Japan: My towel was tiny, and it went on my head

Ally Ireson goes Japanese and tries the open-air tubs at a resort by Mt Fuji. It is an experience that is distinctly un-English
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The Independent Travel

A trip to Japan triggers a weirdly cosy form of culture shock. The elaborate politeness of public life can make you feel like one of the foam-swaddled fruit on Tokyo's pavement stalls: cushioned, compartmentalised, all wrapped up.

A trip to Japan triggers a weirdly cosy form of culture shock. The elaborate politeness of public life can make you feel like one of the foam-swaddled fruit on Tokyo's pavement stalls: cushioned, compartmentalised, all wrapped up. But put yourself in the right place, and those formal codes soon dissolve.

My first taste of unwrapped Japan was quite a shock. Days spent on trains full of people scrupulously avoiding both eye and body contact had given me a sharp awareness of lingering glances and untucked elbows. And the disembarkation from the cramped bus to Yumoto-Chaya in Hakone had been characteristically apologetic. But within two minutes of having passed under entrance awnings printed with coiling bubble-gum clouds, I found myself in a room full of clattering lockers – and naked flesh. Having taken off my clothes, the scarf-sized towel I had been sold at reception felt small.

But Tenzan rotenburo (open-air bath) was an unexpectedly easy and sensual introduction to time off, Japanese style. First, the ritual washing, in a line of women crouched on tiny stools in front of steam-fogged mirrors, rinsing themselves repeatedly with water from wooden bowls. Then the bathing: two hours of increasing sedation in a series of open-air pools sheltering against the rump of a hill thick with bamboo.

Bright January sunshine cast scissor-sharp shadows on to steaming limbs as bathers clambered delicately in and out of the water. Learning the protocol, I made a number of lazy circuits – towel neatly folded on my head – from warm water, to bubbling and hot, to hotter, to very hot, to the skin-shocking cold plunge. Only the lacquered-wood trough proved too much. After only 20 seconds in its angry heat, I left the line of smiling bathers.

Redressed, women and men rejoined each other to sit or lie on crowded tatami-mat platforms. I watched teenagers play chess, my head next to the bare feet of an old lady eating crackers. I felt relaxed and clean, and not quite so English.

Tenzan is only one of many public baths that pepper Hakone, a region centred on a circuit of thermal spring (onsen) towns cradled in a dormant crater near Mount Fuji. In Shogunate times, Hakone was a checkpoint on Tokaido Highway, between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo). Today, being within two hours via rail from the capital, Hakone is a handy pressure valve for the seething, space-hungry city, making it one of Japan's most popular resorts.

Ferried through impressive scenery on a network of trams, buses and cable-cars, visitors enjoy a strangely bowdlerised version of the great outdoors. Everything is punctual; the drivers wear spotless white gloves; the stations have the cosy feel of the West Country circa 1961. But the pace is far from sedate; most Japanese tourists follow one of Hakone's convenient (a top-billing Japanese adjective) "recommended courses". At each stop-point, there is a prescribed experience to be had. Everyone has it, and moves on. It's exasperating but the pre-packaged fun can prove seductive. For our round trip we chose a classic course: lucky eggs, airborne thrills, pirate galleon.

Eating an egg boiled black by the putty-coloured waters of a hot spring is the centrepiece moment of the nature trail at Owakudani ("Greater Boiling Valley"); each egg is meant to add a year to your life. As we arrived the stinking, sulphur-drenched mountainside released plumes of steam. The chilly air, blind-eyed buildings and the light-entertainment music delivered in bursts by a hidden PA system created unnerving echoes of The Shining. Added to this was a real risk: "Warning!!! A lot of injurious volcanic gas are drifting around this trail."

Then into a cable-car, swinging across Bond-set pine forests and through clanking way-stations down to Lake Ashi. With a plunging shoreline, it is straight out of a Japanese ink drawing. After a day in the slightly surreal atmosphere of Hakone, the arrival of our transport across the water – officially, a faithful replica of a 17th-century English "battleship", but in fact, more a burger-joint pastiche complete with life-sized pirates – almost made sense. Thirty minutes of "cruising" later and we were deposited at Hakone-Machi, anodyne home to a preserved section of the Tokaido Highway. But having had enough of directed activity, we got straight on the bus for The Fujiya in Miyanoshita. Opened in 1878, The Fujiya was Japan's first Western-style hotel. Once visited by John and Yoko, it is still popular with the great and good.

Hakone is not a cheap place to stay, unless you opt for a minshuku guesthouse. Our breakfast-only deal forced us out into Sengokuhara, where taking a risk on a dingy bar delivered more unwrapped Japan: getting drunk with a septuagenarian nappy-exporter who plied us with gingko nuts, Kirin and sake, and showed us her best yoga positions. Only a last-day sighting of Mount Fuji in a dustsheet of freshly laid snow was enough to take our minds off our crawling hangovers.

The Facts

Getting there

These airlines fly direct to Tokyo:

Virgin Atlantic (01293-747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com); British Airways (0845-773 3377; www.british-airways.com); All Nippon Airways (020-7224 8866; www.fly-ana.com); and Japan Airlines (08457 747 700; www.jal.com). Trailfinders Worldwide (020-7628 7628; www.trailfinders.com) offers return fares for £535 plus taxes with Virgin Atlantic, or £358 plus taxes with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.

Being there

Tenzan Rotenburo, Yumoto-Chaya, Hakone, is open 9am­11pm. Entrance: £5.

Hakone Open-Air Museum is near Chokoku-no-Mori station, Hakone (00 81 460 21161). Entrance: £9

Fujiya Hotel, Miyanoshita, Hakone (00 81 4602 2211; www.fujiyahotel.co.jp). Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse, Sengokuhara, Hakone (00 81 4604 6577; www.fujihakone.com) Single rooms from £28, double rooms from £55.

Further information

Odakyu Railways ( www.odakyu-group.co.jp/english/) runs a pass scheme that allows unlimited travel on all forms of transport in the area.

The Welcome Inn Group ( www.itcj.or.jp) offers reasonably priced accommodation as does the Japanese Inn Group ( www.members.aol.com/jinngroup).

Outdoor Japan ( www.outdoorjapan.com/onsen-kanagawa.html).

The Japan National Travel Organisation (020-7734 9638, www.jnto.go.jp).

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