Thursday, 20 July 2017

Hiroshima & Miyajima- A bittersweet feeling !

The Dome and the history of bombing. 

On August 6, 1945 America dropped atom bomb on Japanese city of Hiroshima. While this precipitated the end to the Pacific War & World War II,  a nice and robust town having strategic industrial and military significance was flattened out totally with almost eighty thousand dead immediately and lakhs suffering radiation for rest of their lives. 

Once it had been decided that we would be traveling to Japan for our summer vacations and would be spending part of our holiday at Osaka, I had very much decided that Hiroshima will be an integral part of our itinerary. Not only did I want to visit this city about which I had been hearing and reading since childhood, I wanted my children to experience the museum which graphically gave a full account of what happened and the effects it had. 

Once again it was the bullet train (Shinkansen) which got us to Hiroshima from Osaka in less than 90 minutes. Traveling within Japan becomes very easy and swift due to these super efficient and fast trains. The more we traveled on bullet trains, the more value for money we got out of our Japanese Rail pass. We did utilise the pass very well. 

At the train station we boarded a tourist bus and bought the tickets for full day. Here we made a mistake as we could have saved this money as JR pass was valid on this bus but we missed the sign that said so. 

This bus is very convenient as it takes you to all the tourist spots.

The bus goes in a full circle and brings you back to the rail station. It is a hop on hop off bus. After every 30 minutes the bus leaves the rail station . You can get off anywhere and then after visiting the attraction you can board the next bus. We got off at the Hiroshima castle and spent some time reading about its history and relaxing in the gardens. This castle was similar to the Osaka castle. An hour later we boarded another bus. 

Hiroshima Castle

 After this the bus stopped at many places like art/music college, University, Museums etc but our interest was somewhere else. We did not get off anywhere else till we reached the Genbaku Dome. The Dome is today the most significant symbol of the destruction that Hiroshima faced.

You can see the new modern buildings behind the Dome. 
We had been in Hiroshima for a couple of hours before reaching the dome. Hiroshima comes as a surprise as it is a bustling city with modern buildings, good roads and busy markets. It comes as a surprise because you have  an image of devastation in your mind before you come here. The Dome was very near the epicentre and in some way that had prevented it from being flattened out at the time the bomb dropped here. All other buildings in the town were destroyed totally. The city council and the citizens did well not to let it be destroyed while re-making the city and preserved it for future generations to see. This perhaps is the only structure which remains from that time and it is a reminder of what the city went through.

The memorial
From the Dome we walked to the memorial nearby and paid homage to many who got killed by this senseless action. I say it was senseless because America bombed Japan just to prove a point to Russia and to show that it had a bomb. Japan could have been defeated without the bomb also. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets as their topography guaranteed maximum damage and deaths.

The museum 
A short walk from the memorial is the museum and we spent a couple of hours here. They have audio- visuals here and they have graphic pictures which make you feel really sad. The story about that day and aftermath is presented to you through visuals and sounds and several actual pictures. In one of the displays, the city is shown as a a bustling urban centre full of greenery before being bombed. Next we see the city becoming black and full of death - all this is shown digitally and the visuals are created to maximise the effect. History of bomb, the reasons why it was made, the reasons why Hiroshima was bombed- all this is presented beautifully. Many stories are presented there and unfortunately all of them are sad.

I have titled the experience bitter-sweet as experiencing all this at the Dome, the memorial, and the museum makes you very sad. But seeing the bustling city today and the fact that world has desisted from this kind of use of Atom bomb since then - this is a pleasing aspect. I am really pleased that we made an effort to come here and this visit will remain an integral part of the memories of the Japan trip.


The Tori gate - a symbol of Japan in advertisements. 

The Miyajima Tori gate in the middle of water is an advertisement you may have seen often in magazines and the net. You immediately associate this symbol with Japan so a visit here became necessary. Miyajima is an island just off Hiroshima and reaching here is not very difficult.

