Tokyo may be extraordinarily safe, clean and efficient for one of the world's largest cities, but the pace of modern life can still be overwhelming. When stressed-out Tokyoites need a break from the urban intensity, they head an hour or two out of town to places like Hakone, known for its onsen or hot spring resorts.
The first step to getting there is to try and find the right platform at Shinjuku, the world's busiest train station that 3 million people or more travel through each day.
The train to Hakone is the Limited Express Romance Car. It turns out the name simply means that there are no armrests between the seats (don't you just hate how armrests can get in the way of a good romance?)
The front of the train offers a panoramic view, including a distant Mt Fuji.
From Hakone station it is a short taxi ride up the mountain and over the bridge across the Hayakawa River to 'Yama No Chaya', a highly rated ryokan or traditional Japanese inn.
Inside are rooms of tatami floors and sliding screens, very simple and streamlined in the Japanese aesthetic. Guests eat and drink tea around the low table in the centre of the room. Yukata, traditional robes,are worn inside the room and when walking to and from the baths. After dinner, the table is moved and futons set up on the floors for the guests to sleep on.
'Yama No Chaya" has several public baths areas on the property. At different times of the day these are for men or women only. There is also a private bathing area that guests can reserve for up to 45 minutes per day.
To say the water is very warm is an understatement. I've poached salmon at lower temperatures. However the bather quickly adjusts and there is a nice contrast - in winter anyway - between the top of the body exposed to the chilly elements while the bottom half or more of you is submerged in the heat.
Some of the rooms even come with their own private bath.
Breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate. Dinner is kaiseki, a multi-course tasting menu of seasonal and regional specialties. Each night eight or nine courses were served, some made up of multiple small dishes and beautifully presented.
Miki-san was the member of staff who looked after us from the moment we arrived until bowing us out the driveway at the end of our stay. She brought and served all our meals.
A few hours ago the fish for our meal was still swimming around in the waters of the nearby bay, blissfully ignorant that it would shortly be joining us for dinner but shouldn't plan on dessert. (I guess none of us knows what the future holds...)
Always nice to finish with something sweet.
And one doesn't need to worry about going hungry the next morning.
After a couple of days refreshed and restored by relaxation, the waters, the surrounding nature, and the good food and drink, guests are ready to begin their journey back to the metropolis and bid a regretful farewell. But only until the next time....