Bonnie van Dorp navigates Japan’s ‘Golden Route’ by rail, immersing herself in the country’s centuries-old traditions between Tokyo and Kyoto.
Slurping is the best way to eat your soba noodles, my guide Mari explains as we sit barefoot in a beautiful private dining space that once belonged to a wealthy Japanese baron. And although I was taught quite the opposite when it comes to table manners, on this occasion I happily oblige. After all, who am I to question a practice that dates back to the Edo period? We’ve just arrived in Hakone via an express Romancecar rail service from Tokyo, and the traditional soba feast marks our official welcome to this resplendent mountain town.
Bordering Mount Fuji, Hakone is the second stop along Japan’s so-called ‘Golden Route’, a by-rail highlights reel of the country’s most celebrated cultural gems, from Tokyo to Kyoto. Visiting an onsen is one such gem, and Hakone is renowned for its natural hot springs.
Leaving my inhibitions in the locker room along with my clothes, I make my way toward the onsen at Hakone Yutowa, a new hotel that offers a modern take on the traditional ryokan. In the corner there are three bathing stations where I am to purge the day’s impurities before I step into the natural spring. Pretty soon, memories of my red-eye flight from Sydney are cleansed away in the healing waters. I emerge renewed.
The stench of sulphur permeates the gondola as it travels over a volcanic alley created during the most recent eruption of Mount Hakone some 3,000 years ago. I’m on board the Hakone Ropeway aerial lift, which takes me from Sōunzan Station to Ōwakudani. The 30-minute scenic gondola ride is covered by my Hakone Freepass, a ticket to the town’s natural wonders.
Autumn paints the foliage in hues of amber and gold, and in the distance, Lake Ashi glistens. But it’s the legendary view of Mount Fuji that has tourists clambering for a spot by the window to snap photos. The return journey is equally scenic, descending right to the pier of the lake … where a pirate ship is docked, ready to welcome us for a leisurely cruise around the mirror-still waterway.
The evening brings with it a private kaiseki degustation at Hotel Hatsuhana, where we are treated to an eight-course meal crafted using the finest produce sourced from all over Japan. And then there’s the soothing soak in my private onsen, adjoining my oversized suite
Gion with the wind
“If you’re lucky, you might see a geisha,” my new guide Mihoko tells me as we stroll through the streets of Kyoto’s Gion district. But geisha are famously elusive figures, and I am not confident of my chances. I’ve arrived in this oh-so-Zen city via shinkansen (bullet train), just in time for sunset on the third and final leg of the ‘Golden Route’.
Downtown Kyoto is one of the best places in the world to people watch. You’ll see everything from locals adorned in bright yukata (cotton kimonos) running errands to fashionistas bravely breaking conventions in their trendy streetwear. Kyoto is a living, breathing Pinterest board of style inspiration.
As we turn to leave, my travel companion exclaims, “look!” And right ahead, we spot her: an ivory-skinned geisha draped in a red kimono, her ruby lips glowing like street lights. “It’s your lucky day after all,” Mihoko says.
A tale of two mountains
For 1,000 years, the haunting sounds of bonsho (prayer bells) resonated through Kyoto, summoning robed monks to prayer. And today, I hear the very same bells reverberating through the lush cedar groves atop Mount Hiei from serene Enryaku-ji monastery.
Our pilgrimage begins at the centre of it all at Enryaku-ji’s East Pagoda, which contains the eternal Buddhist light: a flame that has been burning since the temple was established by Buddhist pilgrim Saicho some 1,200 years ago.
We take our time on Mount Hiei, hiking the tracks and calling into the many ancient temples that dot the site. But it is nearly impossible to see every temple or shrine in one day as there are nearly 250 of them, all spread across rugged terrain.
The next day brings more hiking as we scale Mount Kurama to Kibune. Along the way, our guide entertains us with spooky tales of the fearsome forest spirits that taught famous samurai Minamoto no Yoshitsune how to wield a sword.
Sayonara … for now
As I am lying in bed at my ritzy suite at The Thousand Kyoto, I can’t help but feel a million worlds away from the humble temples where, just this morning, I had walked in the footsteps of Japan’s holiest monks and hiked through the training ground of the country’s most revered samurai. But that’s Japan for you. It’s a land of surprising experiences. And the ‘Golden Route’? That’s just a teaser for more adventures to come.
When using Keihan Electric Railway, passes are a convenient way to get around, with unlimited rides on Kyoto and Osaka lines and a number of other benefits.
This article originally appeared in volume 36 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.