Editor at large: A visit to Hakone and Odawara Castle

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    A ticket vending machine and menu outside a ramen restaurant in Shinjuku.

    The flight to Tokyo-Narita airport arrives from Seattle while it’s still light outside.

    After flying for nine hours, my brain thinks it should be 9 p.m. I was grateful for the daylight. It kept me awake.

    Plus, from the airport, it takes over an hour on the Narita Express train to get into Tokyo. The train passes through what I would describe as suburban areas. Rolling green hills stretch as far as I can see. Occasionally, we pass rice paddies. Some have workers tending to them. Other areas contain small houses and smaller apartment buildings. It’s pleasant to travel with a view after the flight, where all passengers kept their windows closed so everyone on board could try to get some sleep.

    My husband and I planned to meet at the Shinagawa station. He had arrived in Tokyo a couple of days before, after his business in Nagoya finished earlier than expected.

    From Shinagawa, we took the metro to Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood. We dropped my luggage at the hotel and it was time for dinner.

    We decided on ramen. Up a few blocks from our hotel, we found a restaurant that looked promising. It’s a ticketed ramen place. Outside the restaurant is a ticket vending machine and a weather-proof menu, mostly in Japanese but with some key words provided in English. You make your selection, then purchase a ticket from a the vending machine. Then, you get in line, and when the small counter inside has enough seats for your party, you are invited in. The doorman took our tickets and showed us our seats at the counter.

    Straight ahead are the ramen chefs. While dining, you can watch the chefs assemble bowls of ramen—a ladle of this, two ladles of that, large scoops of broth, then the noodles are expertly placed in the bowl, along with toppings. We both got the pork broth topped with pork, soft-boiled egg and seaweed. The pork and noodles were fresh and tender. The broth was so rich, I had trouble finishing, even thought the only food I had eaten all day was on the plane.

    We spent the rest of the evening walking around the city, taking in the sights of busy streets and tall lit-up signs stretching up Shinjuku’s skyscrapers.

    A torii gate marks the entrance to the path to the Shinto shrine in Hakone.

    The following day was an early day. We spent the morning traveling to Hakone, a smaller town known for its views of nature and a Shinto shrine.

    Before leaving, we stop at Mister Donut for breakfast. We get three donuts to share. First is a bubbly glazed ring. It has a chewier texture than an American raised donut, almost like mochi, but not quite as sticky. A strawberry ring is closer in texture to an American donut, but with a strong strawberry smell. The cream-filled donut is also similar to American cream-filled donuts, but not as sweet. Actually, all of the donuts were not as sweet as what you might expect at home.

    It takes about 20 minutes on the subway to get to a large train station. That train takes about 30 minutes to get to Odawara, where you take a 45-minute bus to get to Hakone.

    The bus ride winds up a mountain pass through bright green forests. It passes several onsens, or traditional public baths based around hot springs, and a few relatively small countryside resort hotels. As we continue our ascent, a lake becomes visible below. That’s our destination.

    Tourists line up to wait for a chance to pose under the torii gate on the water.

    One reason I wanted to visit Hakone was for a sweeping view of rolling hills, and Mount Fuji looming over. However, it was a cloudy day. We got the hillside views, but Mount Fuji was hidden. Luckily, there was still plenty to see in the area. We climbed a meandering path lined with lanterns up to the Shinto shrine. Then, a left turn takes you down a path that ends at a torii gate on the lake. Tourists line up politely and take turns standing under the gate for photos.

    On a clear day, Mt. Fuji would be visible between the two intersecting hillsides.

    After a walk to the other side of the lake, it was time for a snack. We found a place that sells fresh taiyaki, which is sort of like a stuffed fluffy pancake. In Tokyo, they are usually shaped like fish, but here, it was shaped like a heart. I opted for one filled with red bean paste and matcha cream. It was branded with a leaf to indicate its flavor.

    Odawara castle.

    It started to rain, so we made our way back to Odawara. While there, we made a brief stop at Odawara castle. The castle is white and beaming on top of a hill overlooking the area. It was initially built as a stronghold in the 1400s, but the castle there now is a recreation built in the 1960s. The original castle was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1700s and rebuilt. In 1870, the castle was dismantled.

    Customers eat inside a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.

    We returned to Tokyo for dinner—conveyor belt sushi. Sushi in Japan is much simpler than in the States, typically nigiri or a simple roll filled with one or two items. I particularly enjoy the medium-fatty tuna nigiri. Feeling adventurous, we take a plate of wasabi tuna rolls filled with slices of wasabi root and tuna. Most wasabi in the United States is made with horseradish. If you’ve never had true wasabi, it’s an experience that is hard to describe. It’s incredibly spicy, but not in the way a pepper is spicy. The aroma of the wasabi is what burns, and it hits your sinuses hard rather than your mouth. The burn also doesn’t linger at all. We share a six-piece plate, and it’s a struggle to finish, but to us, it was worth the experience.

    – By Natalie Covate

    Natalie Covate, editor at the My Neighborhood News Network, is writing about her latest travel adventure.

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