Some 100km west of Tokyo stands the icon of Japan, Mt. Fuji or Fujiyama. We've been lucky enough to see the classical conic shape from Tokyo, but we now visited Hakone in the hope of a closer view. This didn't eventuate - in good weather (mostly), Fuji, still 30km away, remained shrouded in cloud, even though February (and winter generally) is statistically a month with plenty of clear days. Oh well, but we discovered that there is much more at Hakone. We got there on the Odakyu Line's Romance Car limited express from Shinjuku to Hakone's base station, Hakone-Yumoto, a very busy station clinging to the side of a hill on the edge of a rather cute mountain town.
The Hakone area is a truly delightful mountain retreat, a beautiful and complex array of urbanisation, rugged wilderness and a whole cornucopia of transport options. In the four days we spent in Hakone, we got around by taxi, bus, train, ropeway, cable car and boat. Roads here are narrow, steep and windy - all drivers have to cooperate to get past any oncoming vehicle. There is so much of interest here, in the way of scenic attractions, bush walking, history, galleries and even shopping) that it would make sense to spend more time exploring, and possibly a rental-car would be a good idea. No wonder the Japanese love this place, all within day-trip range of Tokyo.
The Hakone Tozan Line is Japan's oldest mountain railway, about 1920. Its tiny three carraige train sets resemble a light rail system, but the signalling system is first rate. It has to be, trains are running in both directions on a single line track every ten minutes or so, with passing lanes and three "switchbacks" where the driver and conductor run to swap places. The train climbs from 108m at Hakone-Yumoto to 553m at Gora over 9km (about 40mins) of cliff-clinging, twisty track. It's a fun ride, full of things to look at.
Buses provide a similar experience. A comprehensive network covers the territory, the buses navigating really tight spaces with aplomb and consideration. Every other vehicle gets a wave of thanks from the bus drivers. Every time the bus takes off, the drivers count and "salute" each of their six mirrors. Like everywhere else, the buses adhere absolutely to their timetables.
Lake Ashi or Ashinoko is a large crater lake in the caldera of Mount Hakone. It's 723m above sea level and it's a weird sensation to climb a long steep hill in a bus to look down on a lake, such is the nature of volcanos! A very popular way of crossing Lake Ashi is on ferries, each modelled on old pirate ships or war-ships for some reason, and from the southern end of the lake you can see Mt. Fuji, if you're lucky. We were not, a huge cloud stubbornly refusing to budge from the top of the mountain each time we were here.
By travelling between Goma, the railway terminus, and Togendai-ko, a ferry stop, we learned the difference between the terms ropeway and cable car, in Japanese parlance at least. Between Goma and Souzan there is a "cable car", two trains running on a steep slope (one up, one down) connected by a cable operated from the top station. There are four stops on the way, and the two trains have a passing lane in the middle. And between Souzan and Togendai-ko there are two seperate "ropeways" carrying dozens of gondolas, each holding maybe a dozen passengers. At the top, connecting the two ropeways is Owakudani (1044m), also accessible by road, an extremely popular vantage point.
Owakudani is referred to as "hell" in much tourist literature, it's where the inner workings of our planet break through to the surface in swirls of steam and very strong sulphur smells. (Every passenger on the ropeways has been given a moist face-cloth becore coming here, and warned off if they have any breathing illnesses.) The Hakone area is actively volcanic, being right at the intersection of three tectonic plates. The major formative eruptions of the Hakone caldera were 180,000 and 60,000 years ago, the latest causing lava flow was 2,900 years ago. In 1170AD there was a significant eruption, and much more recently, in 1991 a seismic swarm of 300 recorded earthquakes occurred. In 2015 there was a lesser explosion causing a small, new crater to be formed, evaculations and disruption of tourism. The new crater is evident if you peer through the swirling steam escaping the valley near Owakudani but the whole area is such a sulphurous hell-hole you wouldn't notice it.
It's said that eating just one black egg boiled in dilute sulphric acid prolongs your live seven years.
