Hakone and Ashinoko

Beer is Proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy.

Benjamin Franklin

The Japanese Guest House Website and Database has the following things to say about the Hakone/Ashino lake region:

Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, this scenic area offers pristine natural beauty and hot spring baths. The Hakone area has been a popular hot spring resort for hundreds of years, and to this day people travel there to get away from the cities and relax.

A more apt description seems like it would be difficult to develop, yet I would like to see the following statement added on at the end.  Maybe even as a footnote, or better a header…a preface if you will….

If you ever go anyplace with TheRock be very aware of one thing before hand: you will not be relaxing.

Pure Intentions

The initial plan was simple.
The four of us, all friends, would escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and take the train to the not so remote yet convincingly scenic area of Hakone for fun, the sites, hot spring soaks, plentiful beer and equal amounts of fellowship.

Potential members of our merry band shifted but finally the roster was complete.  At four deep our troop would consist of TheRock, MakiChaki, Ta-chan#1 and your’s truly, Gaijinass.

TheRock and MakiChaki had fleshed out the details and had made travel reservations.  We were looking at a very easy weekend in a beautiful place during a prime time of the year to be there.

  • We had pre-paid train tickets on the local trains, not bullet trains or Shinkansen, with an estimated travel time of 1 hour give or take 2 beers.
  • We had reservations at a Japanese style lodge, tatami mat floors, futon and slimy fish based food for meals.
  • We had enough wiggle room to freestyle our adventure and make it up as we went, but we all had to be back in the city by Sunday night.

The plan was solid yet pliable. The weather was chilly yet brisk.  The group was diverse yet decisive.  And then it all went very wrong.

Breakfast Beers

We all rendezvoused in Ikebukuro, in classy fashion, at the front of the McDonalds out the west exit.

Yes, the McD. all the hookers go to at 5A.M. after a hard nights work telling children about Jesus.

Saturday at 10AM there was a distinct lack of hookers there and we quickly moved to get refreshment for the train ride at the nearby SubWay sandwich place.

Ikebukuro became Shinjuku and from there the four of us took over a small section of the train heading toward Odawara.  It took about no time and a half for TheRock to open up his ruck sack and reveal the built-in cooling compartment that was, predictably, full of ice-cold brews and a couple chu-hais for MakiChaki who inexplicably hates Gods sweet Nectar, Beer.

Several stations passed by. People got on and people got off.  Several beers went the way of the Dodo and then I looked at my watch and it was 10:45 in the morning.

Now, at this point, something somewhere leaned in and whispered something to me that involved words like “pace” and “liver damage” and “very dangerous” but the scenery outside the train windows was shifting from cement and steel to green hills and dark blue brooks so those voices were fairly easy to ignore.

When you leave Tokyo in the right direction, it’s almost like you’re a time traveler capable of sliding backwards through the years.  The architecture shifts and re-builds itself and trees taller than a folding chair actually do exist.  The clutching flat desperation of the howling Metropolis with its hypnotic draw is abruptly juxtaposed with a country side that lures and whispers, meanders and sits quietly.

By the time we could see Mount Fuji looming off in the distance, a fitting center piece to the arrangement we had become a part of, 12 beers were no longer with us and “buzzed” had become, frankly, the buzz word.

Ball Soak #1

We finally reached what I think was Hakone station around 2PM.   Our “one hour train ride” had been a lie told to us by technology and a government cover up.  This deception had made it necessary for the troop to stop and acquire more much needed provisions.  Cans of Asahi, Kirin Lager, Sapporo and even two cans of Heineken (just to keep everyone on their toes) were gotten and then subsequently swilled.

In Hakone, the first Onsen that TheRock was leading everyone to was thankfully, a 20 minute trek up would some might call a hill, yet others might easily confuse with a cliff face.  For reasons that likely had to do with his childhood or perhaps just sweet, sweet vengeance, TheRock failed to tell anyone about the free shuttle bus running up the escarpment every 20 minutes.  No problem, beer room needed to be made.  Up the hill I lept.

Wheezing at the top we finally sat down and devoured our sandwiches greedily, then headed into the Onsen.

Onsens have a very ritualized and strict way of doing things.

