Thursday 29 April 2021

Heaven and Hell in Hakone

Before being enveloped by the madness of the new academic year, I took the chance for a brief visit to Hakone, the last opportunity to re-charge the batteries (jūden suru =充電する) before classes begin. Hakone is a mountainous resort area a couple of hours west of Tokyo famous for its hot springs - and by association its volcanic activity. For most Japanese it also brings to mind the 100-year-old Tokyo-Hakone ekiden (long distance relay race) which is staple viewing in the New Year. Broadcast in its entirety on January 2nd (Otemachi to Hakone) and January 3rd (Hakone to Otemachi), the race has become a cultural institution which sees millions of Japanese glued to their screens as the university students complete their individual legs (20km~23km). Usually nothing much happens but now and again there is a show of individual fighting spirit or grit (konjō) which captures qualities which Japanese tend to value like perseverance, endurance, and team-spirit.

My trip was a much more sedate affair which involved a small minpaku (lodge, like a B&B) in the Gora (強羅) district, quite a few baths, and walking around Owakudani Valley and Lake Ashi (including the lovely Hakone Shrine, giant cedars, and famous torii gate on the lake's edge). Being up in the mountains, the heavenly cherry trees were still in bloom, in contrast to Tokyo where they had long finished. 

Taking the ropeway to see the boiling Sulphur springs at Owakudani Valley (the old crater of Mt. Kami) is quite an experience, not least because of all the signs warning of volcanic activity and the health risks due to the volcanic gases. Even riding up in the gondola, "people lacking confidence in health" are encouraged to cover their mouth and nose with the wet cloth provided! Arriving at the top, I found that the trail around the crater was closed off (due to increased volcanic activity); certainly, the smell was rather overpowering and the various warning signs, including one warning us to run into a building if the volcano erupts (!), were just a touch disconcerting. With this in mind, I decided to take shelter in the Geomuseum which gives great bilingual descriptions about the history of the volcano (a small explosion occurred in 2015), shows how the spring water is drawn and pumped, and discusses the mystery of the black eggs which turn that colour when boiled here (something which reportedly occurs only at Owakudani!).

 After the fumes - and bone-biting chill - of Owakudani, it was something of a relief to come down to Lake Ashi. Forgoing the pleasure of a trip across the lake on a full-scale pirate galleon (?), I headed towards Hakone Shrine, first founded in the 8th century, following a cedar pathway which shadowed the old Tokaido (Kyoto to Edo) Highway. The shrine itself is protected by a rather marvellous pair of moss-covered komainu (guardian lion dogs). As mentioned earlier, the torii or entrance/gate to the shrine is located on the shore itself, reminiscent of the famous "floating" vermilion torii at Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, Hiroshima. Gazing out over Lake Ashi through the torii gate, the hell-like scenes in the Owakudani Valley (short video below) seemed like a world away.

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