The penultimate part of our Japan adventure took us to one of my absolute favourite places in the whole country. Hakone, oh Hakone—manju, mountains and hot-springs!
Hakone has long been a popular get-away place for people in Japan, and there are frequent trips to and from Tokyo. By Shinkansen, it takes half an hour, or so. However, we were coming up from Kumamoto, with a change at Shin Osaka. The journey took us just over five-hours, but was—as always—very comfortably on the Shinkansen. We spent the trip writing, snacking on bento boxes and treats, and I had to stop myself peering over Dad’s shoulder every twenty seconds, as he read a little Blood of the Delphi.
Staying at the Mount View Hotel in Sengoku, we arrived in Odawara, (rather than Hakone station), and took the bus up. This took approximately an hour and the roads were quite winding. People who suffer from travel-sickness may want to take something before-hand to help them get through it. Fortunately, the bus-stop was literally right outside the hotel, and we were welcomed with great occasion and shown to our rooms.
These were lovely and very comfortable, with tatami mats and comfortable beds. I believe some of the bigger rooms offer futons too, for those who want to go the whole mile. These are actually surprisingly comfortable to sleep on, and the experience is very enjoyable. I’ve done it several times and liked it very much.
Dad and I settled into our rooms, and then went down to enjoy the first of a series of decadent dinners in the dining room. These were set meals, and varied from night to night, offering seasonal food and vegetables. Crab, in particular, was a prominent feature on the table.
Finishing dinner, I then stopped by the onsen (hot-spring), which was an absolute luxury. In particular, I’d not been feeling particularly well, having developed a head-cold, but they say there are healing properties in the slightly sulphated water, and I did start to feel much better after a long soak.
Day 1 – The Venetian Glass Museum
With rain promised for the afternoon, Dad and I decided to make a gentle day of it. Enjoying a relaxed breakfast, we set out on our first adventure of the Hakone chapter.
Hakone is peculiar in that there are a lot of surprising attractions in the area. This includes ‘The Little Prince’ Museum, The Venetian Glass Museum, Lalique Museum, and the Open Air Museum. Having had our fair share of cultural art pieces in previous chapters of the holiday, Dad and I decided to stop off at the Glass Museum.
This is a small, but fun exhibition which includes some surprisingly old, and rather spectacular glass works in their collection. You are greeted, on entry, but three trees which—on closer inspection—are actually made of metal with crystal glass blossoms.
Going into the museum, you walk through a garden, under arches of glimmering glass-beads, into the exhibition hall. This is decorated in a faux-venetian style, with iconic paintings across the ceiling. Be careful to note the dates on the pieces as you pass, because their age may really surprise you.
Having finished in the exhibition, don’t be rushed to then leave. One of my favourite parts of the museum is the little walkway down the bank on the other-side. This is above a river, and provides some excellent photographs for the surround foliage, trees and wildlife, including lots of lovely little birds!
Dad and I then took some tea together, before deciding to head up to Hakone Machi-Ko, beside Lake Ashi, in order to get some information for our escapade the following day.
It was raining at this point, and despite the miserable weather, there is something quite captivating about seeing the mist hanging over the lake, and the surrounding mountains. It really is quite mysterious.
Having planned our route, we headed back to the hotel. After another long soak in the hot-springs (these really are utterly heavenly), we had another outrageously delicious dinner, and then chilled over a cup of sake, and a manju each before bed.
Day 2 – The Rope-Way and Lake Ashi
Day 2 of our Hakone Chapter was the adventurous one. Taking a bus down to Gora Station, we met up with a friend, and old choir-buddy of mine, Kanako, and went up the Cable Car to Sounzan.
From Sounzan, we took the Ropeline up to Akanawara. To any first time (or second time!) this is a must-do trip that takes you up to the very top. The views as you rise up from Sounzan to the slightly ominous mountain side, with huge billows of fumes billowing up from the natural fumaroles, the earth stained yellow with sulphur, has a vaguely Tolkien-esque feel to it.
As Dad said, “It looks like Mordor.”
Stepping out at the top, we were greeting by a spectacular view of Fuji…
Or at least, we would have been, had the clouds not been in the way. Even despite seeing this impressive and iconic volcano, the atmosphere still provided a feast for the senses. We were fortunate to be going during the week, and thus did not have to contend with crowds such as the area usually sees.
Stopping off briefly in the Geology Museum first, Kanako and I then moved on ahead of Dad in order to secure ourselves some Kurotamago (Black Eggs). Kurotamago are eggs that have been boiled in the hot-springs up on the mountain. Sometimes the walk-ways are open, giving people access up to see the process, and walk up the mountain path. On this occasion, due to an increase in fumes, much like on Mt. Aso, the walk-ways were closed for our safety. Even so, the egg boiling was still happened, and the eggs were available in a packet of five. Each egg supposedly lengthens your life by seven years, so we added a little time to our life span.
