In a land of ancient rituals, Natasha Dragun immerses herself in the spa culture.
We were supposed to be in Hakone by now. The plan was to pick up the car about noon, enjoy the leisurely one-hour drive from Tokyo, south-west towards the Izu Peninsula, and check in to our hotel in time for a late lunch. Instead, it's dark and raining, and peak-hour traffic clogs the roads.
What we failed to take into consideration was that the 100-kilometre jaunt requires either a map or a decipherable GPS. We have no map and our GPS speaks only Japanese. Albeit polite Japanese: it repeats arigato gozaimasu ("thank you") every time we make a wrong turn.
We finally make it onto the Tomei Expressway, which will take us to Hakone, a resort area in the 1200-square-kilometre Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. As we pick up speed, the bright lights of Tokyo's skyscrapers give way to truck stops and neon-lit "love hotels" with names such as Queen of Hearts and Two Peas in a Pod.
The rain is hammering down on our jelly-bean-shaped Nissan March as we take the precipitous zig-zagging road around Mount Kami, the highest peak in the Hakone Range at 1438 metres. We slow to a crawl for the icy slick that's beginning to form on the asphalt, and then come to a complete stop when a thick fog envelops the car.
It's 9pm by the time we reach Gora, one of the many towns in the Hakone area, and pull in to the Hyatt Regency. "You drove here?" asks the bemused concierge at check-in. "In this rain? In the dark? You'll want directions to the bar."
Shaped by lava flows over tens of thousands of years, Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park begins in the foothills of Mount Fuji and spills south through Hakone to the Izu Hanto, a craggy peninsula that juts into the Pacific. Thanks to its volcanic history, the region is home to more than 2300 hot springs, not to mention some of the best beaches on Honshu.
We spend the morning exploring the small towns around Ashinoko, the beautiful pine-flanked lake that scores the valley. Bypassing numerous galleries, museums and an ancient ropeway to the top of Mount Komagatake, we take our first break at the Hakone Jinja, unmissable for its lipstick-red torii gates. Inside the shrine complex, buildings are hidden among a forest of ancient cedars. Save for a handful of devotees tying paper "wishes" to shrubs, we're alone to wander along the pebbled paths.
We stop for lunch in the small fishing village of Hakone-machi. A wizened noodle-shop owner, who appears as old as the Hakone Jinja herself, serves us ramen with pork and kuro tamago - whole eggs mottled black by the sulphuric water they're boiled in. Local legend has it that each egg you eat will add seven years to your life. I eat three and spend the rest of lunch willing the transformation to take place.
We walk off the meal at the hauntingly beautiful Onshi-Hakone Park, admiring wind-sculpted pine trees that creep up to the Imperial Villa, once the summer palace for Emperor Meiji. In the distance, a boat resembling a pirate galleon floats through the mist en route to Moto-Hakone, the next town along. We take a row boat out onto the water instead, enjoying the first sunshine of the day with a side of cherry blossom-flavoured ice-cream.
That night, we sink into the scalding waters of the Hyatt's Spa Izumi & Onsen, performing alternating rituals of kakeyu (cool showers) and hanshinyoku (submersions in the mineral-rich waters) until our skin is pink and tender. Done up in cotton yakuta robes and slippers, we make our way to the lobby for pre-dinner sake shots and smoked salmon cut straight from the bone. As we doze by the open fire, our drive here seems far away.
Reluctant as we are to shed our yakutas, the promise of yet more hot springs in the historic town of Shuzenji Onsen beckons us southward. The road climbs through pine forest before dropping into a wide valley at the neck of the Izu Peninsula, where a string of small ryokan (traditional inns), rotenburo (outdoor baths) and restaurants cling to the banks of the Kano River.
After checking in to the Asaba Ryokan, built in 1675 and ringed by bamboo, we set off to explore the town's narrow streets on foot.
The Shuzenji temple, from which the town takes its name, is deserted when we arrive, the silence broken only by the incongruous sounds of Moon River, played over the town's loudspeakers every day at dusk.
At an adjoining restaurant we order sweet river fish and roasted boar, a local favourite seasoned with bean paste and served with wild mushrooms and mountain herbs, including hunks of wasabi root.
