A rainy visit to Hakone.
After almost a week of clouds and drizzle, today was our first day of genuine rain. Big fat wet drops of summer rain. The up-side: the rain kept temperarures down to a very pleasant 21°C. The down-side: we had our tickets prebooked for our day trip to Hakone TODAY! Most of the stuff we’ve done in Japan to date has been spontaneous; that is, we wake up and decide what we’re doing that day. Since it’s low season, we haven’t had any problems with not being able to do what we want on short notice, so we haven’t bothered prebooking anything really. Today’s day trip, however, was one we had been warned can be very busy at any time of year. So we prebooked our “Hakone Free Pass” tickets for Friday 21 June, hoping it wouldn’t be too busy and praying it would be good weather. “Yes” to the former; “Nay” to the latter. Damn!
Still, we’ve been very lucky with weather so far on the trip and a little bit of rain doesn’t scare us – we’re from Queensland! So we packed our umbrellas and caught a 9:30am train from Tokyo Central to Shinjuku (we ALWAYS travel outside of peak commuter times in Tokyo, for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to explain!). The Odakyu “Romance-Car” Express train took us from Shinjuku, 90kms out of Tokyo, into the Fuki-Hakone National Park. This slice of Japanese wilderness has well and truley been tamed, catering to million of visitors from Tokyo every year; mostly “salary-men” and their families looking for a convenient and picturesque location for their weekend getaways.
It’s a region renowneed for its mountain scenery, hot springs, lakeside villages and spectacular views of Japan’s highest peak: Fuji-yama (Mount Fuji). We went in search of some natural wonders, as a respite from the chaos and crowds of Tokyo, and to catch a glimpse of Fuji-yama. We definitely got all three, with the best views of Mount Fuji coming as we were still on the train, approaching Hakone-Yumoto. This active volcano (last eruption: 1708AD) has that characteristic cone shape of all volcanic mountains and, even on an overcast day like today, it’s an impressive site, with its 3776m high snow-covered flanks rising above the surrounding hills.
It took us over an hour on the train to get past the high-rises and outer suburbs of Tokyo, and 90 minutes in total for the train to deposit us in Hakone-Yumoto. The small town of Hakone-Yumoto is the gateway into the 1200 square kilometre national park. Nestled in a valley and famous for its onsens(translation = hot springs), this would be a very cute village if it weren’t for the multitude of huge, concrete-block hotels. We had a quick look around town but weren’t all that impressed; like most towns that exist just for tourists it was all souvenir shops and big hotels.
From Hakone-Yumoto we followed the traditional day trippers route up Mount Soun via the scenic Hakone-Tozan Train to the village of Gora. We enjoyed a big bowl of hot ramen noodles for lunch in Gora and then caught the funicular railway up the mountain to the next little village: Sounzan.
From Sounzan we got to experience yet another form of transport: a cable car! This took us up the last stretch of Mount Soun to just over 1000m, then back down into the Owakudani Valley (translation = Great Boiling Valley). This volcanic valley is rife with active sulphur vents and hot springs and is famous for the kuro-tamago (translation = black eggs) you can buy here. These are eggs hard-boiled in the hot springs; the eggs turn black and smell slightly sulphuric, which made them uniquely unappealing. Consuming the eggs is said to increase longevity with every egg apparently adding seven years to your life. Sure it does…., not a good enough marketing spiel to convince this little white wuss.
From Owakudani Valley the cable car took us right down to the village of Togendai, on the shores of Lake Ashino (Ashino-ko), where our Hakone Free Day got us a scenic boat ride on a replica 17th century man-o-war ship. These ships are seriously naff but do provide a comfortable way to cruise the length of this pretty lake. Lake Ashino is a freshwater crater lake formed when the Mt Suon volcano was last active; it’s waters were deep and dark with lots of steep, densely wooded hills surrounding it. We cruised past the vermillion toriigate, set in the water just before the lakeside town of Moto-Hakone, before docking in this tiny holiday hamlet.
After a quick walk around Moto-Hakone to see the local shintoshrine we decided we had had enough of being rained on and embarked on the final leg of our journey: a bus trip back to Hamoke-Yumoto station so we could catch our train back to Tokyo. The map below outlines the route we took today.
Having all the various modes of transport around the national park included in one day pass made it very easy to see everything, but it felt way too much like we were being herded around like contented, compliant bovines – moving placidly from one natural wonder to the next, snapping photos from the designated spot dutifully. Not our kind of day trip really. For starters, there was no epic 10km+ hike or anything! It’s a very pretty part of Japan and definitely worth visiting (even on a rainy day), but if we had to do it again I would probably stay in one of the little holiday villages overnight and avoid the “traditional sightseeing route” completely. There are hikes you can do all through the national park and it would have been more our style to just find one that went up the mountain and back, so we could soak up the atmosphere a little more. So we could commune with nature man…..
A good day trip, with more to come on the morrow. Tomorrow we’re heading to Akihabara to see the electronics mega stores and then to Harajuku to see people all dressed up. We also need to buy Shane some new sunglasses. I will let HIM explain why we need to buy him some new sunnies…..
A note from Shane: Squat toilets – 1, Sunglasses – 0
I love my Mako sunnies….well, I did. We had 7 good years together. That was until today when a lot of chilli from last night’s Explosive Ramen and a squat toilet conspired to assist my sunglasses in committing the most treacherous and foul act of seppuku (translation – ritual suicide by disembowelment) I’ve ever witnessed. You could say I flushed them. That’s right, folks – there I was, squatting like a jockey, pants off, shoes on, a nice wide stance, carefully balanced, aim duly considered and cross-checked; sweating away like a contortionist, harassed by multitudes of flying biteys and getting on with it like a trooper. And then, horror of horrors….off go the sunnies straight off my neck on a little ride, straight into the maw of the beast. $300 down the toilet, literally. I weighed up the cost, the shame factor of telling Robbie and the humiliation of needing to blog about it…trying to decide whether I should save my beloved Makos. But looking at those sunnies sitting in there – well and truly buried – even if I DID make a grab for them, could I ever rest those on my nose again? The answer, dear reader, was no. So now I get to buy myself a brand new pair – with a cord this time to ensure they stay safely about my person AT ALL TIMES!