Monday, November 26, 2012

Traveling Alone To Hakone Part 2 - The Hakone Loop

I arrived in Hakone Yumoto station, the springboard for exploring Hakone, just before 11 a.m.  Congratulating myself that the morning had gone pretty well.  Amidst the chaotic madness of Shinjuku Station, I had been able to find the ticket booth, then find the train platform, gotten on the right train, had a hearty and tasty eki ben breakfast and seen much of the countryside from my window seat -- I was looking forward to things going smoothly from this point on.

From Hakone Yumoto station, the Hakone Freepass will get you on the Hakone Tozan Railway up to Gora Station.  This little red train takes you up the mountains, chugging along and stopping at various quaint and picturesque towns.  Most of the small towns have well known onsen resorts and hotels that are full of local travelers particularly during holidays and week-ends.

As we made our way slowly up the mountain I spent some time reading the handy station guide posted inside the train.  This little poster tracks the whole Hakone Loop -- taking into account the various modes of transportation that you will be using for the whole route.

The train was packed with lots of young students out for a field trip.  As with all young people, they were lively, noisy and excited to be out for the day.

Most of the stations where the train stopped  were not more than just small sheds with a bench or two.  This fat yellow tabby seemed to be the pet of this particular station guard.  So adorable ... I'm glad I was able to take the photo.

After about 35 minutes, we reached Gora Station, more than 500 meters above sea level and last stop for the Hakone Tozan Railway.  From here, I would have to take a short but uphill 900 meter ride on the Hakone Tozan Cable Car to Sounzan.

Since the masses of students who got off with me were all taking the cable car, I decided to hang back a bit and take a quick stroll outside of the station.  Gora was a picture perfect little town and a few minutes wandering around would surely yield some delights.

True enough -- I was able to walk around and enjoy the village atmosphere of Gora.  I also did a little window shopping in the  stores right around the station.  The air was cool and a bit nippy -- autumn had started after all.  It was beautiful weather for walking around.

As I was ending my short walk about, the next train from Hakone Yumoto tootled by.
Oh no, I would have to contend with a whole new horde of travelers taking the cable car.

And yes, a long line had already formed by the time I got to the queue.  More students, more local tourists.  I was the only foreigner on the platform.

The climb from Gora Station to Sounzan, the end terminal of the Hakone Tozan Cablecar takes just 10 minutes.  You can actually huff and puff up -- it's just a 900 meter ride after all but the steady uphill slope will easily tire you.
The cable car makes a couple of stops -- there are small museums, crafts stores, coffee shops and little clusters of houses along the way.

Sounzan is where you take the Hakone Ropeway.  This is one of the longest ropeway journeys in the world.  From Sounzan to the end point in Togendai, the journey takes 30 minutes.
These very sturdy and safe looking gondolas can fit up to 15 people at a time.
There was a long queue but since a gondola arrives every minute, the line moved quickly and before I knew it,  I  was being handed into a gondola and the doors were locked in place behind me.

I looked back at the Sounzan ropeway station.  The ropeway would take us to Owakudani where we would have to transfer to another gondola for the ride to Togendai.

We were packed in our gondola -- I shared the ride with two groups of Japanese families who of course spoke no English but were friendly enough to nod and smile.

This is the highest point of the ropeway -- below are the enormous sulfur mines of Owakudani where if you get off -- you can buy the famous black sulfur water boiled eggs that the place is famous for.

Some people opted to leave the ropeway at this stop -- perhaps to eat some of the famous "black" sulfur eggs. I transferred to another gondola to continue on to Togendai.

Togendai is on the shores of scenic Lake Ashi.  From here, you can take a boat to Hakone Machi and Moto Hakone, where the Hakone Freepass will get you on a bus for the two hour drive back to Tokyo. During the boat ride, if weather and luck permit it , Mt. Fuji may allow a glimpse of his noble face.  
It was a cloudy day so I very much doubted a Mt. Fuji sighting.

Since it was past 2 when I got to Togendai, I didn't want to ride all the way to Moto Hakone and take a bus back to Shinjuku.
I decided to get off the Hakone Loop and go back the way I came.  Besides, the Romance Car seemed  a much more attractive option than a bus!
But first things first ...  I had to have lunch!
It's a good thing that Togendai has a big eating hall where a good variety of Japanese meals are available.   You line up and order, canteen style.
My Hakone Freepass even entitled me to a 5% discount on my meal!

Surprise, surprise - the restaurant had a vegetarian option!  I got a large bowl of kakiage udon plus an equally large mug of draft beer -- specially brewed in the Hakone area.
Ice cold beer and warm noodle soup -- who knew it would be so well matched?