With fire in our bellies, it seems only fitting to also poach our skin. The most famous hot spring in town is the Tokko-no-yu, dating from AD807, when the Shuzenji temple was also built. Only foot baths are permitted, so we return to Asaba to soak in hinoki tubs overlooking a lake, wondering just how much cooking one's skin can take before one turns into a kuro tomago.
We're expecting a quiet day exploring the west coast of Izu Hanto - it's far less touristy than the east, despite the fact it commands postcard-perfect views of Mount Fuji on a clear day. From Shuzenji, a narrow road follows the torturous coastline down a mountainous spine, broken only by old fishing villages tucked away in sheltered bays. Heading around the tip of the peninsula, our route climbs through forest before emerging at the craggy headland of Irozaki. A tiny shrine perches ominously on the edge of a sheer cliff face; below, the deep-blue Pacific has cut gashes into the land, leaving behind small, rocky islands.
It's dark by the time we reach our guesthouse, a 10-minute drive north of Shimoda on a hill overlooking Shirahama Beach. The long stretch of white sand and crystalline waters is widely regarded as the most beautiful shoreline on the peninsula.
Shimoda's claim to fame dates to 1854, when it served as the landing point for Commodore Matthew Perry's "black ships", marking the end of Japan's era of isolation and the start of diplomatic relations with the US. The town is a neat grid of streets lined with white-plaster houses alongside a canal. On the advice of our guesthouse, we stop at Kiyu for a kaiseki feast that begins with kinme, a snapper-like fish that is steamed with mirrin and scallions, and ends hours later with a crab omelet and horse mackerel and plenty of Kirin beer.
Although the expressway we came in on is the fastest way back to Tokyo, we decide to prolong our journey and take the eastern coastal road up the peninsula, along the Jogasaki Coast to Sagami Bay. As expected, the scenery - Sea World, mega-malls, cruise liners - proves to be the yang to the west coast's yin, and for the first time in days we find ourselves negotiating traffic jams. Much too soon, Tokyo's skyscrapers appear. By the time we hit town, the Nissan's GPS is chattering directions again: arigato gozaimasu one final time, before falling silent.
Getting there: JAL offers flights from major Australian capitals to Tokyo. Flights from Sydney to Tokyo start from about $1485, return.
Travelling there: A number of companies offer car-rental services from Tokyo, including Expedia, expedia.com.au. Be sure to ask for an English-language GPS. Alternatively, the Izu Peninsula is extremely well connected by bullet train. www.jreast.co.jp.
Staying there: In Hakone, be sure to check in to the luxe Hyatt Regency Hakone Resort and Spa, with its luscious onsen, paired-back rooms and happy-hour drinks around an open fire. Rooms from $311. hakone.regency.hyatt.com.
In Shuzenji Onsen, the historic Asaba Ryokan offers half-board rates from $849.
Shimoda is home to some big-name, but often soulless, hotels as well as a number of character-filled guesthouses. We checked in to the simple Pension Sakuraya, which offers both Japanese- and Western-style rooms with en suite bathrooms from $60, bed and breakfast.
Hot stuff: onsen etiquette
Japan's onsen (thermal baths) are widely regarded as having curative properties, and many people use them to treat skin and muscle conditions. Others just go to relax and unwind. Whatever your reason for visiting, keep these spa etiquette tips in mind:
- Onsen are for soaking in only — be sure to wash yourself before you get in the baths. While some onsen provide soap, shampoo and towels, many don't, so it's always best to bring your own.
- Don't even think about wearing your swimsuit into the baths — most hot springs are enjoyed naked and are segregated by gender as a result. You can carry a small towel with you for modesty when you're not soaking, but don't take it into the water with you. Rest your towel on the rim of the bath or put it on your head.
- Ease into the water — don't splash or dive. This is for the comfort of those around you as well as your own safety. While some onsen offer chilled baths, most pools are hot and many can be above 40 degrees.
- After you've finished soaking, avoid rinsing off so that you let the mineral-rich waters have full effect on your skin.
- Check the onsen's policy on tattoos before you arrive. If you have large and obvious tattoos, you may be refused entry into some public bathhouses (tattoos in Japan often indicate gangster ties). Some ryokan offer family-style baths that you can book for private soaking sessions.