Once upon a time I had a student, an award-winning surfer from Hawaii, who with his girlfriend went to Japan during one winter. He related a story to me when they went up to Hakone, sitting in an outdoor hot springs, enjoying the hot mineral soak when suddenly the snow started to fall down. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever encountered. As he lived most of his life in the ever-sunny Hawaii and then spent four years in the mild-weathered California, he never chanced upon a real winter with snow. He was truly mesmerized by the sight of falling snow.
Since my frequent visits to Japan few years ago, which was followed by my recent transplant to Tokyo, I have often wanted to go up to Hakone to have the same experience my student had the fortune to have. I never realized that wish until a friend from Long Beach came to visit. I used this opportunity to ask a Japanese friend of mine, Masakazu, if he would mind showing us the way, and, to my delight, he agreed. Kazu, who did not even know my Long Beach friend, treated us by buying the train tickets to Hakone and giving us two folders of towel set.
We took the Odakyu “Romance Car” at 11 o’clock from Shinjuku-eki (eki=station) with this non-stop train, passing Odawara and delivering us to Hakone-yumoto station. The trip took about 90 minutes. There are other times to take similar train, but this one is a limited express and had no transfer, making it not only a convenience but also very popular, especially during the weekend. Outside, the weather was grey, and rain had been falling since morning. I was hoping that up in the mountains this would translate into a snowfall.
Upon arrival at the Hakone-yumoto-eki, Kazu asked us if we should walk or ride a cab to the hot springs where he wanted to take us. He informed us that it would probably take about 20 minutes to hike up there. Because of the weather, we decided it best to take the taxi, and so we did. Along the way, I looked to my Long Beach friend and said that such path could not have been done in 20 minutes (and this comment came from me, who walked the fastest among friends)! Probably at least 45 minutes will be needed to walk in a comfortable pace. The track goes up and up, and that can slow down those who are not used to such an incline path.
Tenzan (天山) was the day-resort to which Kazu had taken us. Right after we were dropped off by the taxicab, we went to a small depot that housed two ticket machines. Each adult paid ¥1200 (roughly $12) while children would pay slightly less. From there, we followed the stairs up to the lobby area, entering the building of the hot springs proper. As usual, shoes off and into the lockers; then, tickets were presented, and we headed down toward the men’s locker area. The baths are divided by gender. There are others mixed-gender hot springs in Hakone, but this one is separated.
After shedding our clothes, we went to scrub our bodies. We just followed our friend without a word, but when we dipped into the first pool, AWMYGAWD! It was so hot that I thought I saw my entire skin left me in that pool alone. It felt scalding hot, and my Long Beach friend and I wondered if this was the mildest one; to our relief, this was not the case. I guess the first pool was designed to kill any germs before we went to dip in the other ones. There were a total of 6 dips: 3 under the roof, 3 al-fresco (including two cascading pools on a higher ground) plus one freakingly freezing cold pool. There was also a sauna that I thought must have been Japanese style: very low ceiling, with people sitting Buddha style on a wooden platform (there were a total of 10 platforms). Some people rubbed salt on themselves before entering the sauna.
My friend and I were quite happy with the hot springs, thanks to Kazu. We changed location every 10 minutes or so, with intermittent visits to the sauna and sometimes just sitting on the bench with nothing on but a tiny towel to express our humility. I believe that going to the hot springs during winter is best for the very reason of juxtaposition between the two temperatures. I have yet to find out what happens here during the summer weather, if at all this area gets warm enough to close the gap between the temperatures.
After two hours of soaking, we went out and got dressed, lying for 15 minutes or so in the tatami-matted common area, which had a glass door that opened to a balcony (the accompanying picture was taken from this area, looking at the outside; Kazu was taking his cigarette break outside). The long roof over a walkway led one to the different restaurants available on that complex. We opted for the shabu-shabu, which was a great choice because of the cold weather outside and the hot shabu-shabu inside. We were soooo relaxed that my friend and I were reluctant in returning back to the bath; you know, just like skiing in the morning, then having lunch mid-day, and at least for me (with the warmth of the restaurant that sometimes was located mid-high up the mountain) I was reluctant to put on my skiing boots back and go out to ski again. Alas, we were mistaken; the second round of soak turned out to be much better than the first. Maybe it was because we were even more relaxed, with our tummy full and brain half-dead, the soak took the last of our energy and we became extremely comfortable; quite a relieving feeling.
Thus, it was with some regret that we had to remove ourselves from this heaven of a place ( 天山 literally means Heaven/Sky Mountain), but for me, there was always a promise for a return soon. I am hoping to make another sojourn before the cold weather disappears altogether.