  • You go to the counter and pay up, get towels if necessary.  Then you see the sign that says NO TATTOOS and you go in none the less.
  • In the locker room, you take off all your clothes, stuff them in a locker and then ignore the old men staring at your arm covered in TATTOOS with a disgust that is hard to define.
  • Onsen are generally, sadly, not co-ed.  Ladies in one area and Gents in another.  So out the sliding doors the TheRock and I went to the washing area.
  • What one does at an onsen, is find a seat in front of a little shower area, and proceed to wash all your glorious filth away.  This is done because the pools are communal and this ritual is usually observed in Japanese homes during bath time as well.  One bath is drawn for the whole family and each member washes outside the bath before getting in to soak.
  • Next, so fresh and clean (and heavily buzzed) one then proceeds to get into the first pool which is generally the same temperature as the 7th level of hell.
  • Next, any of the other pools may be accessed and enjoyed.  There are often pools outside as well.  The combination of the hot spring water and the cool wind and sun is intoxicating by itself.  If you partake in this already under the influence, the world shifts and starts to slide away.  Literally.  So stay seated.

After this soak, I felt effectively like I had run a marathon and then belly crawled out of an angry Unicorns birth Canal.  I was exhausted, as were the other party members and the bus ride to the Lodge saw everyone passing out and drooling on windows they hijacked as cruel, cold pillows.  I woke up in time to see that we had climbed high enough in altitude for there to still be a hefty amount of snow on the ground, and the colder air slapped all of us awake as we marched out into the windy afternoon to go check into the Hotel.

Dinner, Future-Uno and Ball Soak #2

The Lodge was standard Japanese low ball style.  Tatami mat room big enough for the  four of us to spread out our respective futon upon.  There was a medium sized wooden table in the middle of the room and a sink in the corner.  A sad, lonely looking bargain basement flat screen T.V. pouted in the corner on another little wood table.  Next to that was a small kettle sized wood and paper screen lamp, the rooms only attempt at any kind of ambiance.

I shed not a tear for our spartan accommodations as I popped open another Asahi and we all headed off for a walk to the “Super Market” to buy yet more beer and snacks.  The walk was fine, meandering down hill as TheRock and I took turns hurting each other with snowballs that had the consistency of bricks and injustice.  As is usually true in life, it’s all fun and games untill a woman (or a sports car) gets hit, and MakiChaki put a stop to that shit pretty quick.

The damned “Super Market” had closed mere minutes before we arrived so this left us all despondent and with a fair amount of time on our hands.  Idle hands are the Devils play thing and naturally we made are way to the lakes shore and proceeded to skip/pitch rocks and gradually more monstrous debris into Ashino-ko.

Ashino Lake is a good lookin’ piece of water.  It’s surrounded by modest mountains and hills that have been there forever and frame the scenery well.  The sky was light blue with shades of orange that became pink as the sun dipped slowly behind the cliffs across from us and the lake understood that.  Several ducks floated by in the water and upon realizing that we had no bread to dispense promptly told us to “Fuck Off” in duck.

“What the hell are you still doing here?”

For all intents and purposes drunk, we got back to the lodge and procured booze at one of the outragously expensive and internationally infamous beer vending machines and then set our sights on a new horror: Future Uno.

Uno H20 or as it was dubbed “Future Uno” is a game so devoid of mirth, hope and logic it’s inconceivable that anyone except for a mad scientist obsessed with the tears of children could have released it upon the world.  Future Uno is fun the same way prison sex isn’t.  For some inexplicable reason the game consisted of two decks composed almost entirely of “Draw Four” cards but the twisted sorcerer that summoned this abomination from the pits of hell made it all OK because “Hey, it’s UNO but WATER PROOF!!! Uno H20!”.

Some proud marketing genius someplace must have made his deal with Satan and I can imagine the board meeting when the cards were initially pitched to the bosses in Japan.

“Uno H20! Because sometimes Tentacle rape and Simple Scatological play just isn’t enough!”

We arrived at dinner a bit late and this was probably for the best.

I have learned over years of experience that the Japanese can cook, and not only can they cook, they have some great cuisine.  However, what passes as the pride and joy of Japanese nourishment is generally things consisting of sad-looking cuts of fish, some form of noodle and various slimy things.  The appearance and presentation of the meal is more important than anything that will make your mouth orgasm.

Of course, I have a secret weapon and that is the fact that I will eat anything.

