Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hakone to Osaka--and Live Squid and Raw Horse in Fukuoka

We traveled to Hakone on the 'Romance Train' from Shinjuku station in Tokyo. Frankly, I didn't see what made the car romantic at all, although I admire the efficiency of the train system. The trains are on time, clean, and comfortable. Our hotel, the venerable Hakone Hotel, sits on the site of the original hotel that was opened near the turn of the century. It is literally steps from the calm waters of Lake Ashino and, across the water, looms the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji. The day of our arrival, the weather was crystal-clear and our view of the mountain was captivating. The water was a bright blue, dotted with fishing boats and tourist vessels made to look like pirate ships. One look at Mt. Fuji and it is easy to see why it has captured the imagination over the centuries.

In the morning, before our early departure, I stole a few minutes to walk a bit on what is supposedly the oldest path in Japan, connecting various towns and temples. The path begins on the edge of Hakone and, within minutes, I found myself enveloped in trees as the morning light managed to glimmer through branches and leaves. I stumbled upon a weathered Shinto Gate and, beyond, a series of five stone sculptures. One, the head and torso of a male figure, was nearly covered in moss and looked haunting in the shadows and utter quiet of the woods.

I rejoined the group and we left for Osaka and an overnight stay ay the Osaka Hilton. The schedule was tight as I had to depart to deliver a lecture to the entire staff of Baba Memorial Hospital, a 250 bed facility on the outskirts of Osaka. Following the lecture, Dr. Baba hosted a party for us with an open bar and plenty of food. We had a great time, sampled some interesting food, and enjoyed chatting with our Japanese counterparts.

The next morning, we presented the entire seminar-- five speakers, from 10:00--4:00--to about 120 attendees. As the bell tolled at 4:00, we were hustled to the station to catch a late train for our final destination, Fukuoka, and a two night stay at the Hotel Nikko Hakata. Dinner that night was fascinating. We accompanied our host and guide to a local restaurant and he ordered for us. The first of several courses, in a very traditional restaurant where not a word anywhere was in English, included squid so fresh that the head, it's eyes moving and tentacles thrashing, squirmed about next to the fresh meat we were to consume. When we finished that, they took our hapless squid back to the kitchen to cook up the rest of him. That gave our guide time to point out that a special dish for the evening was horse carpaccio. Having never tasted horse, let alone raw, it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Perhaps it was the sake. None of us could really distinguish it from beef, but it was an experience. At least no one led a horse from the kitchen.

We delivered our final lecture Sunday morning and enjoyed a farewell banquet in the form of a Chinese dinner where much beer and wine were served and gifts exchanged. These people have been so hospitable and friendly that it is hard bidding farewell, and our American delegation got along great. All in all, it was one memorable trip.

I left the others to join my stepson, Hunter, in Tokyo and now await his arrival. We're off tonight for a tour of bars that are supposedly far removed from the beaten path. Stay tuned. Things could get interesting...

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