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.

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