May 5 (until dinner)

We woke up and savored one last hotel Okura breakfast. Checkout wasn’t till noon so we decided to pack up and leave our bags while we ventured out to Tokyo Station and a quick waltz through the imperial gardens.

Unfortunately the gardens are closed on Sundays. We walked around the large parking lot flanking the imperial palace and determined that most of what the area had to offer was closed. Bummer.

We headed into Tokyo Station in search of shinkansen tickets and the Rilakkuma store. We found both, but first we stopped for a quick late morning snack of quiche and pancakes at one of the few restaurants in tokyo station that seem to have seats (the rest are takeaway counters).

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We looped back to hotel Okura to check out and grab lunch. I remember feeling like I was starting to get the hang of the metro system, at least the small part of it near our hotel. It was sad to leave hotel Okura but I was excited for a new experience, one that felt more authentically japanese and less like the japanese doing their best impression of the French. Plus, some loud american douchebag was holding court in the lobby, explaining japanese culture to his companions and generally embarrassing his countrymen. Leave it to some dad from North Dakota to ruin Tokyo.

We arrived at Tokyo station just in time. Our shinkansen was departing in fifteen minutes. I misread a sign and Google maps had out-of-date info so we went to the wrong platform before quickly turning around and pulling up to our reserved car a mere three minutes before our departure time. Tokyo station is very chaotic; despite the best efforts at organization the pure tonnage of travelers and destinations makes the system break down a bit. Nevertheless we made it!

We took the bullet train southwest towards hakone, passing through an industrial district and then a collection of densly-packed neighborhoods. Where do these people grocery shop, I wondered. What is their Tokyo like?

The shinkansen wasn’t very crowded, but I did have my first overweight japanese sighting-A young couple carrying McDonald’s that sat down across the aisle from us. I wondered if now that we were outside tokyo’s ritziest areas if we might see less opulent markers of wealth. In a blink it was time to get off the train at Odawara.

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Odawara station was smaller and much older than tokyo station, though it had a large atrium with local restaurants. We followed signs for the bus stop and found ourselves in the middle of a parade! Just outside the shinkansen station a local parade was in full bloom- groups of men were carrying totems lifted on wooden beams in some kind of race-like tradition. The weight of the totem caused the men to tilt and weave in various directions, and at a certain point they all started running down the road with backup from their friends who were chanting at them. A large crowd had gathered to watch the proceeding and a small group of drummers accompanied the proceedings.

While this was going on I attempted to secure our bus tickets. I flagged down a bus attendant, told him where we needed to go, and he told us to go to bus 3. Then we chatted a bit about the parade and where I was from and how today was Children’s Day, a big holiday in Japan that I’m familiar with from studying japanese in school. Then he fulfilled a secret dream of mine by complimenting my Japanese! I felt so validated. In downtown Tokyo for efficiency’s sake people switch to English at the first sign that you’re struggling to produce fluent japanese, but this bus attendant in Odawara didn’t speak English, so we had to make it work! It wasn’t award winning, but my Japanese language confidence was buoyed, albeit temporarily.

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The bus was confusing. We didn’t pay before we got on, and I tried to ask someone how much it was but they were very annoyed with me. We also missed the area of the bus designated for luggage, so we held on to our luggage in our seat before it became apparent that we were just in everyone’s way. We moved to the luggage area and decided to stand. Then it got interesting.

It turns out that despite the great chat we had with the bus attendant, we weren’t really on the right bus. Or at least, we weren’t on the bus that stopped at all the stops we thought it would stop at. Plus we were starting to ascend rapidly on a series of switchbacks on a very narrow road. It reminded me of the drive from the airport in Italy to Spoleto. We were standing in the car doing our best to fight the g forces that the switchbacks provided, all while intermittently checking the phone to see if we were headed in the right direction. We got off when our blue GPS dot was pretty close to our ryokan, but it wasn’t quite the right stop. Lani had helped a passenger on the bus with her hair clip, and she and her boyfriend had gotten off at the same stop. They helped us find our way; we dragged our suitcases down a few cobbled streets in a verdant, peaceful area that reminded me of Colorado and pulled up at Mizunoto Onsen.

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This is where my Japanese confidence bubble burst a little. It was clear that we were now in an area where catering to foreigners is not a priority. Our concierge knew a little English, but there was a bit of confusion around the dinner menu. She showed me a menu and asked me to do something; I thought we were ordering ahead so I told her that I liked meat and fish and my wife likes vegetables. That wasn’t right. I just said “anything is fine” but she insisted and pointed to the menu. The menu was mostly unfamiliar kanji so we tried to use the visual translator app and it didn’t work. After about 10 awkward minutes of trying to communicate she said in English “tonight is japanese hot pot, tomorrow is barbecue”. So maybe there was never a choice after all? She explained how the hot springs work and gave us our key. Now Im in our room waiting for dinner and writing this out.

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About the author

Joe Duran

Editor Emeritus at Team Lunch.