We commandeer a couple of the back rows in the bus noticing that they have extra leg room again. Frank, Marc and Brian have the 5-seat back row to themselves for the next two days and Gill and I sit in the next row next to Luchen and Fangyuan on the first day and then Frans and Sue on the second day... there’s plenty of merriment thrown in through the next two days at the back of our bus.
For most of the first day on the bus I manage to keep the puzzlers near me entertained with a few puzzles I’ve selected from the trip so far - 4 Pfeile and my little disentanglement get given to those who haven’t already mastered them, and then a couple of new packing puzzles are shared around. Brian terrorizes us with a prototype of a new design from Juno that he hasn’t been able to solve yet and might turn into a future exchange puzzle - several of us try it over the course of the next two days and we all fare as well as Brian has.... Juno ONE - several highly talented puzzlers (and me) NIL!
Our first stop is the wonderful little village of Shirakawa-go up in the mountains that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. The buses park across a river from the village and I can’t resist the urge to cool my feet off in the river before we head across the suspension bridge and wander through the village itself... Marc, Gill and I wander out to the one extreme of the village before doubling back and stopping off at a picturesque shrine for some pics.
A little further on we stop for selfies against some seriously stunning backdrops and then find ourselves high-tailing it back to our bus so that we don’t miss the first deadline of the day... along the way we overtake Otis setting up a picture of the river and we relax the pace a little realizing that we won’t be the last ones onto our bus. (And it turns out we’re all in good time anyway!)
We hit the road again and stop at Takayama for a few hours. Gill and Sue head off in search of lunch and the rest of us head off to the Karakuri Museum where we’re treated to a brilliant display of 5 ancient automata - the simplest serves tea, whilst the most complex is a doll that climbs up a series of posts stepping only with one foot at a time on each post - in between steps across posts it sways around this way and that in a wonderfully chaotic fashion - just think about that.
After the show Nick, Brian, Dick, Frank and I wander off in search of some lunch and find ourselves on the floor in a tiny restaurant off in a side street - three of us have the lunch special and Dick and Brian have the Sashimi... the food is excellent and the conversation wildly amusing as usual - and the only thing we find to complain about is how stiff we are from sitting on the floor! After lunch we drop into an old antique store and find some weird items but my language skills aren’t good enough to work out what they are...
Walking down the road we spot Gill and Sue coming towards us and we end up meeting inside a French patisserie, so we have cake. After the cake the boys head down the main drag and take turns to pose behind the cut-out figures dotted down the main road, much to the amusement of the locals as we hunch behind the various figures designed for people significantly shorter than us! It makes a good set of mementos though!
We take a few pics down at the river where a couple of well-rubbed brass statues make it very clear which bits of the anatomy one should rub for good luck - we think it’s rude not to. Heading back up the street in the opposite direction we spot some Hanayama Woodies in a couple of toy shops before we bump into Frans with a cone of blue soft serve - Taus reckons it tastes like bubble gum - we aren’t going to contradict him. We regroup back up at the buses and head out through some lovely countryside and past a few stunning looking golf courses heading toward Kofu for our evening stop.
Ours is the second bus to arrive so we find the lobby somewhat over-stuffed with IPP-ers already... we get keys for our rooms and join the queue for the lift. Before we head up to the rooms, Sue has a brainwave and we ask the concierge if they can keep our big suitcases -they oblige and we save ourselves having to lug all our puzzles upstairs. A short while later Gill and I are checking out our rooms across the corridor from one another (we couldn’t book a double room through the tour company - we haven’t had a spectacular argument). There’s a double bed in each room, but just a single pillow and a single set of towels, so we move those from one room to another and squeeze ourselves into the dinkiest hotel room we’ve ever shared. It is perfectly serviceable and the air conditioner soon has the room comfortable.
We’ve arranged to meet the Young’s, Nick, Marc and Frank for dinner so we head downstairs and find most of them in the lobby. While we’re waiting for the Young’s, Brian walks in through the front door announcing he’s found us a great Indian joint around the corner (when in Japan....) so we follow him around and settle down in a corner of the restaurant. Before we’ve even had a chance to order, Brian and Sue’s meals arrive - apparently having already ordered - or the chef’s telepathic - we weren’t certain.
Soon enough we’re all tucking in to a variety of spiciness and it’s pretty darn good. There’s plenty of banter and fun and after dinner we stop in at the Family Mart for some bus snacks and some office sweets for back home. It doesn’t take long to fall asleep.
Breakfast next morning is included but it is best described as sparse - after being spoilt at the ANA Crowne Plaza, we get coffee, juice, a couple of pastries and some soup... no butter for the rolls, no marmalade, nada. We’d been alerted to this when we were getting into the lift and passed Dick coming back up when he said that the eggs Benedict had been wonderful earlier but sadly, they’d run out. We’re tucking into our coffee and pastries when I spot Nick peering around the buffet looking rather disappointed so I helpfully tell him that the egg and bacon station is around the corner. A little while later he wanders around the corner, followed by Taus and Isabel in search of the good stuff - and about thirty seconds later he’s shown back to the pastries by the chef he’d found in the kitchen who waves his arms around a bit and says something somewhat incomprehensible. Nick then describes us in a gently colloquial phrase before tossing a (thankfully hard-boiled) egg at me - it bounces on the table but we manage to contain the carnage.
