Since Thursday is our regular day off and our school was closed on Friday, we decided to make an overnight trip to Hakone. Located west of Tokyo, Hakone is a very popular tourist area well known for its onsen (hot springs) and its views of Mount Fuji. While on this trip, we learned that Hakone has been a sister city to Jasper, Alberta for the past 36 years. Following the advice of our handy Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided on an interesting loop through the area.
Leaving home at about 8:30 Thursday morning, just late enough to miss the worst of the commuter crush, we headed into Tokyo where we boarded the Romance Car, a quick and comfortable express train that took us to Hakone-Yumoto, the beginning of our loop. There we crossed the platform to the 120 year old Hakone-Tozan line and climbed aboard the tiny narrow gauge train that would zigzag up the mountainside through numerous narrow tunnels and over river gorges to Gora, a very interesting 35 minute ride.
By the time we reached Gora we began to feel as if we were on a tourist treadmill, moving from place to place amongst hordes of other sightseers. Fall, is an especially popular time for Japanese tourists to visit Hakone to see the coloured leaves. The season is a bit late this year so the colours may be more splendid a week or two from now but the hillsides were a beautiful mix of green and coloured foliage. There were many foreign tourists but the vast majority of the travelers seemed to be retired Japanese (we dubbed them the geriatric gang) and school groups.
Over our years of teaching, Richard and I have shepherded countless children on field trips to various interesting sites and we like to think that they were much better behaved than most of the Japanese school groups that we’ve been encountering on recent outings. The biggest difference, I think, is the fact that when we planned field trips, we recruited parent volunteers and usually traveled with one supervisor for every four or five children. Many of the venues that we visited required this. Here, we often see one or two harried looking teachers trying to keep track of a very large group of excited children. I don’t envy them at all! Unfortunately, a lot of the children are loud and unruly which makes the experience less than pleasant for the tourists who share the area with them.
After lunch in Gora, we lined up for the 10 minute funicular, or cable railway, ride up the side of the 1153 metre high mountain, Soun-zan. Soun-zan is the starting point for what the Japanese refer to as a ropeway, a 30 minute, 4 km cable car ride to Tokendai on the shore of Lake Ashi. On the way, the gondola stops at Owakudani. On the advice of our trusty guidebook as well as some of my students, we got out there for a look around. Formed some 3000 years ago, Owakudani is a volcanic cauldron of boiling pools, bubbling mud and steam-spewing vents. What an interesting sight! Of course, we also had to sample the black boiled eggs that are sold here. According to legend, eating one of these eggs, which are cooked in the boiling mud, extends a person’s lifetime by several years. We’ve heard anywhere from four to ten! Since the eggs are sold in groups of five, I ate two and Richard had three. Since women are known to live longer than men, I decided that the extra egg might help him catch up!
After sharing most of the day with so many other travelers, imagine our surprise and delight when we headed back to the cable car and discovered no one waiting in line. We rode the rest of the way down to the lakeside in our own private gondola! From there we took a ten minute bus ride to the nearby village of Sengoku where we had reserved a room at the Fuji-Hakone Guest House, one of the few affordable places to stay in the area. A short walk in the chilly evening air, supper at a small restaurant and a soak in the guest house’s private onsen bath finished off the day.
After breakfast at the guest house, we caught the bus back to the lake shore where we lined up for the next cruise to the other end of Lake Ashi. To quote the Lonely Planet, “The ‘Pirate Ship’ has to be seen to be believed – it’s tourist kitsch at it’s worst, but fun all the same.”
We disembarked at Moto-Hakone and there began what was for me the highlight of our trip, a four hour hike along the old Tokaido highway back to Hakone-Yumoto. Built during the Edo period, this road once linked the ancient capital city of Kyoto, with Edo, present day Tokyo. It was a strenuous hike, largely because for most of the way we were walking on the large uneven rocks that were used to pave the ancient roadway.
About an hour into our trek, we arrived at the Amazake-chaya Tea House where we stopped for a cup of herbal tea and a glass of amazake, a thick warm non-alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. The present roadway between Moto-Hakone and Hakone-Yumoto is separated from the old highway by only a few metres at this point so the tea house serves vehicle traffic as well as hikers but it hasn’t always done so. We met the proprietor, a young man who is the 13th generation of his family to own and operate the tea house! Long before the invention of the car and long before my country was settled, his ancestors were serving weary travelers in whose footsteps we were walking! The young woman who served us spoke fairly good English and, in spite of the fact that there were several other customers to be taken care of, she took the time to visit with us at some length. She took quite a liking to Richard telling us that he reminded her of Robin Williams! She was such a delight.
Continuing on, we encountered the occasional hiker along the way and passed through a couple of small villages. We could often hear traffic on the nearby roadway but for the most part, it was a very peaceful journey. The weather was cloudy and comfortably cool. Our backpacks contained only a change of clothes, the bare necessities for an overnight trip and the food and water we’d need along the trail so our loads weren’t heavy.
When we finally reached our destination, we sought out another onsen where we could soak our weary muscles. Following advice given us at the Yumoto-Hakone tourist information booth, we took a free shuttle bus to a lovely public onsen with both indoor and outdoor pools that was only a few minutes away. We had reserved seats on the 7:00 pm Romance Car back to Tokyo but after stopping for dinner, we were back at the station a little over an hour before that and were able to exchange our seats for ones on an earlier train. That got us home and into bed a little sooner than we’d expected having once again seen and experienced a different aspect of Japan.