It was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone. Across the valley, at the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan, other Leeds girls were revealing their naked curves to the cool night air...
That's one hot tub
Sake. I wish I’d finished my glass of sake. We had eaten an exquisite meal garnished with gingko berries and berry-bright pickles and I hadn’t quite had space to finish the fiery glass of sake that accompanied it. Mistake. Stepping into the steam-filled bathroom of the roten-buro with only a small hand towel to preserve any remaining vestiges of modesty would have been marginally easier with a belly full of sake. The English, unlike the Japanese, do not do naked without a certain amount of angst.
Everywhere I looked, or rather pretended not to look, women and children wandered unselfconsciously between the washing stations and an enormous sliding glass door, which led outside to the onsen. Picking up a basin and a stool, as I had been shown, I set about scrubbing myself clean inside a small cubicle. It was time to take the plunge.
Outside the bathroom, under a starry night sky, pools overflowed with water bubbling up from the hot springs deep within the mountainside. Women, their hand-towels folded neatly atop their heads, bobbed quietly in the swirling water, like perfectly formed gyoza steaming gently in a pan full of fragrant broth. The first few moments in the pool were extraordinary. A full bath tub is one thing but an overflowing onsen, five feet deep and eight feet wide, is as near to a return to the womb as I can imagine. It took my breath away and I felt my eyes fill with tears as I sank down into the rocky depths of the pool.
I never did attain the elegant demeanour of the Japanese women in the onsen. Instead, I wandered from pool to Jacuzzi to waterfall, turning a slightly deeper shade of pink with each mineral-infused immersion until, my head woozy with the sulphur-scented steam, I could take no more. I stood, looking like a freshly poached lobster, knee deep in the only cold pool I could find and watched as clouds of steam evaporated from my skin into the pitch black starry sky.
Persimmons, Picassos and Moore
The scarlet-red mountain train switches back not once but three times on its steep climb up to the Hakone Open Air Museum. It crosses deep ravines filled with tumbling white streams and comes to a halt at a station a few hundred yards from the museum entrance. The air at this height is fresh and clean, the skies vast and a deep, deep blue. Mount Fuji is less than 20 miles away.
Set against huge forested peaks, the solid bronze works of Henry Moore, my fellow naked northern women, contrast spectacularly with their surroundings. An Antony Gormley figure of a naked man has given up trying to compete with the views and lies face-down and spread-eagled in the green grass of the grounds, his metallic buttocks glinting in the late afternoon sun.
A path, tree-lined with ripe persimmons and fiery maple leaves, winds through the grounds. At the far end of the museum's grounds, a pavillion houses two floors of work by Pablo Picasso. These include prints, photographs, ceramics - and the most exquisite milk jug I have ever seen.
Back in the open air, beneath a long line of parasols, visitors sit, side by side, their knees exposed and their feet immersed in the flowing waters of the ‘“Hot Foot” Hot-Spring-Foot-Bath’. A chance to pause amid the sculptures, the trees, the mountains, the clouds and to absorb this superb collection of some of man’s finest artistic endeavours against the incredible bounty of the natural world.
Smoked fish ‘owls’ and mochi: shopping in Hakone
A wide, white river tumbles through Hakone. A solitary grey heron stands knee deep in the foaming stream, watching for its next meal. Behind the river a long line of shops spill their wares onto the pavements. Displays of smoked fish, filleted to look like the owls for which the region is famed, stare out with wide hollow eyes at passers-by. Ceramic plates offer tastes of rice cakes, wasabi and sticky black mochi and, in one shop, an enormous glass-fronted crepe-making machine stamps the small Japanese symbol for ‘hot spring’ on tiny hot pancakes.
Across the Yaei Bridge, overlooking the river, a wooden-fronted restaurant serves bowls of steaming sansai-soba, its noodles handmade in the kitchen, its garnish of pickled edible wild grass gathered from the surrounding fields. The dashi-based broth is deeply savoury, the noodles perfect and, with a bottle of cold Asahi beer, the meal somehow manages to bring together the enormous natural elements of this region of Japan with the subtlest intervention from man. After all, someone had to go out into that staggering countryside and pick the wild grass!
Where to stay
Hotel Okada: the Okada Hotel has both Japanese and Western-style rooms available. A mini bus runs every half hour or so from the car park opposite the train station up to the hotel reception, dropping off at other hotels along the way.
Where to eat
Hatsuhana Soba, Hakone: this, for me, was Japanese dining at its simplest and best. The interior featured a large lump of polished tree, a knobbly gnarled lump of wood that would have been found on the site of the restaurant and so now holds pride of place amongst the solid wooden tables and booths, a sign of the old being prized alongside the new. The setting, on the banks of the river, is quietly spectacular and it was quiet inside when we visited, populated by two tables of young couples taking some time to eat together in the early evening. Hatsuhana is “a lovely place!” according to my Japanese friend, and I have to agree with her. Food can be ordered by pointing at the laminated menu with descriptions of the dishes in both Japanese and English, and the ingredients to make the noodles and broth at home can be bought (in exquisitely wrapped packets, of course) at the counter. (Hakone-Yumoto-Onsen, five minutes' walk from JR Hakone-Yumoto Station)
Where to relax
Hakone Yumoto Oneday Spa: enter the Hotel Okada, take the lift to the eighth floor and follow the signs. A short walk outside brings you to the spa reception.
Singapore Air flies from the UK to Tokyo. Odayaku Electric Train runs from Tokyo to Hakone.