We load up the buses carefully with luggage neatly arranged by eventual destination before we get back onto our trusty steeds and head for Hakone. There’s lots of attempted Fuji-spotting along the way, some of it more successful than others.
We roll into Hakone just before lunchtime and we’re told that Mine will be opening his shop outside Izumiya at 1:30. We head in the opposite direction and duck into Maruyama for a nose around - there are already many people raking through the puzzle boxes for sale and Marc and I head around to the back to view the private collection and the yosegi work. We head across the road to the Karakuri Museum and get caught out by the door, again, in spite of having “solved” it last time. A bit embarrassing! There’s a great selection of Karakuri Creation Group boxes available for browsing and buying... there’s another souvenir shop further down the road and a jewellery store that Gill spotted something nice in last time we were here.
From there we head down toward Izumiya where there is a serious horde of puzzlers swarming around the puzzles and then forming an orderly queue to pay for their new treasures.
I spot a couple of old-looking Kamei book boxes and William W and I each end up taking a copy. I pick up a simple looking burr that looks really pretty and a set of simple muku puzzle boxes that I think should nest nicely (they do). I also convince myself that a little wooden muku dish will work well as a spinning top platform, so I join the back of the queue. While I’m there, Mine-San comes up to me and says hello and then tells me he’ll wait to open his shop until I get out of the shop after I’ve paid for my little pile of goodies.
True to his word, as I come out of the shop, he looks over to me, smiles and waves, and then puts out a pile of 4L Basket puzzles and a bunch of Tetra-spinner puzzles. The surrounding gannets duly hoover up everything in sight in about 5 minutes and the folks who’d timed their visit so that they got back at the officially announced hour are left disappointed as there’s nothing left by then... I’ve got contacts, me.
Marc, Gill and I head out for some lunch and end up having a super lunch of katsu chicken overlooking Lake Ashi. The view is lovely and the company even better. We split the bill and head off in search of some sights to see - so we wander along the shore marvelling at the massive carp waiting to be fed at exactly the spot where there’s a cooler box with fish food in it on the jetty - these fish aren’t dumb!
Along the jetty there’s a wonderfully regal-looking heron patiently waiting for a fish to stray too near while a bunch of ducks seem to be doing a great job of scaring off the fish.
Further along the shore we get a great view of the pirate ship pulling in to the jetty with Mount Fuji briefly visible in the background. So Marc and I snap away - he finds the perfect spot, I take the pic as well.
Frans has recommended the wasabi ice cream so I hunt down a cone-full and it’s truly weird: the first impression is that of standard soft serve sweetness, and then the spice kicks in and your whole mouth warms up, which makes you want more ice cream and the whole impact builds and builds - highly recommended if you like spicy... not so much if you don’t.
We reassemble in the shore opposite the buses and say goodbye to Jean Baptiste and Edouard who’re making their own way home from there... Gill and I resolve to come back and spend some more time in Hakone, possibly a few days on the way to the next Japanese IPP?
The bus ride into Tokyo is quite long and punctuated by a few traffic jams due to broken down trucks in the fast lane and road-works. We roll into Tokyo and make a few stops, saying goodbye to friends as they get off for their hotels or to catch trains, before the buses head out to our hotel outside Narita airport.
We’ve booked the hotel directly from their website and have their cheap rate that excludes breakfast... expectations are not exactly sky-high but it’s the last night of the trip and we’ll probably be able to sleep anywhere. When we’re checking in the clerk gives us the key and smiles very broadly when he tells us it’s a bright room - cool - if you say so... so we take the elevator up to the top floor and find our room, which turns out to be a rather large suite, complete with massive bathroom and dining room. Now the check-in clerk’s comment makes sense and we spread out and chill... dining on leftover snacks rather than heading out to try and find dinner after 10 o’clock.
There’s a little bit of re-packing to do in the morning and we head down to breakfast where we spot Vinco and Dagmar, John and Bill and Janice - it’s weird only seeing 5 people from IPP at breakfast, I guess it is all actually coming to an end...
Let me leave you with one story about a nameless puzzler, just for a chuckle at the end. I’d been talking to nameless about his (spoiler) flights (spoiler) home and where he was staying on the night the post-IPP trip ended - turned out he’d booked a hotel for the night of the 6th and intended to fly out on the 7th, as late as possible to give himself some time to explore on his last day... so he sought out the latest flight he could find and it turns out that there’s one at 30 minutes after midnight - brilliant, right? Eh, not really - turns out he wouldn’t be able to use his hotel room for more than an hour (think about it) and they wouldn’t refund him for the room, and to add insult to injury, because the buses were running a little late, he had a mad rush to get from the centre of Tokyo out to Haneda airport in time for his flight. Lesson learnt: nameless should definitely let Jo take care of his travel arrangements in future!