We went by the same bus from the museum to the station, had a quick lunch there and boarded a JR train to Miyajinaguchi station which must be around 40 minutes away. A short walk away is a ferry terminal and there is a JR ferry as well with a 30 minute service which takes you to the island of Miyajima. This ride is included in your JR rail pass. From the ferry you can see the island and the Tori gate as you approach it. The cameras start working from the ferry itself.

Ferry terminal at Miyajima

Miyajima is a nice island with lovely green hills. We walked till the Tori gate for a few pictures and then checked out the shrine . By now we had seen so many shrines and temples that this one looked no different. However the setting was quite pleasing to the eyes due to the lush green surroundings.

We walked back to the ferry terminal through the market and as you can see from the picture below, a lot of deer roamed around in Miyajima as well. Thankfully they were not as greedy as the ones in Nara.

Many deer were present in Miyajima as well.

We had made a booking for our trip back to Osaka on Shinkansen so it was time to go back. On the way from ferry station to Miyajinaguchi station we found a delightful cafe called 'The bluebird coffee shop' which served great coffee and frappes. The owner had started business in a vehicle many years ago before graduating to a full fledged cafe. The vehicle was part of the decor of cafe now and you can see in the picture below on the right side, each part of vehicle was being utilised.

This was our last evening in the southern part of Japan as we were leaving for Tokyo the next day. We had been in the south for almost 6 days. As was expected, the last evening in Osaka was spent amongst the crowds and hustle bustle of Dotonbury street.

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Monday, 17 July 2017

Kyoto - The Imperial capital of Japan

It was a wise decision to stay in Osaka and visit Kyoto for sightseeing. While Osaka was vibrant and full of gloss, glitter and amazing energy, Kyoto was more subdued and old fashioned. I don't know what the distance from Osaka to Kyoto is but bullet trains gets you there in 14 minutes flat. A normal train takes around 40 minutes. Thanks to the speed of the Shinkansens which made Kyoto so accessible -  we visited the city twice. Kyoto is a temple town with a never ending list of famous temples. For most people who visit Japan, a visit to this city forms an integral part of itinerary.

Kyoto had once been the capital of Imperial Japan for more than a thousand years. Perhaps that is the reason it has such lovely buildings and temples. It is a city full of history and culture. If we were to visit each famous temple and building there, it would have taken a month. It's said that USA had shortlisted it for atomic bomb attack but it got saved and Hiroshima and Nagasaki got Nuked.

Shinkansen from Shin Osaka station to Kyoto took less time than our visit from our hotel to the Shin Osaka station. Once again we had landed in a town and we had no clue what to see and where to visit. At the station itself we should have gone to tourist office and bought a full day ticket for Yen 500 valid on all city buses. They would have told us where to visit as well. Someone suggested at the bus stop that we go to the golden pavillion or Kinkakuji. We got on to a JR bus and got a free ride (as we had the pass) till a certain place 30 minutes . From here we walked for another 10-15 minutes. It would have been simpler had we bought a day pass and taken a direct bus.

Bus routes given to help tourists

Figuring out the bus routes

The bus stop at the station was well organised and I figured out that Kyoto was a large city with famous temples in all directions. While it would be prudent to do temples close to each other riding on  buses or short ride cabs, to go to a  totally different direction it would be better to come back to the station and see the routes from this board and get on to the correct bus accordingly. For this the day pass would be really economical. But you also need to start early so enough time could be devoted to sightseeing. For that you don't need just the time but also abundance of stamina.

There was a ticket to enter the Kinkakuji shrine and we joined hundreds who were entering at the same time. We didn't know what to expect and had been under an impression that we were entering just another shrine. The view of the golden temple built in the middle of a pond was breathtaking. It was really beautiful. The greenery and water gave it a certain serenity which was not disturbed even after having so many people around.

The Golden Pavillion is a Zen temple. 

This temple was the former retirement home of the famous shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and after his death it became a Zen temple.