At 2 pm, the dining crowd had thinned out so I was able to get a table facing the window.
I enjoyed gazing out on the incongruous sight of two fully decked out pirate ships of the Hakone Sightseeing Boat line on the calm waters of Lake Ashi.

My lunch was so quiet and so relaxing, the beer was so cold and so refreshing that I wished I could stand up, order another beer and sit and stare out at the lake for as long as I wanted.
Such are the pleasures of solitary travel.
But, I needed to make it back to Tokyo before the rush hour hit Shinjuku Station so regretfully, I left my window seat and got back on the Hakone Ropeway that would take me back, the way I came in.

If I had travelled just a few weeks later, this hillside would be awash in the reds, yellows and oranges that make autumn in Japan so spectacular.  
That would have been a glorious sight to see.  For now, I had to be content with small patches of red that infrequently appeared along the tree covered mountain side.

On this trip back, the gondola was empty -- I had it all to myself!   Everyone else had gone on to Moto Hakone and Hakone machi on board the pirate ships.  I was the only one making the trip back.  It certainly added to the specialness and contentment of traveling alone.

Once again, here was the familiar sight of the Sounzan terminal where I would get off the ropeway and step back on the cable car that would take me to Gora and from Gora, back on the Hakone Tozan Railway to Hakone Yumoto station.

I was right on time!  Waiting for passengers was the Romance Car bound for Shinjuku.  This time, it was a sleeker and newer version than the one I rode earlier in the morning.
Called the Super Express 5000,  the front car had huge picture windows for the first few seats and larger and wider windows all throughout -- allowing for a wider and more panoramic view.

I had asked the ticket seller for good seats on the train.  It was just 3:30 in the afternoon and still bright and sunny outside -- perhaps I would be lucky and get one of those front row panoramic vista seats?

The train's seats are numbered from highest in front to lowest number in the back.  So after the initial excitement of thinking that my seat number of 2D meant that I would be seated at the front of the car, I quickly realized that it  was actually a seat in the rear.

But this was nothing at all -- not a blip or a bump in this perfect day.
I still had a window seat -- I would still enjoy the scenery for as long as the light held out.
I was on the Romance Car back to hectic bustling Shinjuku and back to brightly lit Tokyo.  
So aptly named -- the Romance Car had rekindled for me  the love and pleasure of traveling alone.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Traveling Alone to Hakone Part 1 - Not Lost in Translation

On this last business trip to Tokyo in October, I stayed an extra night so I could have a whole day to wander around on my own.  
Traveling alone may seem scary or lonely or (horrors!) pathetically sad to some people but I find it very appealing and try to do it as often as I can.
Thomas Jefferson said "One travels more usefully when alone, because he reflects more."
Aside from reflection, solo travel gives me a chance to be alone with myself, a rarity that I truly enjoy.  It also brings a sense of adventure -- anything could happen, and so be it  ...  I only have myself to worry about.
Having said that, I am also as much of a realist as a curious wanderer.  
Given that I do not have days or weeks to lose myself in solo travel (usually I only have a day or two) -I like to make sure that the experience is maximized and that I do not get lost or wander too far from my main purpose.
For this extra whole day, I knew I wanted to go somewhere other than Tokyo.  
I wanted to visit a place that I had not been to, just go on my own and see how successful I would be -- given my limited linguistic skills.  
However, I wasn't about to go too far -- a day trip was all I was looking for.  And specifically, a day trip that I could map out and prepare for to minimize the chances that I would find myself "Lost in Translation". 
This is Japan after all and that has been known to happen!

I decided that a day trip to Hakone, less than 100 kilometers from Tokyo and frequented by tourists and locals would be a good way to test my solo travel powers.  
Hakone is well known for its scenery, its onsen  (although I was sure I wouldn't have the time to go to one) and offers a well documented transportation route called the Hakone Loop that would have me taking a train, a cable car, a ropeway and even a boat all in the course of a day.  
This route is covered by a ticket called the Hakone Freepass that gave me unlimited access to Hakone for the day. It includes a round trip ticket by regular train from Shinjuku station to Hakone Yumoto station and costs Y5,000.  
I had read about a faster express train called the "Romance Car" which did fewer stops but was a bit pricier.  It would get me to Hakone Yumoto in less than two hours and guaranteed me a reserved seat but I had to pay Y870 each way for this bit of added convenience and comfort.

I was glad I took the "Romance Car".  The Odakyu line "owns" the route from Tokyo to Hakone and only its trains travel the distance.  This gleaming brown train was already parked and waiting when I arrived at the terminal at 8:15 in the morning, well ahead of the 8:53 departure time.
I was surprised that there were so many carriages -- on a Thursday morning, would there be a lot of people traveling to Hakone?