I have eaten Dog.  I’ve eat cat.  Crocodile, Kangaroo, Shark, Bugs, Snake soup, Grilled Snake, Snake and ants delicately sautéed over an open flame.  Various unidentifiable berries and leaves.   I once sucked the eye balls out of a dead Rabbit.

So this, although dull and completely un-filling, is no problem.

Back in the room more torture ensued by way of Future Uno and arguments broke out due to the fact that Ta-Chan#1 and MakiChaki both insisted that two “skip” cards equal skipping three people, not two.  The rules provided with the deck, although thankfully also H20 proof, did nothing to resolve this problem, so soon after it was time for Ball soak #2.

The onsen at the lodge is located on the first floor and although TheRock opted to squeeze into one of the complimentary “yukata” or light robes provided by the lodge, I kept it high-class with shorts, a 5Boro T and my hoody.  A few years back whilst proudly wearing my own yukata on the streets of Shinjuku to meet a friend visiting Japan, a mighty gust of wind blew my radical, dragon bedazzled samurai wear completely up and open, thus revealing my dark wizard and his two potion concocting disciples to not only the streets of Tokyo but also to the World.

The hour was late and the onsen was thankfully devoid of all but two patrons who seemed happy enough to leave once the TheRock decided that he was going to practice his breast stroke.  That combined with the alcohol, our size and our glowing pink skin, seared to such an enchanting hue by that days previous soak, made us look utterly insane.

At one point while I suffered, I repeat suffered, in the howlingly hot water, TheRock unlocked, then slid open a rather small window leading out to a sort of picturesque court-yard and then to my horror, wiggled naked out of the window and sprinted off into the darkness.  He returned minutes later cradling half a dozen evil balls of ice which then were thrown at my face and shortly there after my balls.  We were thus being very mature when a member of the staff poked his head in and told us the onsen would be closing.

On the way back to the room I collected snowballs outside and then stalked carefully into the women’s changing room, certain for no reason at all, that it would be only MakiChaki and Ta-Chan#1 inside.  Thankfully it was and I bombarded them with a cascade of freezing death.  This, I would find out a bit later on, was not a great idea.

While I was performing black ops and surgical strikes, TheRock had wandered out the door I had foolishly left open and as I approached I could hear a moaning coming from outside.  I casually neared the open door, which had now turned brilliantly ominous in what felt like slow motion and then, to my shock and drunkenness, saw TheRock face down in the snow, his robe open and flailed out to the sides.  He was moaning incongruent, disturbing sounds like that of a wounded animal and I hissed for him to get back inside.

“Oh god man, Jesus….the snow is burning my dick.”

“Get the fuck inside!  This is unacceptable.”

“It burns!”

“Stop making snow demons and get in here.  I think their calling immigration.”

“I have to piss.”

Thanks, maturity.

In the room the sad fact that we had once again depleted our store of alcohol resulted in us going again to the vending machine and we opted to take the cheap route, selling both our livers and pride up the river and purchased the half-priced cans of diesel fuel like chu-hai, that simply looking at filled me with a name-less dread.

Pirate ship, Onsen Park, Fleeing the scene

Prepare to be boarded!

By the grace of an old magician in the sky who collects all my dead pets, I had no hangover the next morning.

I realized that the buffet breakfast ended at 9AM and it was 8:50.  I arrived in the dinning room at 8:55 and the gentleman, already cleaning up and shutting hot plates off told me clearly “Breakfast ends at 9AM”. His terse tone of voice and evil sneer I instantly took as a challenge.

“OK I got it.” and I moved toward the plates.

“But…you only have 5 minutes.” he repeated again, but stronger.

“Roger that. Watch this happen.” I replied in my command tone and went to work.

My plate within seconds was piled high with sausage, some kind of mushroom (I think), onions, eggs, something I think was processed fish and more sausage.  I devoured it, famished after the lack of sustenance the night before and also managed to suck down three cups of strong, good, black coffee.  I pushed my plate away and leaned back in my chair,  satisfied.

That was when I noticed the waiter standing about two feet away from me, his arms crossed, glaring with a hatred so intense I left the room impressed.

My primary objective for that day was very simple: Get on the Pirate ship and drink some beer.

