UNCOVER YOUR OWN MYSTERIES ON A DAY TRIP FROM TOKYO “HACONE”

UNCOVER YOUR OWN MYSTERIES
ON A DAY TRIP FROM TOKYO

HAKONE

Find the volcanic valleys of Owakudani, the majestic Lake Ashi, and many other fun spots in an onsen (hot spring) town just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo in neighbouring Kanagawa Prefecture—Hakone. Follow along my journey as I take a day trip to this wonderful town and join me on my adventures!
(Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba)

HAKONE-map

THE HOT-SPRING SIGHTS OF HAKONE

My adventure began on the Odakyu Romancecar at Shinjuku. Looking outside the window, the view gradually changed from blocks of generic buildings to luscious green scenery as the train raced swiftly along the tracks. After 85 minutes of being gently rocked by the train, I reached my destination–Hakone. While there are many ways to travel to Hakone, the most convenient and comfortable of them all is the Odakyu Romancecar, departing from Shinjuku Station.

This method is accessible via conventional train lines for an extra fee, and you can enhance your holidaying experience with the “saloon seats”, making the Limited Express train trip popular amongst many travellers. International visitors should have no trouble navigating the train lines as there is a counter at Shinjuku Station on the Odakyu Line that offers assistance in a variety of languages. The “Hakone Freepass” comes highly recommended as it offers unlimited travel on different modes of transport for the 2-3 days it is valid.

Different forms of transport have been set up to traverse the mountainous location of Hakone, such as the Hakone Tozan Railway; the Cable Cars, which climb up precarious slopes; the Hakone Ropeway stretching across mountains; and the cruise ships sailing around the lake. Taking advantage of the Hakone Freepass not only allows you to experience the different sights Hakone has to offer on the various modes of transport, but it also saves you the hassle of buying individual tickets.

Vendors walk through the train-carriage aisles with drinks, lunch boxes, and even alcohol for purchase whilst aboard the Romancecar. Take a leaf out of the Japanese guide to train travel by sitting back with a drink in hand as you watch the scenery go by from the comfort of your seat.

My train arrived at the entrance of Hakone—Hakone-Yumoto Station—after a relaxed 85-minute ride on the Romancecar. Although my plan was to transfer over to the Hakone Tozan Railway and head over to the Hakone Open-Air Museum (famous for its sculptures displayed outdoors amongst the majestic mountains), I decided to head out to the town surrounding the station first for a stroll.

Shops abundant with local delicacies, snacks, and souvenirs fill the streets in front of the station. This street is always bustling with day-trippers travelling to and from the hot springs as it serves as their main thoroughfare. A little step behind the hustle and bustle of these streets treats you to a view of a grand river flowing between the mountains. One of the joys of exploring Hakone is being able to find little captivating treasures in unexpected places.

HAKONE OPEN-AIR MUSEUM —ART IN NATURE

My next trip was on the Hakone Tozan Railway from Hakone-Yumoto Station. The train zig-zagged along the 6-kilometre-long railroad soaring 340 metres above sea-level, as it weaved through the mountains. My half an hour of enjoying the view aboard the train came to an end upon my arrival at the Hakone Open-Air Museum.

Opening its doors in 1969 as Japan’s first-ever outdoor museum, the Hakone Open-Air Museum has embraced the natural beauty of Hakone. The nature-abundant garden is home to 120 impressive sculptures on display throughout its approximately 70,000 square metres of land. Discover the many faces of the grand sculptures through a leisurely stroll in this vast outdoor museum. I was left with an indescribable feeling of awe at the sheer sight of the mysteriously profound objects towering above everything.

Further exploring down the promenade led me deeper into the grounds where I came across a collection of works by Pablo Picasso in the Picasso Pavilion. Groups of families and couples could be found lounging around the onsen footbath and the café, which both operate in conjunction with the gallery. It is truly unique and exciting to experience the changing scenery with each visit across the seasons. Make sure to jot this museum down as one of your must-visit locations on your trip to Hakone.

BLACK EGGS AT OWAKUDANI FOR LONGEVITY?

From Chokoku-no-Mori Station (Open-Air Museum Station) I headed over to the next stop, Gora Station, and took the Hakone Tozan Cable Car to Sounzan Station. Transferring here to the Hakone Ropeway would take me to my next destination—Owakudani.