Having taken a brief nosey at the souvenir shops, we rejoined Dad for a drink and some freshly cooked manju. (For anyone who enjoys, or wants to try this tasty treat, nothing compares to having it handed to you, hot and fresh, at the top of a mountain where it’s been cooked!)
Dad rolled his eyes as Kanako munched away, simultaneously chiming, “Oishii!” (Delicious).
We dallied around at the top for a few hours, hoping for the clouds to clear a little more and offer us that view of Fuji. This was not uncomfortable in the least, with lots of food and treats on offer, and in fine company.
After some time, we decided to give up the ghost and head down to continue the Rope-way back down to Hakone-Machi-Ko. Again, the views offered to us on the Rope-way down were excellent, though hard to photograph through the glass of the bubble, which was suffering from some general wear and tear.
Reaching Lake Ashi, we had an half-hour before the next voyage, so having purchased our tickets, we took a short walk along the wooded area right of the pier. This was great fun, and gave us some of our best views of the lake from Hakone-Machi-Ko. As Kanako and I walked, we couldn’t help but fall into old habits, and before long we were both singing merrily together.
“Kyoshi, konoyoru—hoshi wa hikari!”—Silent Night, in Japanese. Not entirely season appropriate, but I only know three songs in Japanese by heart, so it was between that and Princess Monoke (which we sang next).
Sneaking our way back onto the pier, we then boarded a ‘galleon’—a large ship, decorated to look like something from Pirates of the Carabean, with faux-sales and slighty gaudy, painted pirate/sailor statues on the first-class deck.
Whilst you can take your seat in comfortable cabins, we all rushed to the top deck to take everything in as we set out. Lake Ashi glittered invitingly beneath us as we cut through the waters.
A little on Lake Ashi. It is several hundred meters above sea-level and was created after volcanic activity in the area caused a crater, that waters then rushed into and filled. It is known as the Lake of Reeds, ‘Ashi’ meaning ‘reed’.
The journey across the water takes about half-an-hour, and we didn’t leave the top-deck for the duration, even when the lake-wind began to bite a bit.
At the terminus, we caught the bus and Kanako and I parted ways, all of us agreeing it was a great day.
Getting back to the hotel, Dad and I took our soaks in the hot-springs, had another extraordinary dinner, and then dropped off to bed.
Day 3 – The Not-so-much Castle and the Open Air Museum
The last day of our Hakone adventure, and Dad and I decided to actually head down into town and visit Odawara museum. After a small hiccup with buses—we ended up going to Hakone station, instead of Odawara, we found our way across to Odawara Castle.
From the outside, this was an impressive structure, though it is among the smaller of the castles you can find in Japan. The inside, however, proved to be somewhat of a disappointment.
Now—before I continue, I should stress that this is no way means Odawara Castle isn’t worth a visit. The inside is museum which details the history of the castle in excellent detail. Whilst the written displays are in Japanese, there is Wifi, and you can download an app onto your phone, which provides all the information in English as you reach each display.
However, if you are going to castle—as we were—in the hopes of seeing some actual history, you may be disappointed. The castle inside has been refurbished and is entirely modern. In-fact, there was very little to show that we were in a castle at all, which was an incredible shame.
Feeling a little hard-done by, we popped across the courtyward for the ‘Heart of the Samurai’ exhibition, which, though small, lifted our spirits. The exhibition included suits of armour, katana and a small, artistic video.
Coming out, and with Dad in full-steam-ahead mode, I was able to convince him to hold back. There was a small booth, and much like some castles in England offer visitors the chance to try archery, this one was offering three goes with a shuriken (throwing-star). Dad waited as I queued up and had a try. Of the three tries, only one of my shuriken actually hit the mark…
Conclusion—I probably shouldn’t try out to be a ninja anytime soon.
Getting the train up to Gora, and the bus back down to Sengoku, Dad and I headed across to Hakone’s Open Air Museum.
Whilst neither Dad and I are particularly interested in modern and abstract art, we both agreed that the Open Air Museum is well-worth a visit (It was actually my second time there!). The artwork is beautiful and, as shown by many of the promotional pictures in the museum which display a series of their statues in rain and similar weather, the museum is good viewing in any weather (though we were glad of the sunshine!).
The walk around was pleasant, with some truly outstanding examples of extraordinary artwork, and with the views and landscape offering as much in the way of aesthetic pleasure, as the exhibition itself.
By the end of the day, we were exhausted and my leg was throbbing a bit. The clouds had come in, the wind was picking up, and it felt like just the right time to get back, have a long hot soak, eat our final, delicious dinner at the hotel, and discuss the best and worst bits of the Hakone chapter, over sake.
Worst bit—Odawara Castle wasn’t what we’d been hoping for.
Best bit—good company, great food, and excellent onsen.