As cityfolk, I think we need to escape the stressful, hectic and high tension environment that is the urbanity, and retreat into a place of calm… not permanently, but once in a while. It’s therapeutic, and as cheesy as it might sound, I find it really heals the soul.
Before I set off for Tokyo, I had been deliberating between Nikko, a site of historical significance packed with the country’s most spectacular waterfalls and trails, and Hakone, for the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and was leaning towards the former. Once in Tokyo, I was persuaded to change my mind after I spoke to some fellow travelers at the inn who were in Nikko – it was snowing, which was alright, but the worst thing of it all, is that one couldn’t see s**t because of all the low-hanging clouds. Then, I explored the possibility of taking the Shinkansen to visit a proper Japanese city like Sendai or Nagoya or somethin’ but with the limited time I had given myself, I wondered if it’d be money well spent. So, I settled on a very “safe” choice – Hakone, even though I knew that visibility of Mt. Fuji was virtually zero.
Odakyu, which takes its name from Odawara; located at the foot of the Hakone, connects the southwestern region to Tokyo located some 77 kilometres away to the northeast by way of the Odakyu Odawara Line. To forever immortalize in the minds of people that Odakyu and Hakone are synonymous with each other, the rail operator’s premium service train, “Romancecar” has been prominently featured in Hakone tourism ads since the 1970s. Complete with reclining seats, buy-on-board food and beverages, the service whisks visitors to Hakone from Shinjuku in just forty minutes. If you’re planning to stay in Japan for more than a week, then you’d have gotten a Japan Rail Pass which means it’d be cheaper for you to take the Shinkansen to Odawara, and transfer onto buses to Hakone instead. I didn’t, so I bought the Hakone Free Pass for 5,500 Yen which gives you free access to all modes of transport within the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, as well as all the museums and places which charge admission fees.
Looking north from Shinjuku station’s West exit
nishi-Shinjuku a.k.a. Shinjuku West a.k.a. the Skyscraper District
My day trip began as a “non-start”. After purchasing the Free Pass from the Odakyu counters, I zipped down to McDonald’s for breakfast and may have overstepped it because long story short, I missed my train. Completely dumbfounded, I went back to the passenger service centre and asked them what I should do. Without saying much, the staff gestured me to follow him to a ticketing machine at the platform area where he pulled out coins from his wallet, and booked a new ticket with it. Handing me it, he said, “Wait here. Don’t go out”, with a smile, of course, in typical Japanese fashion.
My train arrives…
A quarter into our journey, I felt like a fool for declining the uy-on-board service, which had a lot of takers. The train was now beaming with passengers all tucking into stylized eki-bento sets, and the delightful aroma of a really well-brewed coffee. I didn’t know it, but I’d find an almost complete lack of food options in Hakone, with whatever available, overpriced, even for Japanese standards.
Mount Hakone is the ugly, unappreciated cousin of Mount Fuji. Since its last recorded eruption three thousand years ago, it shouldbe considered extinct but the area continues to be a hive of geothermal activity, which is responsible for the scenery and hot springs. Once at Hakone-Yumoto station, you board the Hakone Tozan Line mountain railway to Gora. The route is allegedly very beautiful if it’s snow-covered, or during the period of Spring (when the Cherry and Plum Blossoms bloom) to Autumn (when the leaves are shedding color), and since the train climbs every one metre every 12.5 metres, the scenery keeps changing. Along the way, there are stations where there are museums, ryokans with and without hot springs. At the terminus, everybody changes for the Hakone Tozan Cable Car, a funicular railway like Hong Kong’s Peak Tram but generally less steep that takes passengers up the side of the mountain to Sounzan for the Hakone Ropeway. From Sounzan, the Hakone Ropeway traverses a valley to Owakudani at 1,044 metres. I was less than impressed, particularly with the ongoing industrial activity in the scenery. Owakudani, which means “Great Boiling Valley”, is a hive of volcanic activity, complete with active sulphur vents and sulphur pools. It is singularly popular for its black eggs, where eggs are boiled in the sulphur springs, turning them black and making them smell. Each of these charcoal-looking eggs allegedly prolongs life, adding seven years each but you’re advised against eating more than two and a half black eggs in your lifetime though. Not feeling particularly self-preservative, I skipped the delicacy and continued on the Ropeway to Lake Ashinoko.
Hakone Tozan Line mountain railway train.
I had a mild crush for the guy standing in the middle of this picture
Hakone Tozan Cable Car
On the Hakone Ropeway looking towards Owakudani
The lake is quite the attraction because on a clear day, it’s a good reflection pool to Mount Fuji and secondly, it’s the crater lake of Mount Hakone (the volcano is directly at the bottom of the lake), so there are hot springs dotted all around the shores. Of course, hot springs are income opportunities, so everyone is fenced off by the many ryokans that’ve set up shop.
With Mt Fuji out of sight, the ropeway to the summit of Mount Izu closed due to inclement weather, the winds picking up and the mercury plunging, there was little I could do with Hakone. As a pure bottom, mostly passive gay guy, or “小王子” as they term us (Don’t ask me why), I had to visit the Museum of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. However, the bus driver had advised against it – “It snows, and the rain freezes the roads after dark, so nothing runs”, he tells me and most of the visitors still eager to explore the region. Disappointed, I took his advice, and racing against the impending nightfall, he sped down the mountain back to Hakone-Yumoto station. The jaggered and winding roads were lined with snow, and barricades frozen in blocks of ice – you really didn’t want to be out after dark.
Ashinoko a.k.a. Lake Ashi
The foot of Mount Izu
The speed of the transition from daylight to nightfall is just unbelievable…
When I reached Shinjuku, it was already close to nine. Tokyo’s evening rush hour had taken a toll on our arrival (with Odakyu’s commuter trains given priority over Romancecars). After an entire day of walking in the blistering cold, it was nice to board the cosy and comfortable train complete with heated seats. The first thing I did once I got off was head to a vending machine, got myself a can of hot milk tea (Yes, vending machines here dispense hot drinks), sipped and smoked while serenading in the beautiful, heartfelt voice of the singer-songwriter performing outside Shinjuku station’s East exit.