Days 4&5: Hakone!!!

By Jessica and Blaise

Day 4: Hakone
City of hot springs and hills
Time to go explore!

By bullet train and bus we traveled to Hakone, a mountain city west of Tokyo. Upon arrival we checked in to the Fuji-Hakone Guest House.

Something we noticed as we walked around was the difference in demographics between Hakone and Tokyo. The population here is much older and the general atmosphere is more relaxed. Actually, the overall population of Japan is older than that of most other countries, and has been an increasing cause for concern.

After checking in, we were ready to explore! The first thing we did was ride the Hakone cable cars up the mountainside. The view was spectacular – we could see for miles in every direction over the tree-covered landscape. Our first destination was the hot springs. According to local lore, if you eat an egg that has been hard-boiled in the sulfur water it will add three years to your life (or seven, depending on who you ask). Most of us tried an egg when we got to the springs. Interestingly enough, the sulfur turns the egg shell black.

Hakone is an important town historically due to its location: it is where the Tokaido checkpoint is. This was where people going between Kyoto and Edo (modern-day Tokyo) were searched. The checkpoint was settled in 1619 and was one of 52 other checkpoints. These were all settled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, but the one in Hakone is considered to be the biggest and most important of all.

People going through the checkpoint were searched for weapons and women. Weapons were restricted in Edo and the women were not allowed to leave Edo.

After visiting the restored Tokaido checkpoint and museum, we walked down Cedar Avenue. This historic road is part of Old Tokaido Road and is where the officials passed by. The cedar trees that line the way were planted over 400 years ago by Matsudaira Masatsun, and is now registered as a national historic site.

After walking through Cedar Avenue, we arrived at the Hakone Shinto Shrine.  This shrine is located right along the Ashi Lake.  The shrine has Torii gates located on all sides, including the traditional entrance which is located on the lake.  This shrine had a water dragon theme.  Water dragons could be seen at the purifying stations, among many areas.  Legend tells us the a dragon lives at the bottom of lake, but we did not get a chance to see it.

Throughout the second day we were treated to the magnificent view of Mt. Fuji.  This was especially exciting as it was covered by clouds for the entire first day.  We were all amazed by how we could not see Mt. Fuji at all the first day, but be able to see it so easily the very next day. It was truly an amazing view!

(The whole group minus Dr. Boss with Mt. Fuji in the background)

After long days, we would eat dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant.  The second night we were able to eat a meal while sitting on mats on the ground.  Despite my lack of flexibility, I (Blaise) quite enjoyed this experience.  The favorite meals included curry and ramen, and many of us were introduced to green tea soda for the first time.

The perfect way to end the night was relaxing in the outdoor Onsen (hot spring).  After properly cleansing ourselves in the showers, we found the warm water very relaxing and therapeutic.

Tomorrow we will be traveling by bus and bullet train to Kyoto.

First you are hidden,
Then you come out of nowhere,
Must be Mt. Fuji.

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May 1st: our trip to Kamakura!


By Lauren and Mitch

Today the sun decided to shine on us for our day trip to Kamakura, which was much appreciated after the rain yesterday. Kamakura is very important to the history of Japan, being the birthplace of the first shogunate family. Many well known temples and shrines can be found in the area and we made it our mission to visit two of the most popular and one off the beaten track.

The train ride was a great start—we were all treated like celebrities by the school girls on the train. However, Mitch was the main attraction once he stood up from his seat! We all gladly posed with the traditional “peace sign” (while Mitch was flocked by the students for one final picture after our departure).

Kōtoku-in was the first place we visited, which is home to the Daibutsu, the Great Buddha. Dr. Boss instructed students in the traditional cleansing ritual and then set the students loose to explore. Rounding the corner into the main area yielded the main attraction: the 40 foot iron Buddha sitting in meditation. The Great Buddha is hollow and for the low cost of 20¥ (~20¢) visitors are allowed to climb inside and view the structural integrity of the Buddha. The Great Buddha was constructed using 36 molded casts which fit together with a unique slotted technique, which was only ever used in the Great Buddha. Though very loud and crowded, many took the time to pray and give their respects before the Buddha, which was very peaceful and humbling to watch amongst the hustle and bustle.

Your bloggers Mitch and Lauren in front of the Daibutsu

Your bloggers Mitch and Lauren in front of the Daibutsu

Our next destination was the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Shinto shrine. Devoted to the war god, the massive shrine is cut out of the hillside, giving an overwhelming feeling of power and intensity. A stone path leads up to the shrine—originally visitors were meant to walk on either side of the path, and save the middle for the gods to tread. Approaching the shrine large stacks of sake—traditional rice wine—are displayed as offerings for the gods. (If they’re going to be visiting, why not have a good time?) We climbed the large staircase to the entrance of the shrine, where prayer takes place. Dr. Boss taught us the traditional way to pray: bow twice, clap twice, bow once again, and begin your prayer. Again, it was very humbling watching all the coins being offered and prayer performed, especially from our own professor. We then explored the rest of the complex which included several other smaller shrines.

Finally, we got back on the train to visit our final destination off the beaten path. Tokeiji Temple, originally a monastery, became the first shelter for battered women. As long as a woman could get herself—even an personal possession such as a hair pin—past the gate, they were welcome in the monastery. After three years of residence they could then commit themselves to the monastery and become a nun. Today, however, Tokeiji is a cemetery for famous and important figures, where visitors can come and pay their respects, meditate, and relax. Unlike our other visits, Tokeiji was absolutely peaceful and relatively unencumbered by a large amount of sight-seers. We took some time to relax and journal. Afterward, feeling refreshed, we headed back to Tokyo via Shinjuku-Station.

Sara on a path leading to the grave markers

Sara on a path leading to the grave markers

Experiencing this traditional sights and places is truly incredible, but I think it’s safe to say that a favorite part of everyone’s day is the food we get to experience! Many of us tried sweet potato ice cream, which was surprisingly refreshing (and delightfully purple); your bloggers for today were lucky enough to get Japanese curry for dinner, which couldn’t have been a better way to end a long, eventful day.

A delicious and filling Curry!

A delicious and filling Curry!

Tomorrow we leave Tokyo for Hakone, where we will be staying at a traditional Japanese guest house. Until then, time to rest our tired feet!

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May Term in Japan

Nine Wartburg College students and their instructor are exploring culture, history, spirituality, and the arts during May Term 2014 in Japan.  The group’s insights and reflections are shared here.

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