So, we avoided evil.
I loved Nikko (promiscuous — this has been discussed before). We got our feet properly on the ground there metaphorically and literally. We went for a walk which will be described briefly elsewhere. The air was clear, the food good, the ryokan (inn/guest house) comfortable, the onsen (bath) hot. But we are going to pass over that for the moment and appear, via shinkansen, very high speed train, at Hakone south-west of Tokyo and, if you could see it, within waving distance of Mt Fuji.
The trains. I’ve done a rough count, and including suburban trips, I think we took more than 70 trains in four weeks. Train travel is a sine qua non of Japan. The population is suitably dense, the topography says build something more efficient than roads, the culture says use a train. A stronger case for the value of public transport would be hard to find. There are some remarkable feats of engineering, tunnelling on a epic scale for example, or laying thousands of kilometres of track so that the shinkansen don’t clack. And they don’t, they hum. And there isn’t one, or two. There are dozens of routes all over Honshu. I don’t know about the other islands. I wanted to take a photo out the window of a stable of 40 or 50 sets of locos and carriages just parked at one point, but we went past too quickly. The fast shinkansen travel at over 400kmh; the average is over 250 — and that gets you places very quickly. The carriages stop within 5-10 centimetres, literally, of the marked point on the platform denominated for boarding where you are lined up in a queue, also defined by paint on the platform. And you will leave and arrive on time. I thought I had caught Japanese Rail out when our local train some where out in the wilds near Kiso-Fukushima stopped on the tracks — just like home — and I thought, aha Mr JR. Failure ahead. Gotcha. It was stationary for about seven minutes but these were somehow made up even while climbing up the Kiso Valley. In Tokyo we travelled at peak hour and I’m sure the carriages get full, but I didn’t run into anything worse than the number 19 tram round 5pm on a wet night. Trains in Japan: three thumbs up, five and half stars, 11.5/10. Good work. Keep it up.
But we were in Hakone from where you might be able to see Mt Fuji. This was going to be my photo of Mt Fuji. Ok. Ridge in the front, small cloud just above it right of centre. Just above it there’s another faint line through the middle of the photo. Got it? That’s it. Enjoy.
The weather had been overcast and fiercely steamy since we had been in Japan. I had no idea it could be sub-tropical so far north, but it certainly explained the luxuriant vegetation. Another terrific ryokan. At dinner I was conservative but the lads engaged with horse meat sashimi and lived to tell the tale.
However the next day was clear so again we got the bus back to the cable car up Owakudani, ‘the Great Boiling Valley’. And there it was with only a circlet of cloud — Fuji, all 3776 metres of it. I was pleased if not necessarily overwhelmed.
A relief map illustrates how Hakone would once have been rather like Fuji, but volcanic activity (only about 3000 years ago) has blown the bejesus out of it. There is enough volcanic activity there still to make it unsafe from time to time. What’s left is a crater with a substantial lake (plied by boats dressed up as windjammers and galleons, ha ho, Japan mate), sulphur and other mineral hot springs and some very jagged and attractive scenery much sought after by internal tourists.
Not least of the attractions are the black eggs. And right here is a chance to introduce Paco and Ricky, two fine young products of Alberta Canada with their roots in Mexico and excellent travel companions. So, black eggs. On the slopes of the Great Boiling Valley are sulphuric hot springs. When you find your way up there you can buy kuro-tamago, or black eggs, five at a time. The eggs are ordinary chook eggs but the shell turns black because of being boiled in the hot sulphur spring. Local tradition suggests that for each black egg eaten, seven years is added to one’s life. Further local tradition hints that eating more than two is not recommended. I passed. Could have had one, didn’t. Dunno why. Just wasn’t feeling very black-eggy that day. But there were lots of people who were. First, production. There were signs everywhere (as there are everywhere in this most risk averse society which has also produces some of the most daring mountaineers in history) saying you’ll die if you hang round too long up here; but I think this chap was spending most of his working day very day with his head in the fumes.
Having seen Fuji, we were enabled to travel down the other side of the Great Boiling Valley by funicular and emerge within a few hundred metres of one of the great art sites of the world.I’d say one of the four best that I’ve seen (and this includes days locked up in the Louvre, the Tate, MOMA NY, the Shanghai National, the Uffizi, the Rome National, the Pompidou, etc.). Number One, and there is no hint of parochial partisanship here at all — Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Equal second: the Frick, New York, New York, USA; the Getty, LA, Calif., USA; and the Hakone Open Air Museum, Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. It was a beautiful day, yes of course it was, but what a knockout.
What makes a great art site? Terrific natural environment (this means the Frick must have other significant virtues), extraordinarily sympathetic architecture, people friendly, not too much stuff but everything there makes you think: my goodness look at that. MONA edges in front because of its sense of fun and not taking itself too seriously. Its ‘art wank’ is also highly informative. Its regular people approaching art. (Like MONA, we went to several galleries in Japan that were built on gambling money, in this case pachinko. Insert gratuitous thumbnail pachinko shot.)
So just some samples of the pleasure Hakone had to offer.
The barrow is a special touch. Sculptural in its own right I’d say. Also the way the sack of fertiliser is bent. That’s something. And below is a living sculpture. The combination of the stressed archer and the unfocused softness of the mother just works for me.
That night we had the koto and kimono demonstration. The koto … you can check it out for yourselves. No rush. And then proceeded to a remarkably brilliant meal at a restaurant just round from our ryokan. Among the 20 dishes I can remember chicken done in some remarkable way and an omelete forming on top of a bed of rice.