Just a little away from Golden pavilion was Ryoanji temple. This again was a lovely complex with a lot of greenery and lovely pond but it is most famous for the Rock Garden which has 15 rocks laid down in small lots in a smallish rectangular area. Specialty of place is that at least one rock is hidden from view from any position.

The Rock Garden. They called it the Zen Garden also

Turtles and lotus leaves at the pond

The Bamboo Forests

Our adventure continued and we talked to tourists and others and sought their advise regarding places to visit. Ssomeone mentioned that Kyoto was famous for the Arashiyama Bamboo grove. So we hired a cab and got dropped near the grove where we had nice lunch before entering the forest area. It was quite a long ride as we had come to the western part of town now.

The Bamboo grove

It was quite a walk once we entered the forest. This place was also bustling with tourists. In certain places it seemed that darkness had descended upon us as the tall bamboo trees totally covered the sky. Its quite a feeling walking on long narrow paths  with bamboo trees on the sides. There was a monkey park in vicinity and another Buddhist temple. There is scenic Saga rail which chuggs along Hozu river giving great views. It is a 25 minute train ride but by the time we reached the station at the end of Bamboo grove, the station had closed down for the day. The train would have taken us near the JR station but unfortunately we had missed the last Saga train. We had no choice but to walk all the way back .

 This area of Arashiyama is also famous for Togetsukyo bridge and many people hire a bike and do cycling which I would think would be the best way of exploring the area. I would strongly recommend this as it would give faster access to all the places , many of which we could not cover by foot.

Temple complex in the middle of Bamboo grove

I think everyone was quite tired by the time we took a long walk to the JR station which would get us the train to get us back to Kyoto station. It took more than 30 minutes by train to get to Kyoto station and from there we boarded a Bullet train to take us to Osaka.

I was telling the family that there were many more lovely places to discover in Kyoto but they were least interested at this point of time. They had walked quite a bit and were quite fed up. They decided that if at all they had to walk, it would be in Osaka in the touristy Namba region. They had shopping on their mind at this stage.

Back again for Kiyomizu Dera

A couple of days later we were back at Kyoto for a short trip as I wanted to visit the Kiyomizu Dera temple which was perched up on a cliff. One had to walk up the winding path full of shops and activity to get to the temple. Till now the shrines we had visited were peaceful and serene but this temple was different. Throughout the way there were shops. Lovely souvenirs and eatables were there to tempt tourists like us. I even tried their green tea flavored softy ice cream.

The views from the temple were fabulous and many people come here at sunset time. The main hall rests on 139 giant pillars. The entire complex was buzzing and it has some nice paths going towards the forest area.

The path leading to the shrine

We were intrigued to see a Pagoda in the thick of forests and got to know that it was known as Koyasu Pagoda. Koyasu means 'easy childbirth' and the legend has it that if a pregnant woman reaches here, she would have a safe and easy childbirth.

Koyasu Pagoda
None of us had any need to go there so it was back to Osaka. If the family felt that they could relax after this short trip to Kyoto- they were terribly mistaken. Rest of the day would be spend in the Gardens of Osaka and at the lovely Osaka castle before exploring some more shopping areas of Osaka.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Nara- a city of deer and surprises

Nara is full of Deer

None of us had any expectations from Nara as we had not even read about it before visting Japan. I really didn't know what to expect out of the city and how to go around it once we reached there. All we knew was that it was near Kyoto and Osaka and it had temples including a very big statue of Buddha. We also knew that a visit here was highly recommended by all those who knew Japan.

We visited Nara the morning after arriving in Osaka. It wasn't too difficult as we took a subway from next to our hotel and it took just one change of train to get to Nara.
By now we knew that Nara was famous for the temple called T┼Źdai-ji  which housed the second largest statue of Buddha in Japan called the Daibutsu. We had already seen the third largest in Kamakura but never reached the town of Katsuyama which has the largest statue. The signboard showed that Nara park and Todai-ji were in same direction so we followed the crowds towards the right side of the station.

