Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini.               

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Japan on $1000/day
Day 1: Sticker Shock
Day 2: Among the Dead & Dying (Fish)
Day 3: Budda & Broken English
Day 4: Magic Toilets & Poisonous Fish
Day 5: Aircraft and Elevators
Sidebar: An Attitude of Quality
Day 6: Squirming Shrimp & Karaoki
Day 7: Pirate Ships & Long Flat Silver
Day 8: Country Inn at City Prices
Day 9: The Inside Scoop
Day 10: Hot in Hiroshima
Day 11: Castles in the Sky
Day 12: Where the Deer & Bon Jovi Play
Day 13: Doom
Day 14: The Summer Cottage
End: Have Toilet, Will Travel
Japan on $1000 per Day

Day 7: Pirate Ships & Long Flat Silver

We are bound for Hakone, one of Japan’s most popular national parks, where we will use our Hakone Free Pass, which, like everything else in Japan, was very, very expensive.

The local train winds its way up into the mountains, reversing directions at a number of switch-backs (causing the engineer to run from one end of the train to the other).

It eventually dropped us in Miyanoshita, home of the Fujiya Hotel, a majestic Western-style hotel reminiscent of the Awani Hotel in California's Yosemite Valley. The same aged stateliness, the same courteous service that seems to emanate from bygone era.

The Fujiya was built in 1878 and has since served as temporary home to an amazing variety of heads of state as movie stars, from Roosevelt to Gable. You can spend hours just poring over the guest books.

Like everything else in Japan, the Fujiya is shockingly expensive. However, there's a way to spend a weekend in this magic hotel for a remarkably low price through a method we didn't discover until it was far too late.

Don't, I repeat, don't reserve a room at the Fujiya before leaving for Japan. Instead, buy up all the English language newspapers once you arrive. Within, you will discover discount coupons for foreigners, coupons that slash the rates more than in half.

The Japanese understand that those of us from the "second world" can't afford their country. They provide these discounts for those poor foreigners who are living and working in their country. Of course, tourists are fair game. Hence, your travel agent will not be getting you any price breaks.

After settling in, we took the grand tour of the park. You start on the train, then transfer to a cable car, then climb aboard a gondola that carries you high up into the mountains. At the top, you can visit boiling mud pots and fumaroles and partake in a volcano-boiled egg. These sulphurous eggs are reminiscent of the Chinese 1000 year old eggs, which are really only buried in the ground for a month or two I'm told. Both could stand to be buried for a couple hundred more years.

As the gondola continued on down to Lake Ashi, we could spot trouble. Our expected ferry was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we were greeted by the sight of a terrifying pirate ship, onto which were being huslted hundreds of poor, terrified tourists.

You can see the look of pain and horor on this poor child's face as he realizes the fate that awaits him.

With sails a-flyin’, we set out for the east end of the lake, where we visited several more ancient points of interest constructed during the 1960’s. Most notable among them was the Hakone Sekisho, or Checkpoint. When the capitol of Japan was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo several years ago (in 1603), the Shogun set up an elaborate court to which were "invited" all the various local lords, or daimyo. These locals would spend one year in Tokyo helping the Shogun bathe and feed himself and one year back in their own fiefdoms making sure all the peasants paid up.

However, when the daimyos split for home, their wives were invited by the Shogun to stay on, ensuring that the daimyos would not stir up trouble in their homelands while away. This sort-of worked, depending on the quality of the daimyo-spousal relationship.

The Hakone Sekisho was the gateway back to their wives, through which the daimyo were encouraged to pass. The whole thing was a lot like the tollbooth in Blazing Saddles, with a hundred miles of wilderness on each side. It was pretty damned tempting to sneak around, particularly if a long queue had formed.

If you weren't caught, there was absolutely no punishment. If you were, however, the children would be playing jump-roap with your intestines by nightfall. Daimyos tended to wait in line, as did we. No point in taking any chances.

A quick bus ride brought us back to our hotel, where we relaxed for a few hours in our own hot springs bath, able, according to the sign on the wall, to "relieve most human physical and mental miseries."

Dinner was fun. We were the only gaijin in a room filled with Japanese vacationers. The meal was strictly continental, and the sterling silver flatware was appropriate to the occasion. The servers were extremely careful to give everyone exactly the proper implements for each course and to lay them down in exact outside-to-inside order.

We had grown used to routine perfection in Japan, but somehow the servers’ level of concentration and dedication to this task seemed excessive even by Japanese standards. Once we saw people pick up their knives and forks, however, the reason for their care became obvious. Virtually everyone had a different method for wielding the strange implements they had been given.

Some held their knives and forks in the English manner, others in the American manner. Still more held them in ways I have never before witnessed. Had any implement been out of order, people would have been eating their salads with teaspoons and their Rum Babas with shrimp forks.

I gloated at my superiority for around three seconds, until I remembered that I use chopsticks the wrong way. I was trained by a couple of Chinese guys when I was a teenager living in San Francisco’s North Beach. They’re probably still laughing. They taught me the method the Chinese teach their little teeny-weeny kids when they are first starting out. It involves only two fingers, instead of three, and it works, but not as well as the adult method. I got really good at the kid method, in the way some people get really good at hunting-and-pecking on a keyboard. It never seemed worthwhile to back up and learn a whole new method. Except, of course, that no matter where I went in Japan, people kept trying to help me out by teaching me how to hold chopsticks properly. I know how! I’m just a little kid! Leave me alone!

We later learned that some of the happy families in the dining room may have been rented. The Japanese, during their generative years, are mighty busy, so some of them choose to rent a middle-aged couple to spend time with their aging parents, rather than showing up themselves. The cost is $1500/hr for a rent-a-family, which compares favorably with golf, which can run as high as $1600 for a round.

I wonder if Mom and Dad ever end up sending representatives themselves, so that a group of complete strangers ends up making $3000 for eating a meal together? That's almost as much as lawyers get.

A final reminder about hotel reservations: make your own. Going through our travel agent, we were able to enrich Fugiya to the tune of $350.00 per night. Had we called on our own from Japan, we would have gotten the same room for $116.00. Even working through the USA representatives for some of our hotels, we paid more than had we called direct.

A few places just don’t speak English, and you will either have to have a Japanese friend call for you or work through a Japanese travel agent, but in most cases, you can communicate well enough to handle things by yourself. When speech does not seem to be working, you can also fax your request: the Japanese are far better at reading English than they are at listening and speaking.

Making your own reservations is a good plan for almost any country. It takes more work, but you will end up staying in much nicer places just slighly off the beaten path for the same or less money.

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