Having traveled to Tokyo a number of times and always on a package tour when in the country, we determined it was time to take chance and start exploring Japan a little more on our own.
Hakone (箱根) is said to be a favorite weekend or short holiday location for Tokyolites, due to the proximity (~83km). So we booked ourselves a pair of train tickets for the two hour ride to Hakone Yumoto station.
As we were not planning on driving, we did a quick research and found the ‘Romance car’ package that comes with both the train tickets and multi-day access to all the cable car and bus services that run very regularly in Hakone.
Costing us just ¥5500pp at that time, we had paid an additional ¥870pp to take the ‘limited express’ which shortens the journey to 1½ hours, ie due to lesser stops. During the two days, we made full use of the ropeways, cable cars and buses that ply the standard routes as mapped out above
We had also looked around for Ryokans to stay, this being the first time (Kyoto did not really count). Our pick was the Ichinoyu, three bus stops from Hakone-Yumoto station. At that time, we did not know better and actually carried our luggage onto the bus! Now we know that you can call for the Ryokan pick you up at the station.
Our Ryokan (Ichinoyu Honkan 一の湯本館) is more dated and we had opted for the ‘western’ room – beds rather than sleeping on the tatami mat floor. Not cheap even at ¥10,800pp for half board. You need to know that accommodation here are all rather steep. And considering this one had a private hot bath…
Seismic phenomena – day one
Our instinct was to take the railway towards Gora (強羅) and then Sounzan (早雲山), from which we took the ropeway that traverse across the Owakudani valley. The volcanic valley is home to numerous vents and hot springs. It fumes and fills the air with a pungent sulphide smell. Not good for those who are allergic!
Fortunately for us, it was a windy day and that helps with dispersing the fumes rising from the vents.
It would have been a real adventure to trek down to the valley and back up, but that’s not Suan’s preference…But we can see that aside from the hot springs, there appears to be some form of sulphur extraction going on.
The Sounzan to Togendai section of the ropeway was under re-construction while we were there and we had to take the bus instead. Since that time, we understood that the area around Owakudani has been closed to tourists due to heightened volcanic gas emission. (26-Apr-16: the Owakudani-Togendai section of ropeway reopened).
A touch of lake district
Togendai is a town on Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖). The main attraction from our view are the are the Hakone cruise ships. These brightly painted ships are replicas of British Man-of-war vessels of the 18th century. There are at least 3 of them (we counted the colors – green, red and purple) and they sail to the various harbors of Lake Ashi.
You need to know that July is summer and frequently rains here. So, mist and/or fog is common. And so the same onboard the ships. Just that the feeling is one of us being crews on a ship in search of pirates, or at least their lair.
On both days we made our way to the harbors of Hakone Machi or Togendai just to take the ships – since it was free anyway for us with the pass.
Why were we doing this? Well, for one thing the forlorn hope of catching a glimpse of Mount Fuji, said to be fully visible and towering over the lake from a distant. We had to imagine it being there, with all the mist and cloud cover during these two days.
Fortunately, not all was lost. Nearly 400 years ago, the Shoguns of Japan embarked on a period of infrastructure building to link the various parts of their domains for both security and trade.
One of these highways runs through present day Hakone Machi. Interesting enough, the Shogun is said to have ordered the planting of trees along this “highway”. Thus the pathway we walked on is lined with cypress trees that extend to the skies. Wonderful to walk in the cool grounds of the forest, just in time to help us beat the heat of the summer.
Shy as we were to bath naked with other folks (at that time), we had booked a room with a private bath area. The mineral spring water is piped into a large stone bath, facing the river. Now you need to imagine being soaked in the warm mineral water even as you hear the gurgling of the river.
Since it is summer, the use of the bath was limited in the sense of time. We did not take too long to stay in the spring waters, as it was rather warm. This would probably be more fun in the late autumn or winter.
The only thing that we neglected was to spend more time at the town of Yumoto. Having our lunch at Hatsuhana (はつ花) was one highlight, with one of their specialty being fresh grated yam on soba. We recalled it was rather affordable and quite busy during the hour.
We also walked the tiny streets lined with shops selling locally produced wares. Two days is simply not sufficient if we have to do this journey again. Obviously we need at least 3-4 full days to fully appreciate all of the sights. And driving here would be a breeze, as we could have covered a larger area. Most importantly, choose a better time to come. The