I arrived at Sounzan Station in the blink of an eye as I relished in the thrill of ascending the steep slopes in the cable car before transferring onto the Hakone Ropeway. My wait to transfer over was close to non-existent with services operating at one-minute intervals. An astonishing sight entered my view as I admired in awe upon the beautiful scenery below.

Owakudani (translated literally as “Grand Boiling Valley”) was formed as a result of two major natural phenomena: an eruption of steam causing a landslide approximately 3000 years ago, and a small-scale pyroclastic surge approximately 2900 years ago bringing about a large deposit of volcanic sediment. A dreary atmosphere is created by the mineral-rich hot springs and plumes of white smoke fill the air as an ever-present reminder of the volcanic activity. It was known by locals as the “Valley of Hell” up until the Edo period, however, despite the fear it once garnered, the unique scenery it offers now makes it a top tourist attraction in Hakone. This amazing sight stretching beneath me left me absolutely speechless.

Arrival at Owakudani will treat you to an up-close view of the smoky scenery, whilst the sight of Mount Fuji framed by the ever-changing colours of the seasons can be seen on clear days. The increased volcanic activity has unfortunately made the hike up to the source of the rising smoke too dangerous to allow.

For a truly unique experience, give the kuro tamago (black eggs) a try. Eating one of these eggs is said to add 7 years to your life. Boiling raw eggs in Owakudani causes iron (a prominent hot-spring mineral) to permeate through the porous eggshell. Hydrogen sulphide then reacts with the iron, turning it into black-coloured iron sulphide, resulting in black boiled eggs. Over the course of time, people came to believe that ingesting the eggs would somehow increase longevity thanks to the health benefits from the hot spring minerals. Benefits or not, these black boiled eggs are worth the experience.

ON THE SIGHTSEEING CRUISE FROM TOGENDAI

With a belly full of delicious black eggs and memories filled with the gorgeous sights of Owakudani, I set off on the ropeway for Togendai Port, my next destination. Togendai, situated on the northern bank of Lake Ashi, sees high traffic as a travel hub across various modes of transport including the ropeway, buses, and tour boats. Ideally, I would set up base to see all of the amazing sights on offer around the area and then head further north for a visit to the Hakone Venetian Glass Museum or The Little Prince Museum (opened in 1999 to honour the 100th birthday of the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry). With only a day to spend exploring Hakone, my plan involved taking the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise to the northern Hakone-machi Port before making my way back to Hakone-Yumoto from there.

Access to the luxurious first-class cabins on the ship costs an additional 500 yen on top of the basic fare. These first-class cabins make for a relaxed experience seated at the front of the ship, away from the often crowded basic-fare seating areas. First-class ticket holders also have the privilege of heading out to the exclusive viewing deck for a peaceful chance to soak up the beautiful lake scenery. It takes approximately 30 minutes to reach Hakone-machi Port from Togendai. As the ship nears its destination, majestic mountain scenery is unveiled, and the torii gates start to come into view in a fashion that makes them appear to float on the lake itself. Mount Fuji in all of its glory can also be seen in the background of this amazing view on clear days. My visit happened to fall on a cloudy day, but I still very much enjoyed my trip.

A FAMOUS CHECKPOINT AND SHRINE

As I sail into Hakone-machi Port, I’m greeted by the Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint. The start of the Edo period in 1603 saw various checkpoints placed at different major roads by the Tokugawa shogunate to act as observation posts. This checkpoint at Hakone played a vital role during the Edo period in monitoring the Tokaido Road (the most important of the Five Routes in Edo Japan) in much the same way border security patrols country borders today. After 5 years of hard excavation work and meticulous restoration of old furnishings, tourists are now able to explore the fully restored historical checkpoint. Here’s yet another spot to include on your travels around Hakone!

A 10-minute ride on the Sightseeing Cruise or a quick 30-minute walk from Motohakone Port, is the beautiful Hakone Shrine found just beyond the torii gates on the lake. If you’re looking for a deeply spiritual, cultural experience then this is another great spot steeped in history.

