It was a wet and heavy Saturday afternoon as the train finally pulled in the Hakoneyumoto station. Leaving Tokyo and travelling only 100 km to reach the main spa resort in the Hakone area proved to be not so straight forward, especially when it’s 30 degrees outside, and a light drizzle soaking the already humid air. But all the weight of the morning and of the hours spent on the trains melted in the sight of the Hayakawa river. It was when I felt for the first time that I was finally beginning to see the wild face of Japan, to see not the fashion and the skyscrapers, but the mountains, the old trees and the rural landscape. And what other better way to plunge in the rural life than checking in at a ryokan.
Being lodged in a ryokan is a life experience in itself. In the small traditional Japanese-stylized apartment the stillness of days would come to a close, and the peace of being connected to the depths of nature would be astounding, dizzying, intoxicating and, in the end, so purifying. Living for two days only with raw fish, rice and organic green tea can change not only your body, but your thoughts and even your silence, if you allow it so far. I think I didn’t know how to allow it, I was still too tied to my European heritage, too thirsty for Coke.
And thirsty I would remain, when the end of each day would bring with it the hours of submersion into large outdoors pools of, who knows, 35-40 degrees hot water. The onsen. That which they hold so untamed, yet so simple, that you, as a Coke drinker, feel that is so foreign, so far from what you might know. The bathing itself is a ritual of body purification, starting with the first moment you step into the dressing room. Taking off your clothes, down to the scratch, and sitting on the small chair which would aid to the process of washing the body. And only then, when you’re perfectly clean, are you allowed to step into the hot water. And you close your lids, already soaked with the soft steam, arising from everywhere around you.
That Sunday was hard, yet rewarding. No better way to start the day than with a Japanese breakfast: rice, miso soup, who knows what sorts of fish, green tea. The classical way of exploring the Hakone area begins back to the outset: by taking the train from the Hakoneyumoto station. The train takes you on a steep slope to Gora, at 550m altitude, where the classical tourist would change to the cable car to the Sounzan Mountain. And this is we’re getting started. The Sounzan ropeway would take you to the sulphuric depths of Owakudani. There it is where hell itself emerges to the surface, you can smell it: black eggs boiled in the putrid water, yellow earth, green strands of leftover rain and the hot springs. It is once in a lifetime experience, you never want to get back there, your thoughts are already at the lake Ashi. It offers the iconic view of Japan: the red torii, against the humid forest, and at the foot of which, the lake itself.
The steam of the onsen couldn’t have clouded my memories, I still have them. Even after a month I can see the perfect round moon, over the rivers and the valley, now on the other side of the world for me. I still know that after the Hakone torii, the shrine and the path through the forest hide, a path where trees older than my own life bend over so many travelers crossing paths. I still know that there, on the other side of the world, there is a mountain called Komagatake where there is a temple always embraced by fog and rain. The weather is so humid there, the air always burdened by drizzle. It’s where the earth and the skies are only sleeping, together in a warm embrace.