We hadn't yet reached the Nara park when the first surprise welcomed us in the form of several deer roaming around freely on the walking paths. People were buying snacks to feed these deer. Then I noticed that the deer were very demanding and would try to take the snacks from the hands of the tourists. I was watching the deer with fascination when I realised that something was pulling me. It was a deer which had snatched the Nara route map from my hand was gulping it down. I tried resisting but had to let go. The deer ate up the map !

Deer Deer everywhere !

The Nara park was also full of deer. The deer here are considered to be envoys of the god and are therefore protected. I had never seen a town full of domesticated deer and it was indeed a fascinating sight. Wherever we went to in Nara, there were deer all around. I wonder how people drive on the road as the deer can always run across the roads. But these deer were not only a fascination for the tourists but there was a brisk sale of food by vendors for them. It was an industry.

Soon we got used to these deer floating around the city. The parks and hillocks looked very pretty as many of them rested there.

The Todaiji Temple and the Big Buddha

Thousands line up for entering Todaiji temple

Every temple or garden we visited in Japan, we always found hundreds of school children there. It seems schools take out the kids very often to the temples and famous gardens. Nara was no exception and we saw many school children entering the Todaiji temple. This temple is one of the most famous temples of Japan and built in 752 AD, it became a very powerful temple which influenced the Government to a great extent. The wooden hall inside is the largest wooden hall in the world with a huge statue of Buddha.We didn't know all this so it came as a big surprise when told that we we were standing in front of second largest statue of Buddha in Japan in this large hall called the Daibutsuden.

The second largest statue of Buddha in Japan is at Nara
As is the tradition people write messages on tablets and paper and tie it at some designated spot around the temple. Though mostly the messages are about world peace and prosperity, it became clear that many who had written messages were no fans of Donald Trump.

India in Japan

Ashoka Pillar with a time capsule. 

The biggest surprise came when we stumbled to our national emblem (Ashoka emblem ) near Todaiji. It is right next to Todaiji and near that you can see golden pagodas. It was a real pleasing sight and we learnt that it was established in 1988 to commemorate 'thousand priest services'. A time capsule with a message was buried under it which would be opened in 2038 - which would be at the completion of 1500 years of arrival of Buddhism in Japan. 

Around Todaiji

Todaiji was just one of the shrines in Nara. There were many more and we took a round of the complex and a few temples. Nigatsudo Hall was at a height and gave a lovely view of the surroundings. Hokkedo Hall was not very far. It would be best if I describe them just with photographs. 

Hokkedo Hall

On the way to Nigatsudo Hall

A view from outside the Nigatsudo Hall

Near the walking path leading to the shrines
Inside a shrine

We saw many artists in Nara capturing the buildings on canvas.

Journey back with school kids

I had actual dozed off in the train to Osaka on the way back. As I opened my eyes I was perplexed to see dozens of small school kids ( age must be around 5-6 years) all over the compartment. My eyes looked around for a teacher or supervisor and I could see none. My daughter Sanya sitting next to me started laughing when she realised what I was looking for. She informed me that these kids were on their own and had no teacher with them.She said that she had been fascinatingly observing them for the last 20 minutes or so. 

Kids of this age traveling alone without supervision - this was a huge surprise for me as we are very protective towards our kids in India and do not allow them to travel without tight supervision. But here these kids were totally at home and seemed very used to travelling in metros and local trains.They were all in school uniforms and had identical bags. Some had made groups and were gossiping, some were reading while others were busy painting. As a stop would come, the kid standing next to the door was pulled back by others to keep him/her safe. Yet each knew when his/her stop came. They would calmly get off at their stop and bye byes were said very cutely. 

This taught us a lot about Japanese way of life. And we were impressed. 

Gossip session in train !

Even I played with a deer !
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Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Shinkansen Bullet train to Osaka after a day at Kamakura

I loved the way the Shinkansens sailed in  beautifully. 