AMAZAKE-CHAYA, AN EDO PERIOD INSTITUTION

My trip has already been a fulfilling one with an artistic treat at the Hakone Open-Air Museum; a mid-air walk on the ropeway; a delicious feast of black eggs with an incredible view to boot; and a lake cruise where I basked in the beautiful sights of Hakone. Now I was ready to have a relaxing dip in a hot spring to wash my exhaustion away, but I just had to hop on the Hakone Tozan Bus from Motohakone Port for a much-needed break at Amazake-chaya, first.

This teahouse is situated precariously on the Tokaido Road, halfway up Mount Hakone, and boasts a 400-year history where it famously served the feudal lord procession travelling along the route to and from Edo (now Tokyo) for many years. It has now become a beloved refuge for hikers on their travels across Hakone. The current owner is a 13th-generation ancestor of the original owner from some centuries ago. In fact, the recipe and brewing methods for Amazake still remain unchanged, with local Uruchi rice and rice malt the only two ingredients used in their organic concoction. Amazake is a type of traditional drink with a cloudy appearance. The characters for “sweet” (“amai”) and “wine” (“sake”) make up the name of this drink, however, it is more of a sweet beverage and contains almost zero alcohol.

Like any respectable Japanese Amazake purveyor, Amazake-chaya also offers tasty Japanese sweets for you to nibble on as you marvel at the impressive thatched roof while you sit around the indoor hearth. Any seasoned traveller would chomp at the bit to have the opportunity to sit back and feast their eyes on the unchanged Edo period furnishings in this tea house before setting off for the hot springs.

THE PERFECT WAY TO END A DAY TRIP

I said goodbye to Amazake-chaya and returned to Hakone-Yumoto by the Hakone Tozan Bus. Well-mapped-out routes and the Hakone Freepass removing any need for me to purchase individual tickets for my travels made using different forms of transport to visit the various sights in Hakone an absolute breeze.

It was 5:30 PM by the time I had returned to Hakone-Yumoto, meaning that approximately 6-and-a-half hours had passed since I’d first arrived. While the area around me was still illuminated by the setting sun, I knew that night would fall soon. This set the scene for a perfect opportunity to soak in the hot springs under the starry sky to soothe my tired body. Being in Hakone gave me access to a range of different onsen at my disposal, however, I took a quick 3-minute trip on the free shuttle bus (operating every 15 minutes) from Hakone-Yumoto Station to the highly accessible Hakone Yuryo.

Hakone Yuryo is popular amongst international tourists, who may be less comfortable with taking a dip alongside others in communal baths, due to the 19 private open-air baths available for reservation for groups of 2-4 people.

For the less shy, there are 6 large communal baths (separated for both men and women) available, each with sauna facilities and include a bath with a gorgeous view of the surrounding forest and ones which make use of traditional Shigaraki wares. Nothing beats being able to soak in the thermal waters of Hakone with access to a vast variety to choose from. The beautifying qualities of the “Lustrous Skin Springs” with its overflowing, alkaline simple hot springs make it particularly popular amongst women.

Head over to the sauna rooms and treat yourself to “löyly”—a Finnish tradition. It involves the pouring of aromatic water onto the hot sauna stones to create steam. This steam is then wafted over by towel for sauna users to bask in. Fatigued bodies are detoxed by the beautiful fragrances and the perspiration encouraged by the relaxing hot air, which flushes out dirty pores and releases built-up impurities through the sweat glands.

I watched as patrons passed by me on end, yelping with glee. The intensely heated air inside of the saunas was clearly more than they could handle. It’s a sadistic joy to sit inside the sauna and see just how long you can withstand the heat, and I’m definitely raising my hand to vouch for it!

Stepping into the traditional Japanese-style restaurant inside of Hakone Yuryo treats you some baked fish or wagyu-beef skewers straight from the fire that you can enjoy as you sit around the hearth. If you’re looking for the ultimate experience, then order an icy-cold glass of beer or sake while you munch on some tasty Japanese food once you’ve had a well-deserved soak in the onsen. For those who want more of a gourmet experience, take a stroll around Hakone-Yumoto Station to explore the numerous restaurants around the area.

My fantastic, jam-packed day in Hakone was coming to an end, and as I napped on the Romancecar home, I was back in Shinjuku before I knew it. A day trip to Hakone from Tokyo, much like the one I took, can be just as fulfilling as spending a night or two there, especially if you travel efficiently and in style. There are countless other routes just waiting to be discovered, so put Hakone on your list and see what mysteries you can uncover on your own day-trip!

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