This version of the Odakyu Romance Car is called the Excellent Express.  A more modern version is also available, one that has an observation car with wide picture windows.  The better to see the countryside as you roll along.

Despite the early hour, a lot of my fellow passengers had queued up at the nearby concession stand, selling that mainstay of train travel in Japan -- the eki ben!  Eki ben or eki bento are not your typical packed lunches or take away meals.
They are far more superior to any airline meal I have had, even in business class!
Eki ben are bento boxes sold in train stations or eki,  hence the name.
These packed meals are reflective of the specific station, with dishes and recipes that showcase each region's specialties and  culinary culture.
I love eki ben and wouldn't dream of taking a long train ride without enjoying one.
I took my place in the queue.  This augured a delicious breakfast and a great start to my trip.

While waiting, I had a chance to see what the choices were.  Since we were in Shinjuku,
most of the eki ben featured foods you could easily eat in Tokyo -- sushi, tonkatsu, a chinese bento box with dumplings, hamburg curry, ebi tempura, sashimi.
It was just Thursday and I was still on vegetarian mode but it looked as if the vegetarian choices were down to nil.
I asked the man tending the counter for a bento with "niku nai",  said I was "vegetarian desu". 
With my pidgin Nihongo, I hoped he understood that I said "no meat" and "I am a vegetarian".
He replied "wakarimashita" and handed me my eki ben in a small plastic carrier bag -- hopefully nothing was lost in translation.

I got on board with plenty of time to spare, before people started to trickle in.  Enough time to play with the camera and capture my reflection in the window across from my seat.

It's hard to eat while in a moving train -- or that was the excuse I gave myself as I brought out my eki ben and pulled up the tray table.  Now to see if the vendor and I did understand each other.  What would my mystery eki ben contain?

Voila!  Or how do you say "eureka" in Nihongo?  My breakfast was this lovely box of warm gohan, topped with hundreds of small whitebait -- anchovy fry to them, mini dilis to us Pinoys!
Along with the whitebait, there were a few pieces of dried small shrimp or familiarly, "hibe" garnished on top.
Plus I saw my favorite side dishes of varied tsukemono -- okra, mushrooms, tamago, cucumbers, pink pickled ginger and daikon.
Perfect!   Or as the Japanese would say "sugoi desu ne".
It was a great breakfast!  I ate it so quickly that I finished everything even before the train pulled out of the station.  Lest you think I violated Japanese etiquette by eating so promptly, all the rest of my fellow travelers had  the same idea.
We were all pretty much done with our various eki ben before the journey started.

The train quickly picked up speed.  I was surprised that the car I was in was completely full.  
There were a few commuters who got off at some of the stations we stopped in but a good number were bound for Hakone.  
Most of my fellow travelers were older couples -- as it is anywhere, the older you are, the more free time you have for travel.

It was interesting to see the scenery unfold.   If I didn't know those were rice fields in the foreground, I would have thought this was a hillside farm town in Tuscany.

Small town Japan seems so peaceful and green.  Outside of the congestion of Tokyo, there are wide open spaces, more houses and not too many apartment buildings.  The roads were empty this Thursday morning, as our train hurtled past.

This little cemetery caught my eye.  Right by the railroad tracks,  set at the edge of a small town, it was meticulously clean and well tended.  And there was not a single living thing in sight.  So silent. So empty.  I had a strange urge to walk among the tombstones - what would I discover?  How old were these graves?  Traveling by yourself, you entertain all sorts of thoughts that come into your mind.

11D -- my  seat on the Odakyu Limited Excellent Express which gave me a window on hundreds of interesting views.
I saw glimpses of Japan that I had not yet seen before and felt a quiet happiness and a flutter of anticipation -- I was bound for a new experience, a new place was waiting to be seen and enjoyed.  
And I was traveling alone.  That made it all the more special.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Oden in October - Otakou Restaurant in Shimbashi

After the Osaka trip in September, I found myself back in Japan for a meeting in late October.  
 Autumn in Japan had just started and Abe san, my thoughtful and adventurous gourmet Japanese friend planned a seasonal treat mindful of the cooler weather.
Knowing (and silently despairing) of my vegetarianism, he nevertheless always finds something that we can both enjoy.  
Tonight's feast was oden -- a hotpot of various ingredients, most of them vegetable and seafood based, simmered in a dark soy sauce broth. This is traditional winter fare and Abe san had made reservations at one of the best oden restaurants in Tokyo, in the Shimbashi area, within walking distance of my hotel.

