DDNet in Japan 2016 #4: How to escape Tokyo for the weekend; visit Hakone

10 mins read

Tourism by Matt S.

To the Japanese, Hakone is something of a retreat from the bustling city life of Tokyo, and as such it is an absolutely essential trip to take for a very different kind of Japanese experience.

Last year I did a drive through of Hakone just to visit a piece of the region’s history; the Sekisho Checkpoint, which was a key building through the Edo period. This time I was going to see more of the countryside.

To do so best I purchased a 5,000 yen ($50-$70 or thereabouts, depending on where you’re from) travel pass from Tokyo, which gave me unlimited access to the many forms of transport in Hakone (you’ll see what I mean in a moment), and jumped on a local train out of the city. A couple of hours later I was changing to a bus, which took me down to Ashinoko lake – a massive mountain lake that is the centrepiece to much of the Hakone appeal.

One of the townships that circle Hakone mountain

This lake is absolutely mammoth, and is the caldera of the giant Hakone mountain volcano that last erupted back in 1170 CE. The water is crystal clear and cold – but never cold enough to freeze over, and is a prime fishing and recreation spot. As a result, a culture not unlike local beach cultures in Australia has formed around the lake, with gorgeous local cafes and lakeside restaurants built up all around the rim of the lake. With the humidity and heat of Japan in early autumn, just sitting next to the lake is hugely refreshing.

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Most of the buildings in this area are quite traditional in design, too, and set against the mountainous backdrop, with ample national parks providing an abundance of greenery, this area is intensely photogenic. On a clear day Mt. Fuji dominates the background around the mountains. It was not a clear day when I was there, so no Fuji-san for me. The view was no less impressive, however, as there was mist draped over the top of the mountains, giving the whole place a distinctive look that you might expect to see in a Hollywood film.

The famous pirate ship ferry on the lake

To cross the lake, I jumped on a ferry. Not a normal ferry, mind you, but one designed to look like a pirate ship. There is no reason behind this – it’s purely for good fun, but it fits hundreds of people, is about that popular, and the open balconies provide excellent photo opportunities. There’s even a little cafe on board stocked complete with beer, and if you’d like, you can go back and forth for a while – each trip takes about half an hour, and again in the heat and humidity, that breeze that whips up as the boat cuts across the water is so intensely refreshing.

I didn’t stay on the boat, but got off at the next stop, as it was time to catch the rope car! Hakone has a massive rope car service that climbs up the mountain only to descend the other side, and has four stations to get on and off on. This was quirky enough, as I’ve only ever ridden rope cars with two stops – base and peak – before. The third stop of this one was the most interesting, as it drops you off as close as you can safely come to a very volcano that has activity going on within it. The smell of sulphur was thick up there (and there are health warnings for asthmatics and those with heart conditions), but the visual was incredible, with yellow sulphur powder covering a side of the mountain, smoke billowing out, and dead trees a stark contrast to the unbroken greenery that is everywhere else.

The side of Hakone mountain with sulphur billowing out

You can buy a delicacy up the top of Mount Hakone that is not a available anywhere else in Japan; black eggs, that have been hard boiled in hot spring water. These are meant to be incredibly healthy (the legend goes that if you eat one of these you add seven years to your life), and while I’m not an egg eater myself, my wife said they are significantly tastier than regular boiled eggs. And they look spectacular with that black shell. Normally there’s also a walking track and hot spring up this mountain, but those have been closed in recent months as the scientists monitoring the mountain are concerned about just how active it’s being with the smoke.

Back down towards the base of the other side of the mountain (after getting back on the cable car to its final station) there was a funicular to ride down the last steep incline (again a rare experience of a funicular on a track long enough to have more than the start and finish stations). The scenery was again spectacular and green, and from there I jumped on a local train that rattled around the narrow flat spaces of this area to arrive at my next destination; the Hakone Open Air museum.

The black egg from Hakone

As its name suggests, this is a gallery space that has no walls – rather you wander around admiring a wide range of sculptures with the tall mountains providing the background. The only interior exhibit was the museum’s large collection of Picasso art works, which represent every different period of time through his long career. This exhbition is permanent, and has its own dedicated Picasso building. The travel pass came in handy here, too, because it provides a discount on all museum and gallery entry fees, and there are quite a few of those dotted through the Hakone region.

After wandering around these gardens again it was back to the local train, which took me to a tiny village built around Fujiya hotel, where I was staying the night. That hotel will be getting its own article, because it was quite the special occasion, but this village (really, just a single road and buildings on either side, was lovely in its own right – I didn’t try it out, but I was especially intrigued by the cafe with unbroken mountain views that had a hot spring foot bath overlooking that view as part of the service. Hakone’s people absolutely love the plentiful hot spring water, and a lot of the local cultural experiences available tap into that water.

The open air museum – stunning views, no?

For pure landscape sightseeing it’s hard to argue against Hakone. Five different types of transport (train, bus, ferry, rope car, funicular), each offering their own amazing views and unique destinations, will give you a really good feel for the area, its culture and lifestyle along the way. The area has a lot of amazing bed-and-breakfast-like accomodations and hotels, too, which makes it the perfect overnight retreat for the Tokyo residents, and a fun diversion for tourists, too. Obviously I travelled around a lot, but if you want to get up to other activities, get some guidebooks and research what you are interested in doing, because the area has a lot of stuff to do, and a long history to tap in to, and should appeal to just about every traveller’s interest.

– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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