The Shinkansen just floats in soundlessly as you wait for the train at the platform. Having heard about the bullet trains for decades, this was the first time that I had seen one and it looked so elegant and glossy. We had to reach Tokyo station from Shinjuku to get onto the 'Hikari'  Shinkansen which would transport us to Shin Osaka station in under 3 hours. Hikari is the name of one of the Shinkansen's as there are others named like Sakura, Nozomi etc.  You need special tracks and platforms for handling these trains so that's why we had to go to main Tokyo station as Shinjuku did not have these tracks. The distance of 500 km's in under 3 hours is just terrific and that too after it stops at several stations. For taking a flight one has to travel a considerable distance and then reach much ahead of time for security checks. Shinkansens do not have any such checks and the trains are always punctual to a few seconds ! Why would anyone then take a flight for internal travel ?

We inaugurated our JR pass that day and it would remain valid for 7 full days. The journey from Shinjuku station to Tokyo station was also done by us on JR pass. For the journey to Osaka we had made reservations in advance and the compartment was neat and clean with enough place for luggage and a lot of leg space. There are 3-5 compartments which are always there for unreserved tickets but it's always better to take reservations as with JR pass there are no extra charges. There are a few Shinkansens called the 'Nozomi' and 'Mizuho' on which JR pass is not valid but that doesn't matter as there are enough trains otherwise. The shape of the train is like a bullet but as soon as the train took off and caught the speed - it was not difficult to realise that we were travelling in a train which had the speed of a bullet.


A day earlier we had done a day trip to a charming little town called the Kamakura. It wasn't very far from Tokyo ( Must be around an hour away by train) and it is a coastal town with beaches and several temples. We didn't go to any beach but from the station walked for around a km to reach Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine. This was a rare Shinto shrine in a town dominated by Buddhist shrines. We were lucky to catch their ritual dance in the plaza in front of main shrine. Its a treat when this kind of cultural activity takes place in front of you unexpectedly. Right from the time these young Japanese women in colorful traditional clothing lined up to the time they ended their performance, a large crowd applauded every move they made.  

We walked back through a very touristy and crowded market full of souvenir shops and eateries. School kids were everywhere and there was a beeline for softy ice cream cones. It was a very interesting market and we strolled leisurely through it till we reached near the station. 

After a lunch consisting of Ramen noodles in a small Japanese restaurant we took a taxi till the 'Great Buddha' temple known as Kotukuin. I was told that this was the third largest bronze statue of Buddha in Japan. It used to be in an enclosure earlier but the enclosure had been swept away by Tsunami. Now that it was in open, it looked very nice as there was a backdrop of green hills.The temple was quite crowded and I was told that this was one of the most popular Buddhist shrines in Japan. They do charge entrance fee for most temples in Japan and sometimes it can be as steep as Yen 500 a person. A few days later we were to see an even bigger statue of Buddha a few hundred kms away. 

The Great Buddha statue is visited by thousands each day


We were in Osaka for 5 days as we had decided to make it into our base for travel to Nara, Kyoto and Hiroshima. This was a good decision as with efficient train system of Japan and our JR pass we could reach any town quickly and didn't have to check in and check out of the hotels on daily basis.

Our hotel Daiwa Roynet Kithama had good location as it was above the Kithama subway station and just 5 minutes walk from the Yodoyabashi station. While trains from Kithama would take us quickly to the most lively Dotonburi- Namba areas, the trains from Yodoyabashi were good for reaching Shin Osaka station and the lively areas of Umeda.

Hotel had a nice bakery next door which became our regular place for breakfast and it also had a few eateries nearby including Japanese. Kids liked going to a burger joint called Mos burgers for delicious and juicy burgers. Rooms were slightly larger in this hotel and that was a relief. 

The main areas for shopping and eating were Dotonburi and Namba. Most of our evenings were spent here. Prominent in Dotonbury is a large billboard for Glico (a confectionary Company) which displays the image of a runner and this is seen as an Icon of Osaka. If you have to meet someone and you want a landmark - 'the Glico man' is a landmark everyone knows of. 

