garage had been turned into a popular restaurant and bar aptly called, “MacArthur’s Garage.” I’m not sure if I fully believe the restaurants claim but it was fun nonetheless. The garage was covered in Western culture and decorations. And an old 1940’s Studebaker sat in the middle of the room. For two hours we hung about our table drinking, flirting with the wait staff and enjoying ourselves. Our night concluded back in the Ono for one final drink and some much-needed rest.
Sunday morning began bright and early. I met Elisha & Lauren at the Ono station and we boarded a train out-of-town. We were southbound for three days and two night in Hakone. Hakone is a very popular tourist attraction for Tokyoites. Less than two hours from my station, and less than three from central Tokyo, is the Hakone National Park. The region is famous for its mountains, hot springs and crater lake. Popular with locals and tourists alike, we embarked on our adventure.
From the Ono we rode two trains and a bus to arrive at our overnight accommodations. We stayed at a hostel on the fringe of the region. It was very foreigner friendly and boasted a price that could not be matched. We dropped off our luggage and set out. Our first mission in Hakone; hiking! The girls and I met up with a friend of Elisha’s and three other Japanese. Although gray clouds and a strong wind hovered over the mountain, we set out. The hike began easy enough. With stone steps and hand rails. However the path quickly took a turn for the rustic. The path was very steep and rocky. We practiced scrambling and took frequent breathers.
I took the lead and set a fast pace. My heart pumped strong and my lungs drew deep. My mind cleared as I focused on putting each foot in front of the next. It was a great change from the sidewalks in the city. My worries melted away until we reached the summit. I took a seat and sipped my water. I was humbled. Huge mountains and low valleys surrounded us. Life’s problems were suddenly put in perspective. Just as quickly as my reality was checked the rain came down. We hustled back onto the path to take cover under the trees. In half the time up we made it down and back to the busy streets below.
Cold and wet, we managed to find an onsen. We paid the keeper ¥1,000 and entered the resort. The girls went into their respective locker room and I went into the men’s. My new friends were three Japanese men who did not speak English. We quickly shed our wet clothes and grabbed our hand towels. They all covered their privates, unfortunately I didn’t possess such modesty. I strutted to the shower room and slid open the door. I took a deep breath of steamy air. Several old men turned to see me. “Konnichi wa,” I greeted them. I sat down, bare bottomed, on the plastic stool in front of me. It was still warm from the gentleman before. “Pre-warmed. How thoughtful.” I said this aloud, more to myself than anyone. One of my new friends turned to me and said, “Nani?” (What?) I returned a smile and set about scrubbing and washing.
After thoroughly washing off I sat up and walked to the outside. This onsen’s natural springs were fed to an outside tub. I slowly slipped into the scalding hot water. I relaxed my head on the cool stone behind my back. My gaze drifted out to the lake across from us. A very scenic and tranquil Japanese garden had been well-tended. Coy fish swam in the small pond. Rain from above created a subdued ambiance. I relaxed and slipped deeper into the gray sulfur-water. The many minerals in the water in turn sunk deeper into my skin. My concentration was broken by a loud Elisha-cackle, coming from the other side of the divided onsen. “Pipe down, ya gaijin!” I shouted. I then slipped out and rinsed off.
After our soak we had dinner at a local mom & pop joint. We bid goodbye to our new friends and retired to our hostel room for the night. The hard hike, hot water and dreary weather soon put us all to sleep. A short day but a successful one.
Monday started early. We left the hostel and took a bus further up the mountain. At the end of the line we took the Hakone Ropeway deep into the mountain. The Ropeway was recently certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the busiest ropeway in the world. As our gondola creeped higher and higher we were given a grand view of the valley. Below us was Lake Ashi. In the horizon dozens of mountain peaks reached for the clouds. The best was saved for last as we crossed over the last crest. Far away we could see Mount Fuji, known in Japan as Fujisan. It was my first view of the famous mountain. Even though it was far away it was still imposing. My desire to climb to the top of it this autumn was renewed.
Soon we departed from the ropeway and ventured into Owakudani. This tourist stop is filled with boiling pits of volcanic water. The air reeked of sulfur and clouds of white poisonous smoke billowed up all around. While a place like this should be desolate, it was full of people. Tucked away in this mountain is a local secret. Chicken eggs are boiled in the natural springs. The sulfur and other minerals turn the shells dark black. It is said if a person eats one of these eggs their life is extended for seven years. For ¥500 a person can buy a bag of five eggs. The girls and I bought a bag and started peeling our eggs. The taste was that of a normal boiled egg; delicious. I ate two and washed it down with a mouthful of water. Satisfied that I would now live an extra 14 years and thus make it well beyond 100, we returned to the gondolas.
