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Atami

Cherry blossom time is the most popular season for tourists in Japan.  We had hoped to catch the last of it but had to be content with the other blossoms in Yamashita Park along the foreshores of Yokohama harbour, where someone flying a drone over the few ships still moored there provided a non-floral interest for several in our group.

That afternoon we headed for Atami, according to our itinerary: "one of Japan’s most famous Onsen (Hot Spring) cities", and the New Fujiya Resort & Spa Hotel.  On the way we got perhaps our best view of the so far elusive Mt Fuji in the far distance.  We could see its snow-caped top but clouds obscured the lower slopes.

 


The top of Mount Fuji - through the mist - left lower centre of image

 

At the hotel we lined up, military style, to be issued with our kukata or onsen kimono, a robe worn over underwear, or not, and to receive wearing instructions - left over right for those identifying as men, right over left for those who identity as women. These are to facilitate using the onsen (hot baths) that are essentially hot pools for naked bathing.  Upon disrobing one is expected to have a shower and be fresh and shiny before getting into the hot tub.  The hotel had a number of these and I checked out a couple.  But the idea of sharing a bath with a naked stranger of the same sex didn't appeal.  Yet I quite liked the yukata.  It was pleasantly breezy and made dining in the huge restaurant with its many self-service bars, featuring different Japanese dishes, a bit like a picnic on a beach. I made several return visits to the sushi, to accompany my warm saké, as the serving sizes of some higher value dishes required several plates to make a meal.

After breakfast I reluctantly surrendered my yukata and we boarded the bus for a trip to Owakudani a volcano at which sulphur is harvested and from which Mt Fuji can again be seen, if lucky.  As I discovered as a schoolboy, hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide soon overwhelm the sense of smell so that being poisoned by them becomes unnoticeable.  This is one suggested solution to the Bogle-Chandler mystery (mentioned briefly elsewhere on this website).  

 

Owakudani  Volcano - Sulphurous emissions and Mt Fuji very faintly in the distance.

 

We had a nice break there, and descended via a scenic cable car, before heading off to taste green tea with partially H2S aestheticised taste buds.

 

The cable car through a pretty forest

 

Near the bottom of the cable (rope) way is the Hakone Peace Park, a nice place, with an emphasis on beauty and calm. Except for a couple of bells. We couldn't ring the big one but the small one got a good hammering by one and all.  The park also features an Indian style stupa, housing the Buddha’s relics, that are defended by seven pairs of different styles of stone lions from seven allegedly Buddhist countries, some of which might be surprised to find themselves included and others distressed to be omitted. These are: India; Thailand; Korea; Malaysia; Hong Kong; Taiwan; and Japan.

 

Hakone Peace Park


A little known fact, that I discovered here, is that the game of 'tennis racquets' that is said to have developed from handball in England and France in Tudor times actually comes from Japan where it had been invented by a Buddhist monk.  But I might have been still recovering from the sulphur.  It was definitely time for tea.

 


Tennis anyone?

 

The tea plantation was aptly named: Maki No Hara, because, unlike the fabled wombat, our guide was maky no hara to leaf.  I'm still blaming the sulphur.

 We were first able to experience the fields first hand.  But definitely no picking the leaves - what me?  Sulphur again.  We learned that tea is a member of the camellia family, of which we have several in the garden at home, might be worth a try I thought, before being shown how the tea is processed after picking. In the ninth century tea was brought to Japan from China where the idea of drying camellia leaves to make a brew apparently originates.  It was brought by monks and seems to have been associated with religious observances.  Perhaps religion is the origin of the famous Japanese tea ceremony, although that might go back to William Street. 

As prosperity and wages grew higher and higher after the war, Japanese tea production became more and more automated: first with hand held machines, resembling hedge trimmers, these giving way to mechanical harvesters.  With mechanical harvesting the bushes became shaped by repeated trimming into long parallel tube-like rows of green.  The tips are now protected from frost by numerous electric fans that circulate the air when the risk is high.

There was a small museum and it was quite interesting to see how these harvesters had evolved. Usually only the new tips are harvested but periodically the bushes are pruned back hard, to re-establish new growth. Processing consists of steaming and then drying and rolling to produce distinctively Japanese green tea.  Some of this is still hand rolled by master tea makers and attracts very high prices. This method differs from Chinese green tea that is more often wok or machine roasted but some tea is produced specifically for Japan using these methods. 

Hardly had our tour of the facility ended than we were shepherded into the very large gift and products shop.  That was a surprise!

 

Maki No Hara tea plantation

 

Later I looked up tea production on Wikipedia. Indian and Ceylonese (Siri Lankan) and Chinese black teas, that most Australians are familiar with, are from the same plant but the leaves are oxidised or fermented, in a series of processes, before drying. The British, who found that tea drinking protected against cholera, dysentery and other water borne diseases, that turned out to be due to boiling the water, are largely responsible for the spread of tea growing and drinking to the Subcontinent and the colonies. They are also responsible for the popularity of the black tea style; and for the invention of the processes involved.  The Americans for their part, when not dropping tea into Boston Harbour, are responsible for the popularity of tea bags.  In the consumer society these turned out to be a good way of getting rid of once useless 'fannings' and dust that would ruin a good cup'a, when made properly, in a tea pot.

The Japanese like to put green tea in almost everything but as theirs is expensive - ranging up to very expensive indeed, most ground green tea for flavouring ice-cream, and so on, is imported - you guessed it - from China.

 

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