The Glico Man image is what symbolizes Osaka

Next to it runs the Dotonburi canal and while we would often sit by the canal having a drink or something, there were always some shows going on and people would be taking boat rides in the canal. Sometimes it was just fascinating watching waves of people walking in the lanes and by lanes of Dotonburi. Often we would join the wave and walk all over looking for shops and right type of food which would be liked by the entire family. I really can't describe the energy of the place as you could walk in any direction and take any lane or road and you would be see people walking at a brisk pace, the shops all lighted up, the restaurants doing brisk business and we found many lanes which seemed to have many mini casinos. 

The Dotonburi Canal is located just where the entire population of Osaka converges all day long. 

Street food is very interesting in Osaka. Takoyaki was very popular. 

Queuing up for food 

Food in Osaka wasn't too expensive and in Dotonburi area each restaurant on the tourist belt seemed to have long queues. People love to queue up in Japan and though for us this was a great way to learn discipline, sometimes you wondered if this was habit forming as we also started queuing up at places where there were long queues. The Kobe Beef restaurant had a perennial queue outside the restaurant. Often it was for the fast food takeaways that people relly lined up. Takoyaki was particularly good as they were the wheat flour based balls with diced octopus inside. The Chinese dumplings were known as Gyoza and long queues were there as well as there was a particular takeaway specializing in the fried as well as steamed Gyozas. The Gyozas were pretty good but what impressed me was the efficiency with which the lady on counter handled those long queues.

The Gyoza takeaway

There were lanes and lanes of Korean food restaurants which described in details what parts of animals they would provide in a particular dish. The ladies of the family would immediately shun such restaurants and would refuse to even walk in those lanes. But there were enough restaurants of all types so finding food wasn't that difficult. While in Osaka we had Japanese, Chinese, Korean, American and Spanish food. 

Touristy Places of Osaka

We went to quite a few touristy places. There were the usual shrines and lovely gardens in Osaka. Tsutenkaku tower is right in the middle of action and it means 'building leading to heaven.' It was built in 1912 . It was destroyed in a fire and was rebuilt after the world war II. I think the locals compare it to Eiffel Tower of Paris. 

Tsutenkaku tower
Right next to the Osaka station you will see this large Ferris wheel on top of a building which actually is a shopping centre known as HEP five. It gives great views of the city and cabins are air conditioned. The rides last around 15 minutes. The building has shopping as well as entertainment arcade. In fact all around the building there are shopping centres and the place is quite lively.

HEP five Ferris wheel

Osaka Castle is a landmark building and has a lot of history behind it. One early afternoon we had gone to a shopping centre and took a train from there. The train got us to some place from where the castle was supposed to be a few minutes away. We kept walking and it was a good 25 minutes walk before we reached near the castle on a warm day. On the way we came to a big stadium where some show was happening and people were thronging in. Devicka and Sanya decided that they had no energy to climb up to the grounds where the castle was situated. They sat under the tree near the canal and chilled out while Kartik and I explored the castle and the grounds. Not surprising that we took a cab back to hotel. But to get to a cab too we had to walk quite a bit. 

Osaka Castle has a lot of history behind it. 

Making Friends

I did mention in my earlier blog that Japanese were the most helpful, polite and friendly people.

At the time we visited the Big Buddha in Kamakura , some schoolkids were fascinated by the look and hair of my daughter Sanya and they approached her to have a chat and get some photographs clicked together. It was all  so sweet and innocent. They were overjoyed when I clicked their snap with Sanya.

Sanya makes friends at near the statue of the Big Buddha.

One evening in Osaka we walked into a busy Japanese restaurant and the food came a semi cooked condition  as they expected the diners to do the cooking themselves on the hot plates provided on the table. While we wondered how to go about it, a Japanese group consisting of young people on the next table sensed our distress and offered to help.  For the next hour or so we had fun as they taught us how to cook by adding condiments and spices, and we had fun talking and laughing together. They were quite decent in spoken English and that really helped.