Ashino lake has two pirate ship replicas that are so insanely tacky it leaves one breathless. Anyone who knows me, and that’s a lot of casually crazed lunatics, knows that I love boats.  I love the open water, and I love pirates.  Not so much Somali pirates and definitely not Johnny Depp pirates, but I have an obsession with the “glory days” of piracy and with Naval tradition.   I spent about a month on ship at one point in another life and it was, to say the least, 31 days of glorious pirate posing and naval ejaculation simply because I was actually on a big ass boat in the ocean.

“How the Lake CHOPS as I drink my beer! ARRRRRR!”

So, the boat and floating upon it was an absolute necessity despite the fact that nobody else really wanted to do it.  Well guess what?

The Boat did not disappoint.  It was loaded with other idiots like us from all over: China, Philipines, Japan, France, and everyone was chattering away, yet still I managed to maintain my naval bearing and drink a beer whilst glaring at the chopping lake water.  At that moment, things were right in the world.

“Ta-Chan#1 and MakiChaki are overwhelmed by joy because they are finally on the high seas.”

After arriving on the other side of the lake we invaded a 7/11 because, guess what, we had drunk all our goodies.  Then it was on the bus and off to the onsen park.
I will be honest, I had my misgivings regarding going to what to me seemed to amount to a fucking water park but I had shanghaied my compatriots and forced them onto the ship (which they all loved so they now owe me), so I decided to be a grown up and simply sulk in silence bringing down the groups energy as we neared the park.  Thankfully, as has been the case many a time with parks and outings I initially ranked below bowel cancer on my “Things worse than being a eunuch” list, I ended up having a great time.

The complex the onsen park is in is simply massive.  It has a hotel, multiple floors, a bar, eateries, the works.  We did the locker room change and due to my tattoos I decided to wear the complimentary and totally humiliating Aloha style zip up shirt the park provided which was predictably, 50 sizes too small for me.  If I were to wear said shirt in New York I would be abducted, shot full of Ketamine and would wake up strapped to the front of a float depicting the village people eating cakes under a rainbow, rolling down the street in a gay pride parade.  If I wore this shirt in front of my father he would surely shake his head and say “No son, I still love you and I respect whatever lifestyle choices you make, even if I would never ever make the same ones myself. Ever.”

Although I will never admit it to anyone, the onsen park kicked some ass. This is largely because it is Japanese, hence totally insane.  We soaked in pools of coffee, wine, hot mineral pools and steamed in great mineral steam rooms.  We sat sweating profusely in saunas.  There was one pool I am fairly certain was filled with either tomato soup or human blood.  It was all encompassing and awesome.

The hours flew by and I drank a stupid amount of alcohol.  Once it was explained to me that the RFI key that opened my locker could also be used to pay for anything inside the park, later to be charged to me on departure, I was like a kid at Christmas or a recent university graduate with a new credit card and all the sweet free money that comes with it.

We all had a passable lunch and then the pace was turned down a bit.  I was cornered by one staff member and forced to tape over the innocent (I think it’s cute) skull I have emblazoned on my forearm.  This was a minor speed bump and  by the time the sun was setting the park had cleared out considerably and the four of us made our way up to the top of the “Volcano” where two hot pools steamed away devoid of bodies.  This was where we watched the sun set and relaxed our way into the darkness watching the plumes of steam roll up and dance away against the lights inside the pools.

We left Hakone like we were making a Jail break.

It seemed like the troop instinctively knew that we had used up all our freebies, all the points, no more get out of jail free cards.  Bags got packed and we moved quickly to the train station.  We only stopped for essentials: road beers.  Once on the train with Hakone and all its pleasures and vices, it’s coffee hot springs and buffet breakfasts, rolling away from us we could all muster a collective and gratifying sigh of relief.    Going anyplace these days has its risks.  Going someplace with TheRock and I is basically like playing “pass the pipe bomb” and going anyplace with TheRock and I and Mr. Beer is basically a fucking combat patrol in Afghanistan.

“All hands, present and accounted for.”

The trip, like others before it was overall a resounding success and I am still riding high on that buzz this morning as I catalogue all these misadventures so that future generations will have something good to read on their iPod implants.

Lessons learned in Hakone and at Ashino lake?  Yes, there is one:  Do not drink the Coffee onsen water.  I repeat- Do NOT.

Read more about the misadventures of Gaijinass, TheRock and crew  in Insights into the Enchanting: Niijima Island and Atomic Chicken of Death.