Off the Beaten Path
I feel like I am 6-years old and my Mom is nagging me to take a bath while I am watching my favorite cartoon on Sunday night. “Come on take bath” says our Japanese host at Fukuzumiro Ryokan in Hakone. “Hai. Thank you. After the music finishes” I tell her. “I serve dinner, take bath” she says again. Trying not to be rude, I turn back listening to the mysterious and calming Japanese live music.
Hakone is a hot-spring town approximately one hour with bullet train from Tokyo. The small, old town is known to have the best views of the Mount Fuji. Since our trip was planned for the last days of May, the cold mountain onsen seemed to be the perfect stop on the way to Kyoto. The town is very much known to the Japanese and somewhat mentioned to foreign tourists. The Japanese tourists visit the town on the weekends to relax, bond with nature and go back to their cultural roots. No wonder, even two months prior to our visit, it was still very hard to find vacancies.
The small built lady in traditional Japanese clothes who greeted us when we checked in mentioned that there will be music played at 2:00 pm and we should just grab lunch and come back. Another Japanese lady, with less command of the English language greeted us when we got back. She rushed to grab slippers, while the male host ran to grab a towel to dry my rain jacket. He took my purse and followed me all the way to our room with a towel in his hand. As I was entering our room that was once accommodated by a Nobel prize winning Japanese writer , “Ohh… No! Slippers!” cried our host, almost in pain. My husband was also in disbelief in my western behavior “Honey, take off your slippers when entering the room”. With embarrassment and apology, I took off my slippers as we entered our riverside view room.
The lime green background from the Japanese maple trees lighted our room. The room floor was covered with thinly woven tatami mats and was decorated minimally with a low table, two chairs without legs, a mirror and a ten inch TV.
After the check in procedure was completed in our room we walked to the big room where the music was going to be played. We could hear the whistling sounds of Japanese flutes as we approached. We were greeted with bows as we entered. About 30 people were sitting on the floor while seven people were playing traditional Japanese music in front of them. Three men played flutes called hichiriki, three women played guitar-like instruments called shamisen and the oldest lady in the group played a six feet by one feet wood instrument called koto with strings. In the meantime, our host brought us short chairs assuming we couldn’t sit long on the floor. We told her, we were comfortable just as we are as we sat cross-legged on our comfy pillows with Japanese motives. The old lady playing the koto sang a song which I didn’t understand. However, from the soft, nasal sounds of the hichikiri I assumed it was a sad story about love.
A 40-45 year old man, with grey beard and a smile approached us as the music came to a halt. “Coffee break” he said as we laughed. With Japanese hospitality he invited us to the joined tables in the back. “Please, join us for tea” he said. While we sipped our teas, the kind gentleman told us his experiences during his two months trip on the “silk road” after he learned that we were from Turkey. He mentioned that they were Japanese traditional music teachers at a local university that got together for the weekend. As we sat together and enjoyed green tea with 30 other Japanese people while sharing stories, we were able to experience a true Japanese experience for a moment… forgetting we were tourists.
The soft rain polished the dark green leaves of the small trees that were lining the big room. The musicians took pictures of the whole group including ourselves after an hour and a half of music treat. As we were mentioning to the group how we appreciated their kindness and music our host came to me one last time “Come on take bath. I serve food” as if she blowed the whistle at the end of a play date that I never wanted to end. “OK”, I obeyed…
After our long hot bath in the wood barrel tub, we enjoyed a 14-course kaiseki dinner with hot sake. The futons were laid on the floor when we got back from washing our hands in the common bathroom. When we made our reservations at this well-respected Japanese inn we expected to experience good food and a hot bath.
The Japanese truly know what fine living is. Good food, a calming long bath and music for the heart. In the small town of Hakone, at what we expected to be just another transition point of our trip, we experienced a true Japanese weekend getaway with superb food, hot spring mineral baths and the art of traditional Japanese music.