We rode back down from where we had come. We hustled down the stairs and got in line for the ferry across the lake. The ferry resembled an 18th century pirate ship, with the crew dressing the part. We rode the boat across the cold lake to the south side. Here we enjoyed a light lunch. During lunch we heard breaking news from the States, Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden. After lunch we enjoyed a scenic hike next to the lake. The hike concluded at the Hakone-Jinja shrine, complete with a large torii standing in the water. At this time we found a nice plan in the sun and sat down to relax. I took off my shoes and socks and did some sunbathing.
Satisfied with this excursion we took the boat back north and hopped a bus back to the hostel. The girls were completely drained of energy and willpower. I was suffering from a running nose. The girls laid down for a nap and I took a decongestant. With the girls sleeping I slipped out of the room and took a long walk through the neighborhood. I came across a quaint cafe and stopped in for a cup of coffee. I made friends with the sweet ladies behind the counter and left with a smile.
Back in the room the girls were waking from their naps. I decided to clean up for the night. This resort, like many others in Japan, had an in-house onsen. I entered the shower room alone and cleaned off. I soaked in the mineral water until I couldn’t bare the heat. I showered off and returned to the room for a quick nap while the girls took their own baths. We ate dinner at a local restaurant and retired back to our room. Again we were asleep early.
The next day began with coffee and lounging around our room. Sometime before 10 AM we were checked out and on our way. First stop: the Hakone Open Air museum. What a museum it was! The expansive art gallery was nestled in a valley between two mountains. Art from all over the world was represented. A dedicated Picasso building showcased some 1,000 pieces of his work. We wandered around the museum for sometime, taking in all the culture we could.
After the museum we took the final means of conveyance out of the area, on the Hakone Tozan Train. This train was an old-fashioned model and it’s path zig-zaged through the mountains. At last we arrived back to the main station for lunch and souvenir shopping for our workplaces. We took the trains back to the city. I got off halfway back to Shinjuku at the Ono. I gave the girls a goodbye hug and set home. Another outstanding vacation in Japan.
I need to give a brief shout out and congratulations to Lisa-Sensei who got engaged over the weekend. Congratulations to you and your fiancé!
The Fukushima Daiichi power plant is still offline. This remains a serious thorn in Tokyo’s side. The six reactors were a major source for power in eastern Japan. Since the crisis began on March 11 there has been a power shortage throughout all of the Kanto region. To counter this shortage, TEPCO and the government announced it would impose rolling blackouts with no discretion between homes and businesses. However these blackouts have largely failed to happen. What gives?
Everyone in and around Tokyo is aware of the Fukushima crisis. Since the start TEPCO has requested everyone do what they can to limit their power consumption. The Japanese people have responded in amazing fashion. In fact their voluntary efforts have been so effective that I have not yet experienced a single blackout. This effort by the people is astonishing.
Businesses consume perhaps the most electricity. As such they have been the leaders in reducing demand on the system. Every business and retail store I’ve entered has half their lights turned off. Alternate banks of fluorescent lights are turned off. This gives stores an eerie feeling, but they’re still open. And most importantly, customers don’t mind.
People at home are also making an effort to save power. Lights in the windows of huge apartment complexes are far fewer than normal. I’ve seen people opening or closing their windows to control the temperature in their homes. And I’m positive my neighbors haven’t vacuumed one time since March 11.
I have been amazed by the collective effort being made here. The government and TEPCO both requested only once for people to save electricity. Everything else has been a volunteered effort by a team-oriented society. I can’t imagine such willingness and unselfishness in America. I’ve told my students how such a power crisis in the States would be a complete disaster. How Americans are so selfish and shortsighted that they would destroy a crippled infrastructure.
As for me, I’m fully buying into the teamwork. I haven’t run my heater/ac in almost two months. I use candles for lighting. I’m making sure all unnecessary lights at work are off. I relish living in a society that is so pragmatic & selfless. It’s astonishing.
For all of our hard work there is still a serious fear with summer coming closer. The summer season in Tokyo is unbearably hot and humid. Power consumption is at it’s highest during July & August as people try to stay comfortable. Many experts and officials are highly concerned about a possible record hot summer and reduced power to keep systems operating.
However I am an optimist. We’ve done well so far. And really, what’s two months? I’m living an extra 14 years. I have time to spare.