We have a nice evening with people we met at a restaurant. 

We had set base in Osaka for five days. Each day we would get out to explore a different city. It wasn't difficult as Bullet train gets you everywhere in no time. In my next blog there would be a description of experiencing those day trips.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Trip to Hakone and Mount Fujiyama

Mt Fuji looks very majestic. It's a perfectly formed Volcano. 

I don't think anyone traveling to Japan for leisure would like to miss out on Mt Fujiyama. Fortunately the Hakone region from where the sighting is very good is not too far from Tokyo. Many people do Hakone area trip in one day. They leave early in morning and come back the same evening. But we were not the types to start very early so we had decided to stay overnight in the region. I would recommend staying in the area for at least a night if not more .

The best way of travelling to this region from Tokyo is by a card called ‘ Hakone 2 day free pass.’  One has to travel to this region by a train line called the ‘Odakyu Line.’ This is a private rail line and is different from Japanese Railway (JR). There is no problem in getting to Hakone region as this line starts from Shinjuku station and pass is available from the vending machine for Yen 5200 each. A railway official helped us with making this transaction as we were unsure about it. Most people are very helpful there. The other way is that if you want to save money and if you have JR pass then go by JR trains till a place called Odawara and from there the pass cost is Yen 4000.

We boarded an Odakyu train from Shinjuku after buying the pass and reached  Odawara. As you leave Tokyo some lovely countryside and green mountains welcome you. It’s a scenic journey. From Odawara we changed a train and this took us to Hakone. Another change is required here and we boarded a compact train which took us up the hills through the forests and the train terminated at Gora station. All this may sound complicated but it was quite simple and we had no trouble changing trains and it appeared very seamless. Gora was a tiny station and from there they had a tramway going up the hill waiting to take passengers up the mountain further. But we had to check into our hotel first so I called up the hotel and they fetched a car to get us. It was just a 5 minute drive to a lovely hotel which was a traditional Japanese hotel and had been highly rated on tripadvisor. com

Near Gora station in Hakone region

We checked into Laforet Club Hakone Gora and were happy to note that our family room consisted of two huge rooms. After the tiny rooms in Tokyo this was a big surprise. It was actually a 1 bed room place with attached Tatami area. Tatami mats  are traditional Japanese mats which are put on floor for people to sit just as shown in photograph. They are made very scientifically and have prescribed length and width. They are also made out of material which keeps it cool in summer and warm in winter.  Shoes were not allowed inside the hotel so we took them off and put them in a locker provided by the hotel. 

The Tatami area.  

We didn’t spend much time in the hotel as we were told that trams and rope way stop working at 4.45 PM. We had to go and come back before this time. The tram station was 10 minutes walk away and trams coming from Gora station stopped here. The tram took us up the hill on a steep incline till we reached the rope way. As the rope way moved upwards we could see smoke coming from sulphur fields and the odor was pungent.  They had been kind enough to give us masks but I didn’t use it. Devicka did as she is more sensitive to smoke.  And suddenly just as the rope way hurtled upwards and crossed a mountain, Mt Fuji appeared from nowhere . It was an impressive sight  as it towered over everything else. It looked so very tall and Majestic.

The Rope way to Owakudani

Now we had reached Owakudani which means the 'great boiling valley.' Some refer to it as the 'death valley.' By the time we got off and walked to the spot from where we would get a good view- haze started settling in and Mt Fuji lost its luster. We hadn’t had lunch so ordered some food and it was our worst meal in Japan. There is another rope way which takes you down to Lake Ashi area but that was shut for maintenance so buses were being provided for transportation. We decided to do that trip the next day and went down the rope way and tram towards our hotel before the rope way would shut down for the day.

