Day 3 — Hakone-bound

We awoke early on Sunday to catch a Shinkansen towards our next destination.

The first leg of our Tokyo journey had come to an end and we were all ready to trade the sprawling metropolis for a more rustic retreat — the onsen (hot spring) town of Hakone.

Hakone was about a 50 minute journey from Tokyo — we took the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Odawara Station, where we switched to the Hakone Tozan Railway to get us to our destination, the Hakone Yumoto Station.

This was our first time on the Shinkansen, and we rode on the Green Car (first class) which was very nice and roomy, with tons of leg room and space to eat our bento breakfasts.

The bullet train was exhilarating, I had never experienced anything like that. We got to the station slightly early and were a little confused when we couldn’t get on the train — turns out they were cleaning and the doors were shut!

It took us only about 30 minutes from Tokyo to Odawara Station before we took the Hakone Tozan railway to our destination — Hakone Yumoto Station.

The weather was horrible, to say the least. It was cold, drizzly and downright lousy which impeded on our ability to take outdoor photos.

We stayed at Yamanochaya, a traditional Japanese Ryokan and we were quite simply, blown away by the room. We had a modest-sized living area which was so much bigger than our tiny Tokyo hotel room.

The additional space was really welcome.

Tatami mats are really comfortable.

We chose our room purely to get a private Onsen (hot spring bath) since the idea of being completely nude amongst strangers wasn’t that appealing to both of us.

There were private baths available and we booked one in for 4.00pm just in time for us to get back from sightseeing.

With the weather being stupid, we decided to do some mostly indoor sightseeing.

Hakone is a popular hot spring town and tourist destination for both locals and foreigners although we noticed way more locals. Hidden away in the mountains, Hakone is a premiere tourist destination because of its close proximity to Tokyo, hot springs and gorgeous natural sights.

Our first stop was the Venetian Glass Museum. We took a bus from the Hakone-Yumoto station to get there. If you’re ever in Hakone, we highly recommend the Hakone Free Pass which gives you virtually unlimited free travel around the Hakone area and is perfect for sightseeing.

The Venetian Glass Museum was a bit of an impulsive stop, purely because we were both curious about what Venetian Glass actually was.

Basically, it was a curious museum featuring tons of interesting glass sculptures and glass as an artform, which was apparently popular in Venice.

The museum itself was okay, not a must-see sight BUT the entire experience was a bizarre introduction to Japanese culture. See, we were pretty much the only non-local tourists there.

Basically, Japanese people are quite obsessed with European culture (especially French) and the Venetian Glass Museum was some sort of bizarre cliched recreation of an idealised vision of Venice for Japanese tourists.

For example, families were extremely excited to rent Venetian costumes (pictured above) as they browsed the museum.

(that’s a cutout , by the way)

The museum was a blend of tacky and bizarre but it was still interesting to see how Western culture is revered and fetishized here in Japan.

That said, there were a lot of pretty glass installations at the museum.

Don’t go out of your way to get there, unless you like the idea of observing Japanese people geek out at the European renaissance.

Our next destination was a bit of a surprise — The Little Prince Museum. Never would I imagine that the sleepy region of Hakone would contain a museum dedicated to one of my favourite books, The Little Prince or Le Petit Prince.

The museum has both a charming outdoor area, with life-sized characters from the book, a chapel and even some French-inspired storefronts. Remember what I said about the Japanese being obsessed about Parisian culture?

Honestly, it was pretty cool.

The main museum part is a huge indoor section dedicated to the life of the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The indoor section prohibited photography, hence no pictures but it was a very fascinating and comprehensive window into the author’s life and legacy.

If The Little Prince changed your life like it did mine and you find yourself in Japan, I would highly recommend paying the museum a visit. If you’ve never read the book or hated it (how dare you), the museum probably won’t make much sense.

The weather was cold and we were pretty tired, so we returned back to the Ryokan to check in and settle into our room.

We get yukatas which was super comfortable and fun to wear! Before dinner, we went to take a dip at one of the other hot springs in the property, which was nice. The water was really hot and it took a while to get used to!

(warning, lots of food pictures ahead)

So, one of the most important parts of a traditional ryokan stay is the Kaiseki dinner, a multi-course meal not unlike a western degustation.

The Kaiseki dinner took us about 2 hours to get through and for our first meal, took us through 8 amazing courses expertly prepared by executive chef Akinori Matsuki.

Here’s a list of what we had

Saki-hassun (clockwise from top left to the best of my memory)

  • Chinese yam soaked in vinegar and flavoured with cherry blossoms
  • Shrimp, soy milk skin, sea urchin in bonito-flavoured soy sauce topped with caviar
  • Wild rocambole tasted with miso and mayonnaise sauce
  • Broiled soft roe tasted with miso and basil
  • Fried pond smelt tasted with vinegar, red pepper and green onion
  • Tofu made with milk, chicken broth and lily bulb topped with crab & Japanese horseradish
  • Angelica keskei (a herb of the parsley family, fiddlehead and hosta plant seasoned with plum fruit, dried bonito powder and olive oil
  • Croquette made with sea bream, potato paste and truffle

Wanmori

  • Dumpling made with fish paste, egg white, grated yam and clamshell.
  • Wheat gluten with mugwort, carrot & snow pea
  • Soup made with bonito, tuna and kelp

Tsukuri

  • Tuna sashimi, yellow jack and Japanese egg cockle

Nimono

  • Fried splendid red snapper
  • Japanese radish tasted with chicken soup — sauce made with fried small shrimps (Sakura shrimp) and sesame

Kumizakana (main dish)

  • Salmon from Mt Fuji
  • Chicken steamed with Japanese sake
  • Scallop, turnip, brussels sprouts, small onion, bamboo shoots, mini-tomato, broccolini, green peas and lily bulb
  • Broiled Ashigara beef (from Hakone)
  • Ocellated Octopus

Sunomono

  • Firefly squid, Japanese parsley, shiitake mushroom, pickled ginger

The firefly squids were so damn cute!

Shokuji

  • young sardines rice mixed with Japanese mushroom

The rice was cooked in our rooms using these really traditional stoves. I have half a mind to throw out my electric rice cooker and go old school with this since the rice was so delicious.

Mizugashi (dessert)

  • Green tea yogurt, jelly, fruits and vegetables

Man, what an experience. This was our very first Kaiseki meal in our lives (but not the last!) and we were blown away.

It was really enjoyable eating so many little portions of everything and at the end, we were well and truly stuffed!

It was a fantastic experience and having it served to us by our very friendly hostess Miki in the comfort of our rooms made it all the better.

After dinner, the table recedes into the floor and the eating area gets converted into a sleeping area! The ryokan staff came in to set up our futons which were super comfortable.

By then our bellies were full and we were all ready to be tucked into bed!

Stay tuned for tomorrow!

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