Ever since I was a wee laddie, I’ve been utterly hooked on all things James Bond. This often meant watching him jet off to the likes of Tokyo, battle the villainous Blofeld in a “volcanic lair” as Dr. Evil would periodically put it. He even became a talented ninja in what seemed only a few days (typical Bond). So it’s little wonder really that I’ve long felt the pull of Japan, tugging on my sleeve like the fore mentioned wee laddie pulling his exasperated mother into an enticing sweet shop.
If years of waiting had felt anything like an exceedingly harsh test on one’s patience, this would soon pale in comparison to how long the wait would feel at Haneda airport. Be sure to have a shave before joining this line unless you want to be almost unrecognisable when the immigration officer is finally afforded a peek at your passport.
With half of my holiday already gone and the city metro closed for the night, it was off to another terminal where some sleep could be found. Not content with having just spent a few hours flying inside a small tube, I elected to spend the night in another within Haneda’s Capsule Hotel. To some, the idea of sleeping in a space smaller than a collapsed tent might not sound very appealing but it was actually remarkably comfortable. It’s a little like a morgue but with snoring. You get assigned your capsule and then crawl in. Just about enough space for me a rucksack. Ideal!
A few hours sleep later it was time to head into the big city. Tokyo, from what I have been told, is a lot like New York only far, far cleaner. I could immediately see the comparisons, even without having ever visited the Big Apple. Here in this vast metropolitan there wasn’t so much as a discarded apple pip to be found. This was all the more impressive when you find yourself holding any rubbish. Not a single bin in sight! The streets were vast, clean, well maintained and in many neighbourhoods, absolutely pristine. For a city just shy of 14 million, that’s no mean feat.
My highlight of Tokyo will always undoubtedly be a visit to the famous Gonpachi restaurant. Better known to most as the “Kill Bill” restaurant. The very place that helped inspire an impressed Quentin Tarantino in creating the now iconic interior where “The Bride” would defeat and de-limb the Crazy 88’s whilst on her bloody quest for revenge. Whether a fan of the movie or not, it must be said that the five course meal I had here was nothing short of extraordinary and this place would be more than deserving of its status even without Hollywood’s publicity. I’m no food critic but I know when I’m eating something special, and the food served up in Gonpachi was just that.
If I’m being honest, the bright lights and over the top bustle of Tokyo can dazzle just about anyone, from one of the busiest street crossings in the world (worth seeing by the way) to catching a glimpse of Godzilla peeking over the top of a down town cinema, it’s a world of intoxicating bizarreness. So much so that being swallowed up by it can for some, be a little suffocating. With that being said, it was time to swap the concrete and steel and get out into the fresh air of Hakone.
Situated somewhere high up in the mountains that surrounds the gargantuan Mount Fuji was my next bed for the night. Finding it was to be nothing short of a tiny expedition. The first step was to find a way to the local train station tucked in at the base of this lofty region. Then having spent a considerable length of time in the local information centre peering over multiple maps of Hakone, the worryingly perplexed tourist information officer (or whatever her job title may actually be) helped me to work out roughly where I should be going and how to get there. This was like planning a dig for the Holy Grail! Armed with some rather sketchy photos and badly translated directions from the Hostel website, I set off back toward the train station where I would be ascending in what can only be described as the most wonderful train I’ve ever been on.
As I sat down, it was immediately clear that I had stepped onto something more resembling of a railway antique. There were only two carriages, both with forward pulling diesel engines. The track was steep and narrow and the driver as aged and weathered as the mountains. As the train rattled and screeched its way out of the station, the view of any civilisation quickly sank below the base of the window as endless rock, trees and unkept nature began to pass by. The train began to climb to hefty heights, occasionally passing over bridges with incredible drops beneath. Tunnels carved into the mountain temporarily hid the view but there was no give in the steep nature of the journey. Now and again the driver would come to a standstill at what appeared to be a dead-end, only to manually switch the points and set off again in the opposite direction. This wasn’t a looped track but more of a zigzag. Back and forth I went up the face of this mountain, until finally I approached my stop.
As I stepped off the tired looking train I surveyed my surroundings. I was stood amidst a quaint little station with a short platform tucked up against the rising cliff. Across from me was the opposing platform which sat beneath an utterly unrivalled view of rolling lush greens and mountainous greys. Trees towered from every nook and cranny in the rock whilst the deafening silence that now hung over the empty train tracks were only interrupted by the occasional calling of the local birds and crickets. Being in the city one can feel like your typical tourist. Being out here in the near wilderness can make one feel like an explorer, and the difference can be exceptional.
I glanced back over my rather sketchy photos and badly translated directions and began making my way to my hostel. Crossing the railway and down a small steep cobbled street. As a postman scooted up the right side on his motorbike, delivering mail to the local hot spring foot bath cafe, an art and crafts shop and a small restaurant, I scanned my left and noticed a thin slither breaking away from civilisation. According to my directions, I was to turn left before the end of the hill and this looked to be the only way to go. Ducking in through the leafy entrance I was soon making my way uphill again. The path lay parallel to the railway which also continued to make its way upwards. Every so often the trees and bushes would close in and I’d be met by an entanglement of silk across my face, that feeling you get when you know you’ve just wrecked some poor spiders home. Eventually I arrived at a small sheltered bench which looked to be a dead-end. According to my directions, there was a “secret path” which I was to follow next. I felt like I was trying to find the entrance to the secret garden. Perhaps I was on the verge of finding a lost city?
In true anti-climatic fashion, the “secret path” was eventually discovered and beyond it lay more bushes and branches until I found myself back on a small road. A short walk later and I was there. Dropping my bag to the floor I enquired about any activities still available, despite the falling sun. To my delight, there was a natural outdoor hot spring nearby. Also known as an onsen. As an actively volcanic country, onsens are common and incredibly worthwhile places to visit in Japan. Fully embracing the “no swimwear allowed” rule (as if I had a choice anyway) I settled down amidst the hot steam, time to sit back and gaze over that view again. Stars were filling the night sky high above, I was beginning to boil nicely like a lobster in a pot, bliss. I was beginning to like this country!