Japan: Day 4 - Lake Ashinoko

So here's the highlight of today's excursion:
But we'll come back to that later ... After a pretty hectic day yesterday there was no time for any rest today as I had lots to try and do whilst I was still in Hakone before heading to my next destination; Kyoto.

After my first experience of an onsen last night, I booked a private indoor onsen session at the guest house for 6.30am to start the day off right. I see why they're so popular out here, I could definitely get use to starting (and finishing) the day with one.
Breakfast was included with the room booking thanks to InsideJapan, and although it was very basic (bread, cheese, cereal, boiled eggs, fruit etc) it was exactly what I needed. I knew that I was going to be on my feet for most of the day and the weather wasn't looking too good so I needed all the energy I could get.
As I was about to leave the heavens opened up!  Before I came out here I was told not to bring an umbrella because everywhere sells them for cheap ... and they weren't lying! I asked the hotel and they gave me a very strong, good quality umbrella (which took a blasting today with no concern) for a mere 500 yen (£2.75!) So far this has been the best purchase of the trip ... it 100% saved my day.

Another bargain (whilst I'm on the value for money subject) was the luggage courier service. I was thinking I'd have to come back for my large, rather heavy (23kg) rucksack before heading to Kyoto, but I was told just before I left that I could have it couriered to Odawara station to meet me before I left on a same day - a before 2pm service. This service cost a total of £4.95!! How is that even possible? Either way it was a bargain and probably saved me about 2 hours not having to head back to the guest house.

After saying goodbye to my belongings for 6 hours I set out on my way to Togendai Port which was a 20-minute bus ride from outside the guest house. Here I boarded the Hakone sightseeing cruise on a rather extravagant looking ship, including statues of pirates and a 1st class lounge which felt a little like the part of the ship that Jack Dawson was banned from in the Titanic. It's supposedly inspired by sailing warships - there's 3 of them in service on the lake. A strange mix but it worked so what the hell huh? They offer a 1st class service on the ship for an extra 400 yen - only £2.20 (if you have a Hakone Free Pass) which I took them up on and was happy I did when I got on the boat and realised the benefits. The 1st class area is the front half of the boat, both the lounge and the main deck, giving you the best views!
The cruise runs from the north of Lake Ashinoko straight down the middle to it's most southern point at Hakone-Machi Port, before heading east to its final destination; Moto-Hakone Port, which is where I was heading.

As the boat heads down the centre of Lake Ashi you start to feel very small. It's a crater lake that lies along the southwest wall of the caldera of Mount Hakone, a complex volcano. The lake is surrounded from every direction by vast mountains. In this foggy weather you couldn't see their tips which gave the experience a strange haunting feel ... but in a good way. It felt ominous, yet ironically quite peaceful.

The Lake is littered with fisherman, both dotted knee deep along the edges and as well as across the breadth of the Lake in their little boats in twos (some with the old school hats on ... not sure what they're called ... anyone?) I got a little obsessed with trying to get a good shot of them as it was such a peaceful scene. I can see why artists in Japan all those years ago produced so much work focusing on fisherman. It's a very tranquil place to be.

Moto-Hakone Port is most famous for the Hakone Jinja. The Hakone Jinja is a shrine and was founded in 757 during the reign of Emperor Kōshō. The original shrine was at the summit of Mount Komagatake. but the shrine was relocated to Lake Ashi in 1667. You get a pretty good view of the Torri of the shrine as you head to Moto-Hakone Port from Hakone-Machi Port which whet the appetite as this is where I was heading when the ship ended its journey.

Moto-Hakone seems to be a rather run down fisherman's town. The main attraction is obviously the shrine. The shrine buildings are hidden in the dense forest, but are well advertised by its huge torii gates, one standing prominently in the lake and two others over the main street of Moto-Hakone.

The one in the lake is the most famous in the region as it makes for a beautiful photo with the lake in the background. (I also managed to capture one of the sailing ships in the middle! ... take that photographers!)
A path leads from the torii gate in Lake Ashi up a series of steps flanked by lanterns through the forest to the main building of the shrine, which sits peacefully among the tall trees, which again in this foggy weather looked heavenly ... which again added to the experience. The shrine was breathtaking shrouded in mist.
People visit shrines in order to pay respect to the kami or to pray for good fortune. New born babies are traditionally brought to a shrine a few weeks after birth, and many couples hold their wedding ceremonies there. 

One thing I really enjoyed reading (the ones that I could read of course) were the Ema's. Shrine visitors write their wishes on these wooden plates (that are conveniently sold on site) and then leave them at the shrine in the hope that their wishes come true. Most people wish for good health, success in business, passing entrance exams, love or wealth etc. 

There's also a wall of omikuji opposite the shrine. Omikuji are fortune telling paper slips. Randomly drawn (on site), they contain predictions ranging from daikichi ("great good luck") to daikyo ("great bad luck"). By tying the piece of paper around a tree's branch, good fortune will come true or bad fortune can be averted! 

This part of the trip was a great recommendation by InsideJapan and their expertise more than helped with fitting it within my schedule and ensuring that I knew about all the particular amazing sites to incorporate.
From here I ventured to Odawara station which was a bit trickier than expected, mainly because it's Sunday and services are reduced. Once a bus finally came it was rammed and was only going half of the way meaning I had to do the remainder of the journey by train.
Once at Odawara I went and checked out the Odawara castle. Odawara was a stronghold of the Doi clan during the Kamakura period, and a fortified residence built by their collateral branch, the Kobayakawa clan stood on the same site of the present castle. It's at the top of a pretty steep hill which overlooks Odawara. It really is an amazing looking building and puts to shame castles in England such as Dover Castle. I mean how bad ass does this look compared to ours? 
From here I headed back to Odawara station to catch the bullet train to Kyoto. A two hour journey through the Golden Route, the cultural heart of Japan. This journey showed a very different side of Japan. The land was flat as a pancake as far as the eye could see for at least an hour (on a train travelling 200mph!) - lots of farms and factories. 

Once I arrived at Kyoto I took the bus north of Kyoto station for 15 minutes to the apartment where I'm staying tonight courtesy of Japan Experience. It's great to include these within the trip as you get a feel of what it would actually be like to live in these fantastic cities. It makes you feel less like a tourist which is always a good thing. And the views are breathtaking, I'm looking forward to seeing them properly in the morning. 
So that's today's experiences wrapped up. Tomorrow I'll be exploring Kyoto and seeing what it's got to offer.

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