We had been wondering how onsen hot water is managed, and up here, we gained some insight to that question. Owakudani is a farm where hot water is grown and distributed. It an amazing, and ugly, industrial enterprise, but the scalding water thus produced is then used to warm us up in those wonderful Japanese bath-houses. When you are here, it looks like the end of the earth, but a study of the map quickly shows how close the trappings of tourist civilisation are, ryokans, golf courses etc. There's a Geological Museum at Owakudani and the JPY100 entry fee is well worth it, giving the history or the area, and with scale models of the heat exchangers.
On the bad side, our whole time at Hakone was blighted by huge crowds. When we made these arrangements we didn't realise that it was Chinese New Year, and nor did we appreciate that Japan would be so popular with the Chinese at this time. We thought families were meant to reunite back home at CNY, not decamp to foreign countries! We first discovered this problem when we had to queue up for an hour at Shinjuku Station, Tokyo just to buy the Hakone Free Pass which would get us on the Romance Car limited express train to Hakone-Yumoto Station as well as local trains, buses, cable cars and ropeways within the district. For our visit, public transport was distressingly overcrowded - the cable car was the main bottle-neck, but the trains were packed too. We imagine that it is always busy in this tourist region, but Chinese New Year is definitely to be avoided!
For accommodation, we picked the Kai Hoshino at Hakone for a few nights of luxury before returning to Tokyo for the last time. It squeezes in between the Old Tokaido Road and the Sukumo River. Our suite, which is in a new wing, faces due north across the river to a very pretty and very close foothill of Mt Yusaka. Steam from the onsen downstairs wafts pass our full width picture window. It's really pure indulgence, our suite, with large living and sleeping rooms, in a modern-traditional styling fusion, and a large ultra-chic bathroom and shower.
Kai Hakone is decorated in themes of parquetry from various local woods, called yosegi zaiku. There are truly glorious wooden creations, including impenetrable puzzles, in both the common areas and in our suite. Tempting but expensive.
In individual paper walled rooms, we dine on Japanese style kaiseki dinners here, which are probably the best of the whole trip. The kitchen goes to great lengths to accommodate special food wishes, and the staff try to explain what everything is. We get written menus. Kaiseki breakfasts too - at this time of day we'd probably prefer our fruit, cereal and toast!
Kai Hakone is located on the Tokaido road, a torturous path through the mountains taken by travellers between Edo (old Tokyo) and Kyoto. Under a policy called sankin kotai, once a year, feudal lords (daimyo) were obliged by the shogun to travel to and from Kyoto for the purpose, it was said, of impoverishing them beacuse of the costs of maintaining two households. This annual event is commemorated on a giant noren (curtain) which divides the Kai's onsen into "inside" and "outside" - it's a truly spectacular katazome (stencil dyed) sketch by Mitsuko Ogura made even more interesting by fanciful elements such as the mountains being represented by parquetry, the appearance of a modern day pirate ship on Lake Ashi and a tourist cable car too!
The onsen is unusual, a large rectangular wooden tub (no natural rock formations here) half in and half out of the building. There is a very pretty, subtly lit, garden by the onsen, and if you sit on the bath edge, you can contemplate the river only a few metres away, until you get too cold and have to slip back into the 40C water. All pretty nice, but we wonder if this onsen is big enough to cope with sumer crowds.
And on that sankin kotai pilgrimage, one of the three ports in the pirate ship cruise loop on Lake Askinoko is Hakone-machi where the shogun placed a sekisho, a check-point, which operated from 1618 to 1868AD, where arrivals were searched for weapons, and (apparently more importantly) departing women were scrutinised closely in case they were wives (or children) of the said daimyo attempting to flee from Edo. The women were hostages in Edo to make sure the daimyo came back!
As we left from Hakone-Yumoto station, we observed packed Romance Car trains arriving every 20 minutes from Tokyo, packed local trains arriving from nearby big city and Shinkansen stop Odawara, and wondered how this district can absorb such visitor numbers. We were very glad to have been able to enjoy almost absolute peace and quiet at an out-of-town riverside ryokan.