We spent today touring Hakone National Park, the park in which Mt. Fuji sits. As with so many things we’ve seen in Japan, I find myself somewhat at a loss for words to describe it. The itinerary was straightforward. From our “onsen,” which is a semi-traditional hotel with a hot spring, we caught a bus to a funicular. That took us up a hillside, through a beautiful rhododendron grove, to a gondola station.
We boarded the gondola and soared above a semi-tropical forest, filled with lacy cedars; delicate Japanese maples; upright, feathering bamboo; and a whole lot of other foliage I didn’t recognize. Behind us was a beautiful valley. And then, over a ridge, we suddenly found ourselves staring down into the caldera of a semi-dormant volcano, complete with puffs of sulfurous erupting from fissures in the barren rock.
The gondola ride ended immediately above caldera and, from there, we headed up to the hot springs. And was it hot. Between the blazing sun and the bubbling sulphur pools, it was easily 100 degrees up there. For those of us with wussy Bay Area blood in our veins, that was tough.
The sun had one good effect, though. It momentarily burned away the clouds shrouding Mt. Fuji, and we were lucky enough to see the very top of that perfect volcanic cone rising above the clouds. Then it vanished again. Apparently a lot of people leave Japan without ever having seen the mountain, so we were very fortunate.
After our little Mt. Fuji moment, we hopped onto the gondola again, headed down the other side of the mountain and headed to Lake Aish . On the lake were two European-style pirate ships. Why European-style pirate ships? I have no idea. It’s a Japanese thing.
We caught a pirate ship, which ferried us across the lake. On the other side, we wandered about the town a little, and then hiked toward a second town from which we’d catch the bus back to our hotel. The hike took us along the most humid lake walk I’ve ever experienced. Add to that about 700 stairs, both up and down, and you can imagine how wilted we were, with our fog-bred Bay Area blood.
That’s the itinerary. The shorter version is that Hakone National Park is really lovely. There weren’t actually any stand-outs as compared to other parks which I’ve seen, although I did love that delicate forest.
What’s truly noteworthy, to my mind, isn’t the geography, but is, instead, the culture. To begin within, the Japanese people are so polite and kind. It’s really impossible to imagine the national convulsion that resulted in the Bushido culture and all its attendant cruelties during the 1930s and 1940s. The people we’ve met are so gentle. They truly embraced defeat, and turned it into a kind of cultural victory.
The other thing that so fascinates me is the inefficiency of Japanese culture. On the one hand, the Japanese are highly technical, with computerized train stations, buses, street corners, etc. On the other hand, it seems as if they always have six maniacally polite Japanese people doing the work of one rude Westerner, whether it’s manning the desk at a hot springs resort, directing people onto a bus, checking tickets for an attraction, etc.
I don’t know what Japanese unemployment is, but I’m guessing it’s pretty low, given the sheer numbers of people they assign to every task. Watching them at work, with their exquisite politeness (and their obsession about wrapping and packaging), I kept thinking of that Milton Friedman story about shovels and spoons. You know the one — someone mentioned a government job digging holes with shovels and boasted that it increased employment. Friedman said, if the only thing you want is to increase employment, why not use spoons?
The Japanese use lots of spoons. The thing is, though, that this excessive employment seems to be a product of culture, rather than government policy. Politeness demands that the public and consumers get the kind of attention that only too many employees (by Western standards) can provide.