Sunday, April 02, 2006

It’s a Japanese Tourist Trap, Yaaaarrrrrh!!!

So, I must apologize for the fact that I have not updated this blog in a great many days. I have been, shall we say, occupied. But more on those crazy sketchnanigans soon. Firstly, I would like to relate the hilarity of a weekend trip to one of the most famous (at least in Japan) tourist traps in the Tokyo area: “Hakone”. If you are a well-rounded enough person to have been reading this blog since day one, here is your first cookie: Hakone is about twenty minutes north of Odawara, where I dressed up as a samurai on another cultural adventure/disaster.

Anyway, Hakone is most famous for being a naturally beautiful place with a lot of hot springs in which J-folk (and their imitators, hangers on, English teachers and so forth) can enjoy a hot, relaxing communal bath. These are called “Onsens”.

There are also some really nice forests with some poorly designed stairs.

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A little background may be necessary, but feel free to skip the italicized bit, as it is far more historical than ridiculous, humourous, or even really that fun.

Historical Crap, as far as I can make out from my guidebooks and what I have invented on my own:

Running water came to Japanese homes sometime in the industrial era, but people had desired to be “clean” long before that. One great substance in reaching that “clean” state is water. And thus, in keeping with the communal spirit of Japan, people decided that getting naked with your neighbors was not only a great way to get clean but also a great way to catch up on local gossip. So, men bathed with other men, doing manly bathing in manly ways, and covering themselves with very small (and in modern times, purple) towels for modesty. Since I am a man, and therefore not party to any woman-bathing, I can only surmise that it involves frolicking in scented fountains and batting at each other with waterproof pillows. There is probably some gigging as well, but I can’t be certain without further research.

Anyway, the communal bath is seen as the great equalizer of society. Wealthy businessmen rub shoulders with chefs, students and blue collar workers. Being naked is also a great way to pick out gangsters (or “yakuza”) as they helpfully cover themselves in full body tattoos. So yeah… great way to get to know your buddies, is to get naked and jump into some hot baths—remembering not to splash anyone with any sort of “body art”.

/ Historical Crap, as far as I can make out from my guidebooks and what I have invented on my own.

Welcome back everyone who skipped the last paragraph. All you really need to know is that Onsen = hot indoor or outdoor bath for naked people.

There were three very interesting things to experience in Hakone. I’ll list them here in both chronological order and in increasing order of hilarity.

1) The Ryokan

Ryokans are “traditional Japanese hotels”… where a super-fancy dinner and a really tasty breakfast are included in the price of admission. These places also feature lots of handy recreation and fun stuff, like indoor and outdoor onsens, as well as a games room a disco and a karaoke area. (uh… we stuck with number 1). Anyway, you also get to wear these cool bathrobe thingies all the time. Relaxotastic! (uh... maybe toooo relaxotastic...with apologies to the really nice ryokan lady that took this shot.)

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The meal was also one of the tastiest and most varied that I’ve had a chance to enjoy since I got here. It was about ten small courses, including everything from sashimi to basashi (raw horse), and some various steamed dishes and odd root-y-vegetables. Cho BEERY good!

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2) the semi active volcano

This was pretty cool. There were huge sulphur clouds leaking out of steaming pools everywhere… the entire mountain area is a charred mess, and the few trees that grow around there have a weird red tinge to them. There are also lots of signs with helpful messages like “The urge for visitors embrace the natural earth and enjoying the hell-like landscape! Let’s Nature!”

Best sign:

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Anyway… at the top of the mountain, they have a hut that sells a six pack of BLACK eggs. The people at this famous little shack boil eggs in the sulphur-mud… they actually taste super wicked… almost like a hard boiled egg! Amazing!

From the Gondola:

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Black Egg Yumminess:

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The Mountain!

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3) The completely inappropriate water transportation.

Part of the circuit the Hakone area includes to get across the lake they needed a boat. I can only imagine that the geniuses at the Odakyu company thought to themselves…and ... well... we need a boat, right guys? … and we should have some sort of theme boat to help people enjoy themselves…. hmmm... what do people like... uh... they like... PIRATES!!!"

So, in true Japanese fashion, they built four huge pirate ship replicas with multidirectional propulsion. (yes, that’s right… these are pirate ships that can drive forward, backward and even straight sideways).

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They also have a few plastic examples of what native Japanese folk would have looked like, had they been traveling a small inland lake in Japan in the 1600s. Yeah… kind of like … French pirates…????

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Yaaarrrr..... it was sweet.

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