We hit a slight snag when we tried to find the restaurant -- and found out that it had moved!  
Thankfully, one of the chefs loitering outside a nearby izakaya was kind enough to give us specific directions to the new location.
Otakou, the oden restaurant is just a quick 5 minute walk from the JR Shimbashi station -- 
don't ask me where, I could probably find it again in the warren of streets in Shimbashi, but I wouldn't be too sure.  Even Abe san had to call the restaurant for specific directions when we still couldn't find it after walking around.
It was a relief to see this noren that greeted us when we finally found the restaurant.

Because we were early at  6 pm -- we were able to get the last two seats at the counter where we could easily point out our orders and watch the chef as he prepared them for us.

There is a long menu of ala carte items or you can order the set menus.  Unfortunately everything is in Japanese.

For gaijin like me, counter seating is recommended since you sit facing the many ingredients that are available.  Turo turo style -- just point and the chef will simmer it in the broth for you!  There are bunches of enoki mushrooms, chives, leeks,  even skewers of small octopi -- all ready for cooking.

 This huge simmering cooking pot is the star of the restaurant.  With different compartments to separate the many ingredients, it's just behind the counter -- you crane your neck and you can see all the amazing stuff that you can eat.  What difficult decisions to make!
 There are fat large rounds of daikon, slabs of soft tofu, atsuage or fried tofu,  pockets of stuffed tofu, fish paste cakes of various shapes and sizes, hardboiled eggs, potatoes, yams, mushrooms  ...
The broth sends off a mild yet appetizing aroma.  I'm glad I've brought my appetite tonight!

Individual orders are placed in these shallow red plastic bowls, set orders or group orders are placed in larger, blue and white chinaware.  
Abe san and I start off with hard boiled eggs, soft tofu and a large round of daikon -- which is so good, it melts in the mouth.
Draft beer seems incongruous paired with boiled food but surprisingly, it's a great match!

Abe san points out the small dish of hot mustard -- because oden is boiled and can be a bit mild, a little bit of this adds that killer kick to each and every bite!

Even Abe san is amused at how quickly I finish my first bowl.  Time for seconds!  
The chef recommends a different variety of potato and a large triangular slab of hanpen, a variety of fish paste cake.  
My vegetarian conscience says "You can't eat sea food, it's not Sunday yet.  Stick to the vegetables."  
My baser foodie self argues back "It's fish paste cake and you can't even see the fish. Go ahead!"   
Of course we all know who won.
I go into raptures over the hanpen --  the texture is so soft, it's like eating a slice of chiffon cake. 
And no wonder,  hanpen is made with white fish, starch and lots and lots of egg whites! 
It's unbelievable.   The chef smiles through my swoons.

Here is the chef, jotting down each order as it comes in.  He prepares everything  -- for diners in the tables and the tatami rooms and of course, for the nine hungry people, constantly ordering from the counter seats.

Third bowl!  You must be thinking, "Will this woman ever stop?"
I couldn't help myself -- after those two filling and full bowls of oden, I found I had room for some more.
Abe san got tired of watching me eat and decided to indulge in some meat -- he ordered a skewer of beef tripe (which I would have liked too, if I were not vegetarian).
For my final bowl, I decided on konjac -- a glutinous jelly like ingredient which is very Japanese and is made from some sort of potato or yam.  
Abe san approved -- he said that konjac or konnyaku is the ideal diet food ... no calories, no fat and he laughed,  "No taste!"
I was not to be put off -- I have always enjoyed konnyaku and this generous slice was firm and contrary to Abe san's pronouncement, it was tasty, having absorbed the flavors of the oden broth.
Because konnyaku has zero calories, I added an order of chikuwa, another type of fish paste cake to make up for the calorie loss.

This poster was posted on the wall beside me. Golden yolked eggs over rice cooked in oden broth!  Hmmm, how tempting!  Abe san offered to get me a bowl but sadly, I had to decline.  
I was finally onaka ippai or full.

While I continued to drink beer throughout, Abe san switched to shochu, his favorite drink.  
There were sake bottles being warmed in front of us -- with thermometers stuck in each.  
The chef checked on the bottles and took each one out once it had reached the desired temperature.  
This man did everything  -- jotted down the orders, prepared the food, checked the simmering pot, replenished the oden ingredients, heated the sake -- all these done with efficiency, speed and grace.  
I was truly impressed.

Abe san and I continued to eat, talk and drink -- by 7 pm, the place was completely full.  And very noisy.
Since Otakou is very well known and popular, an early start or reservations are definitely recommended.

Otakou is located in the basement -- after that savory, sumptuous oden dinner, it was time to head back up the stairs and out into the chilly October evening.

Look for this facade and this building when you want the best oden in Tokyo!
The basement entrance to Otakou is just beside this main door.
Happy hunting ... you'll be rewarded by excellent eating!