HAKONE, Japan — For weeks my children seemed to be the loudest humans in this country. No one spoke on trains, not even the young. Japanese kids seemed to tiptoe around Tokyo, never making a peep, while mine raced through train stations screeching with glee.
Torn between shushing my children and wanting them to have the freedom to experience a place as they normally would, I organized a weekend in Hakone. Billed as the favored destination for Tokyoites to escape their city, it seemed an ideal way to be with the locals when they were more relaxed.
The Hakone area is a series of mountain towns, 40 minutes by train from Tokyo, known for hot-spring-fed spas, views of Mount Fuji, and an array of transportation options: a steamboat trip on a volcanic lake, a cable car ride up a hillside, a ropeway to a mountain peak, and the highlight, the Tozan Railway, with a series of switchbacks.
Like most tourist towns, the paths are well worn. Little communities burst with hotels and ryokans (inns) perched along rivers and hydrangea-dotted paths. Here aspens turn shades of red usually reserved for a crayon box. In summer fireflies light the night sky. In spring the cherry blossoms put on a show. And in winter, snow blankets the alpine forests.
We checked into the family-friendly Hakone Hotel Kowakien, known for its gardens and hot-spring-fed pools. We bypassed the onsen, the hotel’s bathing facility, at first, opting instead to hit up the main attraction for families who visit the area: Hakone Kowakien Yunessun, billed as a hot springs amusement park. Aside from the occasional glimpses of Mount Fuji, families love the massive pools with water features, the slides, and the flavored hot springs infused with green tea, coffee, and red wine.
Entering the first pool, we found Japanese kids shrieking with delight as employees sprayed them with jets of water and characters sang on a stage to entertain the younger set. Moms and dads were smiling and chatting with each other. Older women paused to practice their English with us.
A woman who had lived in the United States for many years, and who was smitten with my youngest son, explained why the children we had encountered elsewhere were silent. The culture is about not affecting others in a negative way or making others uncomfortable, she said. Local people teach their kids to respect public space and not create a scene.
The woman left to go to the cafe to have a beer with her children and we spent the rest of the day playing beach-ball volleyball in the pool with local kids, whooshing down waterslides, and soaking in the many pools lining an arbor-shaded hillside.
We returned to our hotel for the evening communal bathing ritual. I took my 2-year-old to the women’s onsen, where the women were visibly uncomfortable with my son’s nonstop questions. Other children let their mothers wash their bodies and hair before silently entering the scalding pools.
The next morning I went to the onsen alone and noted how the women cleaned up their bathing stations, making sure their presence disturbed no one. I was floored when my neighbor departed and there was not one drop of water left around her showerhead or on the floor.
I tried to make sense of this community-centered lifestyle of not putting anyone out, or making anyone uncomfortable, and making your individual footprint as light as possible. I started noticing these communal actions everywhere.
On the bus ride to the cable car, a young man held a plastic bag filled with his trash. A woman walking to the ropeway dropped her bag of snacks and wouldn’t let anyone help her clean it up. And when we arrived at the Hakone Open Air Sculpture Museum, I noticed an elderly woman who was painting one of the sculptures drop a speck of paint onto the concrete; she dipped her rag into water and washed away the paint, even off a blade of grass.
On the switchback train ride to the town of Hakone, my kids started fighting over a bag of cheddar snacks and the 6-year-old ripped it out of his brother’s hands. The orange bits flew all over the floor. It seemed everyone on the train held their breath.
Suddenly I realized why there are no trash cans in Japan. My trash is my responsibility. Why put someone out with the job to manage it?
I knew what I had to do as I dropped to the floor of the snaking train. At my urging, my older son also knelt down. Together we began cleaning every crumb. A woman came over and handed me a baby wipe. We locked eyes and she smiled as I did my duty to care for her community.