Kuro-tamago: black eggs
This is really a must-do while at Owakudani Hot Springs. At the point where the path divides to make a loop around the geysers there is a small hut and in one of the pools nearby a man is, yes, he is boiling eggs! Make sure you buy one of these at the hut, as eating one is said to add seven years to your life! They look black but are just ordinary chicken eggs but the shell turns black due to being boiled in the hot sulphur spring. You can buy them in bags of five but it isn’t advised to eat more than two, however desperate you are for those extra years! However one guy in our group ate three and didn’t seem to suffer any ill effects, although whether he has been successful in adding 21 years to his life remains to be seen!
Once you can get over the blackness of the shell I found these really don’t taste much different to regularly boiled eggs. The bags have sachets of salt in them if you want to add that but I recommend being a bit sparing with it as the eggs seemed to me to be already a little salty from the chemicals in the water.
If you really don’t fancy the eggs, or want something sweet to take the taste away afterwards, the hut also sells chocolate-covered almonds – presumably because their pale interior and dark coating mimic the eggs. I bought a bag of these too, to share with the group, and they were delicious!
Next tip: Japan’s icon
- National/State Park
Himitsu-Bako and Yosegi Zaiku
After lunch Andrew suggested that we visit a shop where a craftsman would demonstrate how Hakone’s famous secret boxes are made. As we approached the shop and entered I was anticipating the all too common “quick demo then hard sell to the gullible tourists” that we have experienced in some other places, but this was much more than that – we saw a real craftsman at work.
The traditional craft of the Himitsu-Bako, or Secret Box, is over 100 years old. The boxes are made in various complexities, and require a precise series of small moves to open them. The difficulty of opening a box goes up as the number of sliding panels involved increases. They must be manipulated in the correct sequence, and there can be as few as two moves needed, or (so I have read) as many as 1,500! But most usual are boxes ranging from five to around 60 moves. The number of moves is one factor in determining the price; the size and (most important) quality of craftsmanship are the others.
However, the craftsman we met is not a maker of secret boxes, yet his work is just as skilful, just as traditional and an important element in the intrigue of a secret box. Many of these are covered in intricate inlaid patterns that mask the secret panels that are the key to eventually opening the box. The technique used to make these patterns is known as Yosegi Zaiku and it originated in the late Edo Period. The Hakone Mountains are noted for their great variety of trees and the local craftsmen make the most of the various natural colours of woods to create these intricate designs. The one we met also made beautiful marquetry pictures known as Japanese inlay work or Zougan, but it was the Yosegi Zaiku techniques that he demonstrated to us. The patterns are created by assembling together thin sticks of wood in different colours and then shaving very thin layers off the assembly across the grain to reveal the design. By using the wide variety of tree species and colours available here, he can create complex and surprisingly vivid designs. The thin layers can be applied not only to the secret boxes but to many other items, from coasters to furniture.
As we watched the demonstration the man shaved off and passed round a number of strips, enough for us each to have one as a souvenir. He also showed us how the secret boxes worked. There was absolutely no pressure to buy, but of course we were all intrigued by the boxes and we all browsed around the shop, with several of us succumbing to temptation. Chris and I bought a small seven move box for which we paid about 1,500¥ (just over £9 or $14).
If you want to read more about these unique crafts, there is a fascinating description of the secret boxes by one of the master craftsmen, Yoshio Okiyama and an account of how Yosegi Zaiku is produced.
The shop is in Hakone-Machi near the Hakone Checkpoint (on your left as you walk towards the latter).
Next tip: the nearby Hakone Checkpoint
- Arts and Culture
Koto music and kimono
When staying in the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse we had the opportunity to hear some traditional music played on the koto. This is a traditional stringed instrument, played horizontally on the floor. The 13 strings sit on moveable bridges which can be adjusted to change the pitch.
Our hostess had invited a local woman, a retired teacher who has been playing the koto for a number of years, to give us a demonstration. She had set up a small area in the lounge with a screen as backdrop and fabrics to create a sort of stage. She started by explaining something about the instrument and the different styles of playing, both traditional and more modern - she herself plays in a traditional style. She then told us the story of the song she would perform - a cheery piece about a general who kills a young boy fighting on the opposing side despite realising how much he reminds him of his own son, and afterwards feels such remorse that he renounces warfare and becomes a monk. Then she played and sang.
I think you maybe need to have grown up listening to traditional Japanese music, or to have had you ear trained over many years, as to most of us it seemed very strange, even discordant - see my short video. But it was certainly interesting, and the performer couldn't have been more charming. As well as singing and playing for us she had brought gifts for each of us of origami figures, little dolls which she asked that we take with us on our journey and remember her as we travelled. I will certainly do so.
She also brought some kimono and with the help of the guest house owner and one of the staff offered to dress a few of us up in them so we could find out for ourselves what it was like to wear one. I volunteered and loved the experience of wearing such a beautiful garment, though it was a revelation to see how much binding, padding and clipping goes into the dressing process.
Next tip: a good dinner for fish lovers
- Arts and Culture
The carp is the fish most frequently used for Japanese decorative purposes. Mythology identifies the carp as the messenger of the gods. Beginning in China and later throughout the Far East, this fish was recognized for its strength, intelligence, and endurance. In the period leading up to Children's Day (5 May) carp banners classically on bamboo poles are raised throughout Japan to wish the children similar characteristics of strength and endurance. Seeing a carp during a dream is considered an omen of good luck.
At the entrance to any Shinto shrine, worshippers pass under a torii gate. The torii symbolizes a perch for the mythical birds that announced the dawn and called out the sun goddess Amaterasu. Passing under the torii cleanses the mind of the worshiper prior to prayer. The largest torii is at Nikko at the entrance to the Tokugawa shrine. Other giant toriis are in Kyoto and Kamakura. This torii lies on the shore of lovely Lake Hakone
Well Endowed Hedgehogs Prevail
Throughout the region, look out for ceramic hedgehogs decorating the gardens of many houses.
Generally standing upright and gazing purposefully skywards, these cute little creatures invariably sport impressively enhanced anatomical attributes that must make them the envy of the hedgehog world.
Apparently a good luck symbol, they bring wealth and success to the household. No wonder they look so self satisfied.
- Family Travel
Blaming others for own faults. Not in Japan
I am asked or almost on daily basis about how is like to live in Japan? "Two extremes!" I 've been told, regarding my "Latin culture" and the Japanese ways.
Well , it is not that different if you pay attention to the details and forget a little bit about the many times digested predjuices you could have about Far East and "Latin Culture". But there is, indeed, a big difference in how the regular Japanese citizen tackles certain problems. In case of failure or accident, the Japanese would never automatically blaim others to save face and responsability. Perhaps, very innocently, it will make an introspective analysis of his/her faults and will come up with a more balanced view. If it has to accept a degree of responability, or the whole responsability, it will.
I have learned a lot in this in 20 years, but I do recognize that I still get very upset when I have to deal with western people that automatically blaim others, and happily call name others, when failure and/or accidents occurred because their own faults.
- Luxury Travel