There was absolutely no view this morning heading up the mountain. The clouds were so low or we were so high that we were drifting through them. It was also a little windy so I was glad of the two rope design of the ropeway, it must be to limit swinging around. It was very strange seeing the ropes disappear into the mist ahead and behind us. It was a little disorientating as there was zero sense of forward progress until anothe car or a support pylon loomed out of the mist. But the smell was definitely more pungent today, eminating from somewhere far below.
We reached the bottom and in the wind and rain the lake water was being whipped up into a frothy mess. Aimi suggested that if I went out on that, I’d probably be a frothy mess too, so we took a bus around the shore to Motohakone-ko.
This is where we joined the Old Tokaido Highway that rises up out of the caldera and carries on down towards Odawara. Its a cobbled old road that’s no longer used for modern traffic, just hiked by silly tourists like us. We enjoyed getting out and walking in nature for a change, having spent plenty of time on public trains and buses. We took it slow as the cobbles were very slippery from the wet and moss and hundreds of years of polishing foot traffic.
It was less ascent than I thought and then a long descent to reach something I had been looking forward to; the Amasake tea house. There used to be lots of these tea houses along the roads, offering rest and refreshment to a weary travellers. This is reputedly the last in the area that retains its original charm. We arrived at large bamboo thatched wooden building with rough wood tables and chairs dotted around a gravel yard surrounded in trees. The tea house was open on 2 sides with only sliding paper screens as walls. There was no ceiling as the frame rose all the way to the roof apex where it opened to the sky to allow smoke to exit. It was very dark inside being made of dark or smoke blackened wood, with a packed earth floor on one side and a raised polished wood floor to the other. Set into the wood floor was an elongated figure 8 fire pit filled with sand where a fire burned slowly. It was warming a flat bottomed cauldron of tea hanging over it giving off a rich, sleepy, smokey aroma. It was sober and quiet inside no matter the 20 or so people seated around on log stools or tatami mats. Everyone was enrapt by the historic ambiance.
We took off our shoes and crossed the wooden floor past the fire to a corner of the room set with tatami mats and low tables. Here there were insulated urns of tea and a tray of small porcelain cups to which we helped ourselves. One of the reasons for coming was to sample the traditional foods that this tea house produces. We nearly ordered 1 of everything on the menu.
Amazake – a sweet rice drink which is very nutritious hot on a cold day or cold on a hot day. Tastes a bit like runny rice pudding. Very nice.
Chikara-mochi – rectangles of chewy rice flour paste. We had the sweet flavour called Uguisu with a soy bean dusting over it. This is basically one huge piece of sweet rice, so much be very energy dense. Perfect for travellers hiking the hill trails. Also very nice.
Tokoroten – is basically eating cold sloppy noodles made from small jellied eels. On further investigation, they aren’t in fact eels. They are just jelly made from agar-agar cut into noodle thin strips and served cold in sweet vinegary liquid with seaweed (hence me thinking they were eels) and of course sesame seeds. Not a terrible taste, but not pleasant texture. Not ordering again but happy to have tried it.
Miso Oden – this is boiled konjac flour made from the corm of the plant (thick tuberous underground stem) made into conker sized gelatinous balls, served with a thick dark sweet soy sauce and served hot with a sprinkling of sesame. When ordering them, the hostess showed me a laminated card with a translation saying something like,”are you sure you want these, not everyone likes konjac”. Which was sort of helpful, but I misunderstood them to mean cognac. When they came and we tried them, the sauce was the only thing that made these remotely palatable. Not so much the taste, but the texture was like eating those little jelly aliens in eggs we used to play with as kids. The exterior skin was rubbery and needed some effort to bite thru and then you got a burst of mildly horrible flavoured tough jelly. You had to bite thru it like chewing on an eraser into sweaty little lumps. It was tough to swallow and it made Aimi feel a bit unwell after. Again, more the texture was the repulsive bit than the flavour, although that was not great either.
Iced Matcha tea – And Aimi finally had the matcha tea that is so popular out here. I’m not ordering it as she found out it tastes like dusty green tea. Not my cup of tea thanks.
Feeling the power, like the ancestral Japanese travellers did, from these high energy foods, we boldly set off up a hiking trail towards the top of Mt. Byodo (屏風山) it was only a 3km walk but it rose and fell 250m. It was steep going almost from the start, but thats not what was most worrying. Just as we set off we saw a suspicious sign that looked like it was warning of bears! After a worried google translation it was indeed instructions to slowly and calmly back away if you saw a bear! Thinking this was unlikely, in a tourist zone, on a known hiking path we carried on. And after not long going up rooty steps there was a frantic rustling in the bamboo forrest next to us that made us stop dead in our tracks. Now I’ve no idea if it was a bear, but it certainly got my heart racing. Aimi was loving it, but thought it was more likely to be a deer. After a short time not hearing anything more, we carried on climbing.
The route was well established, but probably only saw foot traffic once a week. It was a relentless climb that we thought was quite steep. Oh how I wish that were true. Once we had reached the top and enjoyed bugger all view thru the trees and mist we started descending. After only a short way, the path seemed to disapear off the edge of a cliff. It just got steeper and steeper until chains appeared and it was obvious these were meant to be pulled on to help climbing! We took photos but it doesn’t do the gradient justice. Let alone the weather. As we came down this side of the ridge, it was being battered by gusty winds and rain, adding to the challenge. We were reduced to slow and steady side steps down the hill keeping our balance. Im not sure the photo really does the gradient justice. If you had slipped and fallen I’m not sure you would have stopped for a long way.
But we made it with only a few slips and trips and muddy shins. Getting to the bottom we emerged abruptly into the main highstreet amongst tourists. We must have looked like crazy hobo hikers going out in this weather!
Taking the bus back, we definitely earned our 7-11 pot noodles and salad this evening. And using the Onsen bath was glorious, especially for my achy knee.
Speaking of the Onsen bath, we are using it by booking at the front desk the day before so we have it all to ourselves. Then when its our turn, we leave our indoor slippers (no outdoor footware is allowed in a Ryokan) at the door and proceed in special waterproof slippers. Well, if your feet fit in them you do, I go bare foot out the side door and behind a fence around to the outdoor Onsen bath. This is made private by a door in a fence we can lock, the side of the Ryokan building and a curved wall of big mossy boulders enclosing a little oasis. Firstly you step up onto a deck, covered by a roof where there are shelves to leave your yukata. Then there are 2 outdoor showers, taps and stools to use for bathing thoroughly. I found out since that you are meant to soap and clean yourself 2 times and rinse thoroughly before going in the Onsen pool. Opposite the showers are the boulders covered in moss, open to the sky. They are planted with ferns and small shrubs and trees with a couple of dim lights on posts to illuminate the area. Then stepping off the deck onto a short cobblestone path, you reach the Onsen bath. This is a smooth stone built bath, sunk in the ground with two steps leading into it. It’s covered by a wooden roof on 4 posts at the corners to prevent too many leaves falling in. In one corner is a small pile of smooth stones, over which has built up deposits of minerals as water trickles down into the bath. This water never stops following, constantly filling and replenishing the water and keeping it piping hot. REALLY hot. Every time I get in, I feel like I’m boiling my calves, but you get used to it and can sit on the bottom with your head poking out the milky white water.
Turns out we both really enjoying showing outside, surrounded by the leaves, the movement of the trees overhead and the breeze. I’m not sure it would be so enjoyable in winter, but then thats why there is an indoor Onsen bath too. I’m thinking of setting up an outdoor shower at home, it’s really liberating. You should try it!