“I think they’re having an affair,” murmurs my companion, the ever-observant Megumi. She nods at a middle-aged couple sitting next to us on the “Romance Car,” the limited express train that links Tokyo and the hot-spring resort of Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture.
“How can you tell?” I ask.
“They’re too flirtatious. At their age, married couples don’t have that much fun.”
To my Western imagination, the name “Romance Car” evokes string quartets and dimly lit compartments — a slow ride through sensuous tunnels. The reality is more prosaic, however: The train is named for its “romance seats,” which supposedly aid close encounters through their lack of armrests.
Further ambience is provided by the panoramic windows and observation decks in the train’s front and rear. Between whispering sweet nothings, you can feed each other shrimp from a train-shaped bento box, which “provides treats to the eyes and tongue,” according to the English menu,
We arrive at Hakone-Yumoto Station, and I’m still wondering about the middle-aged lovebirds as I watch them disappear in the crowd.
The resort town, located 80 kilometers west of Tokyo, is popular not only with tourists but also with Japanese couples from the capital who range in all shades of propriety. You see, what happens in Hakone, stays in Hakone.
In the haunting finale of Haruki Murakami’s 1992 novel “South of the Border, West of the Sun,” a married man and his mysterious lover drive up to Hakone for a romp in a cottage, listening to Mozart on a rainy expressway out of Tokyo. The scene aptly captures the melancholy — passionate thrills notwithstanding — of illicit affairs, and of Hakone.
It’s spring when we arrive, and the scenery is picturesque, the last pink cherry blossoms dotting the wooded slopes. But even now there is a slow, subdued feel, the town walled in by mountains and chilled by the mist. The best times to visit are summer and fall, when the blue sky and the turning leaves can offset the resort town’s moodiness.
The center of town is a shopping street by the station, flanked by the Hayakawa River and eateries with a view. After a stroll at dusk, Megumi notices I am absent. I have idyllic notions of small towns, but get antsy when I really see one. My fear of boredom cannot be calmed by Hakone’s assets such as the ropeway, the Glass Museum with its Italian-style buildings or even the charming Museum of The Little Prince.
Megumi gives me a knowing look.
“Let’s check out the Fujiya,” she says with a smile.
A 20-minute bus ride through darkened mountain roads gets us to the Miyanoshita area. The place has a dream-like sense of isolation, enhanced by the massive pagoda-roofed building that oversees it. The Fujiya Hotel is a portal to an enchanting past.
The first Western-style hotel in Japan owned and operated by Japanese, the Fujiya blends Victorian-American and Japanese elements into a structure of superb elegance. It was Hakone’s first major attraction, putting the town on the map as a tourist resort.
Since it was founded in 1878, the Fujiya has catered to Western customers — at times to the exclusion of Japanese. Faded photographs in the oak-paneled hallways show famous guests such as Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller and John Lennon with Yoko Ono. The writer Yukio Mishima, ever drawn to the world of glamour, stayed in a “Flower Palace” suite on his honeymoon in 1958, and 12 years later Hakone would feature in his novel “The Temple of Dawn.”
The hotel’s eminent history mirrors Japan’s relationship with the West. It housed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during World War II, but soon after Japan’s defeat, the U.S. Occupation requisitioned the building and turned it into a resort for officers. Despite the food shortages of the postwar period, army helicopters would deliver steaks, cake and pineapples for the nightly soirees in the hotel’s banquet room.
Today, the Fujiya features a Japanese garden, a tearoom beside a pond for carp, and a bakery that makes bread and sweets. The premises once included a dairy production, complete with cows and stables, that made cheese, margarine and butter — items that became staples at Japanese hotels as symbols of Western culture. To this day, you can see “Hotel Margarine” sold in Japanese supermarkets.
“Feels like we stepped into the Titanic,” says Megumi over a gimlet at the hotel bar, admiring the upholstered armchairs and gilt-framed pictures. “Is this what they call ‘Old World charm?’ “
“More like Old World money, with a Japanese twist.” I glance over the exquisite menu, and settle for a choice named “French sawsage.”
It is a shame we can’t stay the night here, having already made arrangements at Tsukinoya, a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), to experience an authentic Hakone hot spring.
To the dismay of the innkeeper, we arrive late and drunk. Most travelers in Japan know that ryokan have more rules than a Swiss boarding school and, having missed both dinner and curfew, we are lucky to get a tour of the premises.
We are shown the main onsen, then pass a dark curtained entrance tucked away in a corner. Another onsen for nocturnal bathing?
“Never mind that,” explains the innkeeper, a small woman in her 60s, dismissing the room as if she didn’t know how it got there. “This bath is … a bit strange.”
Needless to say, as soon as we say good night, Megumi and I return to the curtained entrance. It is indeed an onsen, a tiny chamber with a stone bath inside. And then we see why it’s a “bit strange”: A 3-foot-tall ceramic phallus towers over the steaming water. This chipped piece of degenerate art must be some old man’s idea of getting lovers into the mood.
“I dare you to go in there.” Megumi says with a grin.
“I’ve never soaked next to a giant penis. I’m worried it might corrupt me.”
“Don’t fear,” she teases. “You become innocent when you try something new.”
The next morning, another bus takes us to Lake Ashinoko, close to the volcanic Mount Hakone. The weather is key here, too. On a clear day, the view of Mount Fuji is stunning, with a pirate ship crossing the lake and red torii (shrine gate) set scenically in the water. But when the clouds gather — which happens often — the glum sight may return you to the gimlets at the Fujiya’s bar, where the mountain is present at least in name.
Surrounding the lake is the Tokaido Road, the main route that connected Kyoto with the city now known as Tokyo during Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868). A treat for hikers and history buffs, the road loops back to Hakone-Yumoto Station, passing the historic Hakone checkpoint that marked the border of the Kanto region. On the path you can walk in the footsteps of samurai, monks and ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige, who all traveled along the dirt and cobblestone path.
Later that day, riding the Romance Car back to Tokyo, I scan the other passengers and think again about illicit affairs and our quests to keep boredom at bay. For now, I’ve been appeased by a throwback hotel and a raunchy onsen. May you, as well, become innocent as you try something new in Hakone.
Hakone-Yumoto Station is an 85-minute train ride from Shinjuku Station on the Odakyu Line’s “Romance Car” (¥2,080 one-way). Fujiya Hotel is located a 10-minute walk from Miyanoshita Station, two stops from Hakone-Yumato Station. Tsukinoya Ryokan is a 5-minute walk from Fujiya Hotel. For more information, call 0460-82-2401 or visit tukinoya.com (Japanese).