The great boiling Valley

I had read somewhere that this area became dead in evening and it was difficult to find dinner. Our hotel was serving dinner at 7 PM and that too was fixed menu with exorbitant price. Nothing suited us (neither the timings , nor the menu and not the price), so Devicka and I went for a walk to look for a restaurant. It was a lovely walk in the hills and the weather was quite nippy. It was nice and crisp actually. We found a charming little Japanese eatery not far from the hotel and the owner showed us the menu and told us that he would take last order at 9 PM. This was too good to be true.We immediately made reservations and went to enjoy the 'onsen' at the hotel.

Onsen means hot springs. Hakone has been the most popular hot spring resort in Japan for centuries. Hot spring baths are provided by some good hotels and one of the reason why I had selected this hotel was due to them having an onsen. Many people go to Hakone just for spas as they have these hot spring baths.

In Yukatas

As mentioned earlier, our hotel was a traditional Japanese hotel. They provided the guests summer robe called Yukatas. Most people were roaming around in the hotel in their Yukatas and we followed suit. It felt perfectly normal. We went to the onsen for soaking in warm spring water after a tiring day. We had walked quite a bit and this being a hilly area, you tend to walk a lot. A large bath was provided indoors and another hot tub was out in the open. We tried both. It felt great. The Japanese dinner after that tasted even better. 

Our dinner place. Nice restaurant near the hotel.

Quite a variety of skewers. 

Next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and checked out. We had traveled to Hakone just with bag packs but we left them at the hotel . Here we missed a trick. Had we carried our bags, we could have left from Lake Ashi area directly as they had buses from there to Hakone station. To get our bagpacks we had to come all the way back to the hotel.

Once again we caught the sight of Mt Fuji on the way up but this time it was more breathtaking as there was no haze and the snow at the peak was glistening. Mt fuji is a perfectly formed Volcano which erupted 3 centuries ago. It is on an island and many people do travel to Japan to climb it. There is another pass and I think it's called 'Fuji Hakone pass' which one should buy if going near Mt Fuji.

We were at  Owakudani which is is famous for the black eggs which have black shells as they are cooked in sulphur aided boiling water. Legend holds that eating just one egg adds 7 years to your life! So it was time for black eggs and black vanilla Ice cream before we boarded the bus to Lake Ashi. 

If it's Owakudani then there  has to be black eggs. 

Black Vanilla Ice cream anyone ?

Lake Ashi (Ashinoko) is a lake formed in Caldera of Mount Hakone almost 3000 years back after the eruption of Mount Hakone. It is a very scenic lake with clean water and is very popular with tourists. There are many sites nearby where people do their hiking and camping.  The small towns around it are very picturesque and several hotels have come up around the lake. If you are lucky you could see Mt Fuji from here and we were lucky. A cruise on the lake is covered by the Hakone free pass and its a lovely cruise from one end to another in a very pretty boat. Information is provided in English as well over the PA system as you cruise along and this is very helpful to know about the lake and the region. The weather was perfect for a boat ride and it was very comfortable standing on the top deck as sun wasn't too sharp. The landscape consists of green mountains and you could spot some lovely buildings and Torii gates.

The pirate ship for a Lake Ashi cruise

Such buildings dot the landscape

Cruising along. Very scenic boat ride. 
We reached the other end - had some squids, corn on the cob and coke and  roamed around the charming little town. We saw the buses leave for Hakone station. We hadn't got our bags so couldn't board these buses but instead we had to take the cruise back to the originating end. Then we took the bus back to Owakudani followed by rope way and tram to our hotel to pick up bagpacks. Then followed the train after train trip till we reached our hotel in Tokyo in the evening.

Many would think that we would have been exhausted after all this and would have called it a day. On the contrary it was time to party as we met up friends and family members and partied till late. My friend Amit Bagga was traveling to Japan from Singapore for work and he introduced me to different kinds of Japanese liquor and a great dish called Hiroshima Pancake made at a famous teppanyaki restaurant called the 'Teppan Baby !'

Drinking Japanese liquor

Hiroshima pancake with Noodles, meat, vegetables and seafood. 

Our group for the evening.