Smalltown Japan. Odawara and Iwahara

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A family trip to Odawara Castle deserves more than a mere groupfie

Day 5. November 3. All’s well in smalltown Japan, but for the left foot and the stubbornly invisible beach.

We have to be out of Nobuo’s Roppongi apartment by 10 am. The cleaner is an exemplar of punctuality. He is terse but courteous as he waits for the extra 10-15 minutes that we need to dry our hair, gather out stuff strewn across central Tokyo’s ultra prime real estate. In Japan, check-in is never before 3 pm and checkout at precisely at 10 am.

Our next apartment is in a village called Iwahara, a few stations from the town of Odawara, which is connected to Tokyo by shinkansen and takes about an hour or so to reach. The Hakone national park is our destination. I am imagining volcanic rocks and whimsical lava creations. Our chosen apartment is, according to the Airbnb listing, well located for this trip to the park.

We will be activating our JR passes today. We have to reach Tokyo central from Roppongi as passes can be activated only in the major stations. So, back to pulling trolleys on smooth passages, across escalators and elevators.

We glide onto Odawara station in our first-ever shinkansen carriage. The fastest bullet trains are not covered by our 19000 INR seven-day JR pass. Bullet trains have their names. We hop into a Hikari. Or was it a Kodama? There are smoking compartments and first class (Green) compartments. Ours is second class. Plush enough. The water at the taps of the bullet train is not for drinking. Train stewardesses courteously forbid us from drinking it. They primly sit in a cramped cube.

When we reach Odawara station, it is around 12 noon. The TV screen in a tourist information booth relays live pictures of our destination, Hakone. The lake and the area being beamed to us look pedestrian, visibility near zero. Our consultants advise against a trip today. A trip to Hakone (like a trip to Nikko) has to begin early. They tell us to look around Odawara instead, they say it is a pleasant enough place and has its own castle and even a strip of a beach. We are pliant creatures and quickly downgrade our goals. Mindsets are reset with startling speed. We decide to dump our bags in the apartment in Iwahara before taking on Odawara. Iwahara is a 15-minutes train ride from Odawara. The burbs.

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Facade of a regular house in Odawara town.
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The peripheries of Odawara castle

Any residual dismay over the Hakone washout altogether etherizes as serious misfortune is suddenly upon us. Rini’s suitcase is open, the contents splayed on the floor at the foot of the escalator in Odawara station. She seems to have injured herself. I let off a classic scream. Jhini reflexively jumps on the nearest escalator to head down. But the escalator is heading up. She takes an awkward fall, has trouble getting up. We carry on to Iwahara hoping for the best.

We are much taken with Kevin’s Merry Lue guesthouse in the sunny village of Iwahara. It’s a shade before 3 pm and Jhini’s feet are still in shape. The apartment is in the upper floor of a two-storey stone and wood bungalow. It’s a large loft with blonde wooden bookshelves serving as partitions. We sink into real beds, big ones, and try out all the items of furniture like the bear family of Goldilocks. There are pictures, posters, banners and space-specific placards with much associative wordplay. Like the signage in the loo is about fart. Kevin is an English teacher in Iwahara and there are plenty of old snaps of what looks like his pupils and maybe even his family. After Nobuo, this is liberation! Unfortunately, only for this singular night.

We meet an Indian family on the small street below. But they insist they are Malaysians. They are staying in the ground floor of Merry Lue. They too have been suggested Odawara and not Hakone by the booth people. We meet the pseudo Malaysians again on the Odawara castle grounds, where they are loudly bonding as a family by singing Bollywood songs. Rumba Ho, if I remember right.

Jhini is a brave girl. Instead of resting her feet, she is pounding the streets with us. Her gait is distinctly accented now. Anyway, we are off to Odawara-jo, a white castle. Jo is Japanese for castle. It’s a walk down peaceful streets with local elders toddlers and cyclists, and the odd porcelain store and repair shop, a world away from Shibuya Scramble on Halloween night.

We view the castle’s stark white exteriors but choose not to go in. The grounds are dark and dank and crowded with selfie takers and kimono wearers. That done, we go in search of the beach, a modest strip we have been pointedly informed. Jhini’s limp looks painful now. Chandra’s monopod becomes her crutch. We are torn between the beach and the limp. We are still hellbent on the beach. A young (rare) English-speaking cyclist confidently directs us to the beach, says it’s five minutes away. We follow his words, but the well laid out streets at right angles to each other stretch on, one leading to the other. We pass by numerous frontyards, porches with curly iron garden chairs. There is no whiff of salty sea breeze. No beach in sight. We persist, the locals continue trying to help. One even exclaims, ‘Oh bichi!’

By and by, we find ourselves in a family-run store. And start buying breakfast supplies. Here, as we juggle kaki (a juicy fleshy seasonal fruit which looks like an orange tomato) we get into multiple dialogues with everyone around us, still looking for that beach. By now we are also asking for a hospital/x-ray clinic. Expectedly, English is still unknown quantity in smalltown Japan. So our conversations are stilted, jerky and comical. The underlying warmth of the locals needs no translation.

Meanwhile, dusk has abruptly given way to deep night. The store family’s baby is crying, as the mother and father look ahead in wonder and whisper anxiously. The grandmother turns up with a bandage. More help comes from another shopper, a young woman. She is married to a doctor. And lo and behold, she uses her phone as her interpreter. Only later, we reflect on the cream of Japanese hospitality. For now, we must make decisions. We decide we will wait out tonight, wish away Jhini’s pain. Meanwhile, our quest for the modest beach of Odawara gets a quiet burial.

We walk past evening joggers and have a ramen dinner near the station. A middle-aged male walks in. He knows English. Clipped English, it turns out. He stays in London, he tells us, which is why he has no idea about doctors and clinics in this part of the world. Jhini’s foot is so bad that she can barely walk after dinner. But she manages as circulation kicks in. Back in the comfort of the apartment, we drink sake, which we had bought from that friendly store. Jhini’s pain is gone the next day. Just like that.

Meanwhile, I had almost forgotten about a small incident at a salon near Iwahara station. It was around midday, when Rini and I had gone to drop our luggage in the apartment’s garage. As we waited for the return train, my throat felt parched, nearly fractured. Oh for some water. The salon! My hand gestures were however, lost on the hairdresser. So I turned on the tap at the basin, a spur of the moment move. I failed to notice that the faucet was connected to a hand shower, which was facing her. Sometime, during the full hydro assault, she realised that I needed a drink. She rushed indoors and was out in a trice with a glass of tea on a tray. My arigato gozaimasus were gracefully accepted with numerous bows. So I again have proof that Japs can’t be ruffled that easy. And they aren’t the biggest water drinkers in the world.

In conclusion, we should have spent at least two/three night, not one, in Kevin’s apartment. Maybe we would have got our eyeful of Hakone and who knows even walked along Odawara’s unremarkable beach!

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