This is a guest post by Sandipan Kundu
Since childhood, I had a dream of staying in a traditional Japanese house complete with Japanese garden and koi pond along with all of its traditional decor and charm. Interestingly, this dream originated in the most unlikely of all places – in a James Bond computer game. You see, there was a James Bond PC game called “Nightfire” released in 2002 and this was among the first few computer games I played in my life. The third level of this game took place in a Traditional Japanese estate along with all the traditional elements I mentioned before and more. This was my favorite and the most memorable level of the game and how I fell in love with traditional Japan.
Fast forward 13 years, I finally got a chance to visit Japan. I frantically started looking for opportunities to relive that unforgettable experience I had from playing that game in my formative teenage years. I asked in forums, read few guide books and finally zeroed onto a “Ryokan” experience. A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn usually complete with Japanese style garden, baths and of course traditional Japanese cuisine. I picked a place called Hakone, a charming hilly region near lake Ashi, very near to the famous Mount Fuji. The region also has huge number of geothermal hot springs, a lifeline of traditional Japanese bath or “Onsen”. Around these hot water springs, perhaps to complete the ‘experience’, quite a number of traditional Japanese inns exist in this region.
Getting there: The nearest Shinkansen (Japanese high speed train) station to Hakone is Odawara. I was coming from Osaka so I stopped here and changed to a normal train which took me to Hakone Yumoto station. If you are coming from Tokyo, you have more options in addition to the Shinkansen. For example, you can take the “Romance Car” limited express of Odakyu Railways which goes direct to Hakone-Yumoto station, many Japan Railways trains to Odawara or even buses. Once I was at Hakone-Yumoto station, I waited for a shuttle bus. There are three shuttle bus routes which covers many of the Ryokans in the area. My Ryokan was called Fukuzumiro Ryokan. You need to tell the driver your Ryokan name when you board the correct shuttle bus. After a short ride, I was at my Ryokan.
The Ryokan: Fukuzumiro Ryokan did not disappoint me. It is situated right next to a mountain river which was an added charm. The decor of the inn was in almost every sense conveying Japanese traditions from wood work to paintings. First thing first, I had to change my shoes at the door and I was given a pair of comfortable Japanese shoes. This is very standard in Japanese houses/inns and even in many hotels/hostels. My wheeling suitcase was taken from me to clean the wheels and I was told it will be sent to my room shortly. Attention to this level of cleanliness may seem strange at first but as I was already in Japan for few days, I had come to expect it. After a short wait in the lobby area I was given my room. The entrance was through a double sliding doors with a shoe rack to leave my shoes and to enter bare-footed. There I was in my room. I loved it. It was a very spacious room with traditional Japanese style sliding doors, minimalistic design, wall to wall tatami mats, low height dining table. I was pleasantly surprised to see the room length balcony with near ceiling height glass windows with a view to a small Japanese garden and that mountain river I saw earlier. Within a few minutes I was delighted to discover that I can step outside to that garden from another door directly from my room. I had the feeling of having my own private garden next to a beautiful mountain river.
The person who escorted me to my room told me a Japanese maid will come shortly to explain everything along with the plans for the evening. I did read up before on some of the etiquettes and traditional ways to experience a Ryokan. Basically, you are supposed to arrive at the Ryokan at least before the sunset to allow plenty of time before dinner, which is served at a fixed time, to unwind, take a relaxing soaking in the hot spring. After few minutes, a middle aged, smiling and charming maid came and with very good English she explained to me where everything were. I was given a traditional Japanese garment called Yukata to wear. She explained that dinner will be served at 6:30pm, I should use the hot spring before that and after dinner they will make my bed with Japanese futon. After she left, I took out my camera and got busy. I spent some time in that small garden. After that I explored the Ryokan itself. There were other Japanese gardens as well along with Koi pond with many fishes. There was a shared “Onsen” area for the Ryokan guests to soak in the hot spring water. But since I had a private onsen in my room I decided to soak there instead. Having been to another onsen before, I knew the procedure. Basically you take a shower with soap first and once you are clean, you dip in the hot spring water for say ten minutes, you take another cold shower and repeat the process. After almost an hour of relaxing in the spring water, I finally get changed into my Yukata. By that time, I was very hungry and rife in anticipation for the next experience, my traditional Japanese dinner.
The food: To sum up in one sentence, I would say, traditional Japanese gastronomic goodness in astronomic proportion. Particularly it was a seafood heaven, a 9 course Japanese seafood preparations with exquisite presentation. The only non seafood course was the dessert, I mean, of course. I sat next to the low height dining table on a padded mat with a backrest. The dishes were served a few at a time. The Japanese maid explained each dish. It was almost all varieties and style of seafood I can imagine, from raw to boiled to fried to cooked on the table and many more. Everything tasted great. The highlight for me was a fire-fly squid dish. I was given a printed list of all the courses given in that night. You can view it here.
I thought my seafood extravaganza was over with the dinner. I was wrong. It continued to the next morning’s breakfast as well. It felt a toned down version of the dinner but with different seafood dishes. As always in Japanese meal, you are served with rice and pickled vegetables at the end of the meal.
I would like to mention here that the Ryokan had communicated with me few weeks earlier on my food restrictions if any. So if you have any restrictions, for example, if you are a vegetarian, they will prepare the food accordingly. Rest assured, you are in for an unforgettable Japanese food experience in a traditional Japanese setting.
Hakone region: When you are already in this beautiful region for your Ryokan experience, it only makes sense to explore the region a bit. So, in the morning, after checking out from the Ryokan, I headed to Hakone-Yumoto station and boarded a bus. My goal was to reach the shores of Lake Ashi. The bus took me to Moto-Hakone, one of the ports on lake Ashi. You can take the famous ‘pirate ship’ here to go to the other side of the lake. On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji from here. I was not so lucky as it was a cloudy day, but nevertheless I spent some time in the bank of the lake watching those ships and the scenic mountains on all sides. Other things you can do in Hakone region is to complete a scenic loop with cable car/ropeway, train, bus and ferry. There are also a number of museums and shrines you can visit. I decided to leave early from Moto-Hakone as I was meeting with friends in Tokyo. This time, I caught the bus direct to Odawara Shinkansen station, however, not before I gulped on some Sakura (Cherry blossom) flavored Kitkats. After all it was the peak Sakura season in Japan.
Tips: There are some luggage lockers available in Moto Hakone Bus/Ferry stop. If you can’t find any empty luggage locker in Hakone-Yumoto station, this may be a good option.
You do pronounce the last vowel ‘e’ in Hakone as the ‘e’ in ‘grey’ or ‘hey’.
What is a Ryokan? : According to Wikipedia, “A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travelers along Japan’s highways. They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata and talk with the owner.”
Personal Note: Who says playing computer games is waste of time 🙂 . Frankly, I was inspired quite a bit by them; inspired to travel to interesting places. In addition to the above James bond game, for example, I got inspiration of visiting someday the Scottish highlands from a Tomb Raider game (The lost artifact), Palawan, Egypt and Kazakhstan from an Indiana Jones game (The infernal machine), China from another Indiana Jones game (Emperor’s tomb) to name a few.
Here are some screenshots from the 2002, Nightfire James Bond game. Level 3, set in a Japanese estate.
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