Annie Bananie en Europe

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Honeymoon in Japan, part 1 – Tidbits of Hakone

In mid-January, J and I went on our 10-day honeymoon in Japan. I hesitated blogging about it because (1) we took way too many photos that would take ages to sort, (2) it would definitely have to be split up into many sections, and (3) I’m lazy. But then I took a look at the photos again and decided that I can’t NOT write about such an amazing trip. Yeah, it did take a bit of time to pick out photos and write the posts but it was an enjoyable process that reminded me of how much I love travel and writing, even more now that I can travel with and write about the person I love the most!

This was my second trip to Japan and J’s first, me having been to Osaka, Nara, Uji, and Kyoto in 2018. The itinerary went as follows: three nights in Hakone, one in Tokyo as a stopover, two in Otaru, and three in Sapporo. The two main events were (1) Hakone to see Mount Fuji (spoiler: we didn’t see it) and (2) Sapporo for skiing. We wanted the honeymoon to be as leisurely and relaxing as possible, so while we did have a general itinerary, we didn’t force ourselves to stick to it as we didn’t want to rush. As a result, we there was no strict schedule and we could be as spontaneous as we wanted to be.

First, Hakone, or more precisely Fuji Hakone Izu National Park. From Narita airport we took a train to Odawara, where we transferred to the Odakyu line for Hakone-Gora. As we were staying three nights, J and I each got a 3-day Hakone Free Pass, which included unlimited rides on all public transportation within the Hakone area (trains, ropeway, buses, etc.) and discounts/free entrance to some attractions. Getting the pass was certainly a no-brainer here!

In Hakone, we stayed at Hakone Tent in the Gora region. It is a chic hostel/guesthouse offering private and shared rooms, with the advantage of having two private onsens (hot springs)! Hakone is known for its onsens so this is a huge bonus for those on a budget (like us) who want to try an onsen but don’t want to pay a fortune for luxurious accommodation. The two of us booked a traditional double room, which was quite spacious and had futon-style beds for a good night’s sleep. Probably the best accommodation in our trip even though it is “shared” (bathrooms, common areas, etc.)

We had two full days plus a half day in the Hakone area, so on the first full day we decided to explore Hakone-Yumoto, which is the main tourist hub and onsen resort town. The railway between Yumoto and Gora was suspended because of maintenance, which was quite a disappointment, and we had to take the replacement bus through winding roads to travel between Gora and Yumoto. Some plans did not go as expected because of last-minute changes. For example, I had originally intended to visit the Little Prince museum, but I had read mediocre reviews about it and decided to skip it. Instead, we opted to spend more time in Hakone-Yumoto, exploring its shrines, old streets, and tranquil riverside paths.

We wandered a little farther away from the town center and chanced upon this waterfall near Tenseien, a large onsen resort hotel. I wondered if the fact that there was a huge rock in the shape of a phallic figure, sticking out from the water and wrapped around by a thick, golden rope, had anything to do with penis worship in Japan.

Because Yumoto was the central tourist hub, we had most of our meals there (there weren’t that many options in Gora, where our accommodation was located). Lunch on day 1 was an oyakodon (chicken and egg with rice) for me and soup soba for J, and dinner was tempura for me and a vegetarian udon for J. On day 2, I had a sashimi set whereas J opted for the grilled fish meal. Of course we shared everything so no one missed out 😉

Day 2 was spent going on the classic Hakone tourist route, which included a ropeway over Owakudani (volcanic valley) and down to Lake Ashi, a boat across the lake, a walk through the Ancient Cedar Alley, and a brief stop at Hakone shrine. First up, ropeway over the smoking volcanic valley where sulfur is actively released into the air! You could definitely smell the putrid odour of rotting eggs, alright. You could also supposedly see Mount Fuji from here on a clear day but clearly the day was not clear so…no Mount Fuji from Owakudani.

Well then let’s take a selfie with a cardboard Mount Fuji in case we ended up not seeing the real thing at all the entire day 😛

Next up was the boat tour on a pirate ship across Lake Ashi. Sitting at the lakeview restaurant for lunch, we were able to see the two pirate ships and the scenic view in the distance. It reminded me a bit of what you’d expect to see at Loch Ness or Loch Lomond in Scotland. And nope, still kind of cloudy so no Mount Fuji in sight, even though Lake Ashi supposedly offers one of the best views of the conical giant. Gotta save my luck for the next trip to Japan 😦

Next destination was a bit off the tourist path. It was a short trail next to Lake Ashi lined with tall, majestic cedar trees on both sides, hidden from plain view if you didn’t know where the entrance was. The sun and the way the trees were spaced out gave me a chance to play a little with the lighting and I was quite happy with the way this photo turned out.

At the end of the cedar trail, we continued walking a bit until we reached the Hakone shrine. By now I had seen quite a few shrines in Japan (mostly the ones in Osaka and Kyoto from the previous trip) but J was quite curious about them. One thing that intrigued me was how politics can appear anywhere, even in a shrine. On those boards where people write their wishes, we saw one that said “Fight for freedom, stand with HK (Hong Kong)”, probably in reference to the pro-democracy protests that were taking place. Right next to it, there was one that said, “HK belongs to China”. Coincidence? I have a feeling one of them was put next to the other on purpose, and the order remains debatable. I won’t share my perspective on political topics, but if the shrine were open to visitors now, the boards would most likely all say, “Gone with COVID-19″…

View of Lake Ashi from the shore where we got off from the boat tour. We could have backtracked and taken the boat back, but we missed the last departure of the day. So we waited for the bus to take us back to Hakone-Yumoto, completing one loop of the tourist route.

Now for one of the highlights, which I left till the end: lunch at Itoh Dining by NOBU! Before our departure from Hakone, Jian and I dined at Itoh Dining by NOBU, which is a well-known restaurant for wagyu beef. Wanting to stay on a budget, we went during lunchtime and each ordered the wagyu steak lunch menu. At 3500 yen per person, it was quite a steal, starting off with a beautiful and refreshing salad (also soup). In addition to your normal lettuce and tomato, this particular salad had ingredients that I couldn’t name. I would guess that there was broccolini and very thinly sliced and deep-fried tofu skin. Great start and looking forward to the highlight coming up!

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand next we have…our wagyu steak! We made reservations to sit by the counter so we could get a close view of the entire cooking process, and it was so much fun seeing the chef cook the food to perfection step by step. Obviously we didn’t expect huge portions – in fact each portion was 90 g and cut into 8 pieces, so you get a little more than 10 g of heavenly juiciness in your mouth per bite. The beef was topped with thin slices of fried garlic with a bit of pepper and a light sauce (not sure what it was) on the side. This was just wagyu steak and not even A5 Kobe beef, but somehow it tasted even better than the Kobe beef that I had two years ago in Osaka (and it was a lot cheaper). For the first time I finally felt that TRUE buttery melt-in-your-mouth sensation that everyone was talking about when you eat good wagyu beef, and I was savouring each and every bite so delicately that I didn’t want the experience to end. There was rice to go with the beef, and it was very necessary every other bite or so, or else it became too buttery and heavy. This was the case even though the portion was so small, so you can imagine the amount of flavour that was contained within the meat! Now I can truly say that this was the most delicious piece of meat that I’ve ever put in my mouth and I hope it won’t be the last time. Itoh Dining by NOBU, you have impressed me!!!

To finish off the amazing wagyu steak meal, we were served panna cotta and coffee as desserts. The panna cotta was light and pleasant and the coffee was the perfect conclusion for it all 😉

I’ll end the first honeymoon post here (that was long!) but there is more Hakone to come in the next post. Hakone gave us a little surprise on our final day that made it the icing on the cake (possible pun and foreshadow)…with a cherry on top. You’ll see!

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