After the Kyoto train ticket sticker shock moment, we stopped at a Café Beck in the train station to regroup. Consulting the guide book, we boiled our options down to two choices: Nikko, a place where we could hike around visiting temples and shrines, or Hakone, a mountainous area with hot springs situated between Tokyo and Kyoto. The deciding factors were price and convenience: with a Hakone Free Pass (5000¥ per person) we could take a train to Hakone, then use all public transportation in the area for free for two days. As you will see, this proved to be quite an incredible deal.
Wiping from our minds all thoughts of what we might be missing in Kyoto, we grabbed our bags and headed to Shinjuku station. We bought our Free Passes and called ahead on the train station pay phone to set up a room at a local guest house. Then from Shinjuku we took an hour-and-fifteen-minute train ride to Odawara, then transferred to a local old-fashioned train to Hakone-Yumoto. This little town was a kind of staging ground for exploring the Hakone region (Misou aptly compared it to Jackson Hole). Hakone itself is a sharp mountain peak formed by a prehistoric volcanic eruption and subsequent collapse.
We stopped in this first little town and walked around for a bit sampling the local sweets and treats, and then had lunch at a restaurant called Kamakou. We requested a traditional Japanese table with zabuton (pillows) overlooking a small river, and ate some kakitama (hot udon soup) and katsudon (fried chicken and egg over rice) with soba and pickles. We also had a nice chat with a Japanese man and wife who were returning home from Dallas, Texas, for a visit. His family, we learned, lives in Sendai, very near one of the coastal areas devastated by the tsunami.
After lunch, we caught a Hakone Tozan Bus up into the mountains to a place called Moto Hakone-ko, on the shore of Lake Ashi. From the quay, we looked up to see the top of Mount Fuji pushing up through the clouds. Ah, nice, we thought, there’s Mount Fuji. What a nice surprise!
– That’s not Mt. Fuji either.
– THAT’s Mt. Fuji (the farthest summit away in the clouds)!
The Fuji-Hokane Guest House proved to be a very nice surprise, as well. The proprietress was conversant in English, and she welcomed us warmly and showed us all the amenities of the guest house. Just outside her office was a small outdoor onsen (hot bath) streaming over a rock fountain, and there was a second one inside the main house with a lion’s head spout and a statue of the Buddha. (Misou regrets that she didn’t get any pictures of the hot springs due to excessive steaminess.)
Our room was simple and traditional. We had a small table with zabutan. In our closet we found not only yukata but haori (a thicker jacket worn over top). Donning them at once, we prepared for a half hour bath outdoors in the steamy gray sulfuric water supplied by the Owakudani volcano. For the bath, though, we were required to strip naked and shower, then move out to the courtyard. The hot water and the chilly night air proved to be a perfect combination. After cooling off, we went back to our room to relax on our futons, once more in our yukata. Both of us fell asleep with the lights on at 7:30 pm.
We awoke in plenty of time to make our 7:30 am bath appointment. The steaminess of the indoor onsen was even more enjoyable, and we were invigorated by the early morning bath. We headed out in search of local restaurants, and found that nothing—not even the Saint-Exupéry/Petit Prince café—was open. We ended up buying a tasty breakfast from Lawson Station, which is like 7-11, only with stuff that is way better than a three-month old hot dog on a roller.
Next, we caught a bus back to Togendai-ko, pausing along the way at the “Silver Grass” Sengokuhara stop. From Togendai-ko, we took the Hakone Ropeway, a cable car that hauls tourists up to the top of Owakudani. They call this the hell valley, and the brochure describes it thusly: “The hell valley is called ‘Owakudani,’ which was formed before Christ by volcanic explosion…” We found this description oddly amusing.
We hiked up the side of the mountain, which was steaming and which stank of sulfur hydroxide. At the high point, we ate kurotomago (eggs cooked in the hot springs until they turn black) and steamed yam wrapped in newspaper. Misou wondered whether the farty smell was from the springs or from hundreds of people eating black eggs.
Then we took a second ropeway down to Sounzan, and transferred to a funicular to Gora. (Needless to say, these volcanic mountains are extremely steep.) From Gora, we took a short train ride to one of the trip’s highlights: the Hakone Open-Air Museum.
This museum alone made the trip to Hakone worthwhile—and keep in mind we’d already crossed a volcanic lake by boat, seen Mount Fuji, ridden a cable car over steep volcanic peaks, eaten eggs hard-boiled in a volcano, and ridden a funicular down a steep slope. If you are in Tokyo and want to take a short trip out of the city, we strongly recommend you spend the night in Hakone. Here again, we must let the pictures speak for themselves.
As dusk approached, we knew we had to head back to Tokyo. We took a winding train full of little Japanese schoolgirls back to Hakone-Yumoto, then continued on to Odawara. We then returned to Shinjuku, where we stopped off at Yakitori Alley again for some ramen and gyoza (finally!). Exhausted and missing the mountains, we trucked back to our hotel in Ueno to prepare for our final day in Tokyo.
– I ❤ noodles.
Misou’s Post Scripts:
We’re two days behind again in posting but I have legitimate excuses. Traveling, reuniting with my relatives in Saigon, plus technical difficulties with blog posting.
For those who care, we’ve been writing posts and inserting pictures in Windows Live Writer, then publishing to WordPress.com, where we do additional formatting and captioning. Unfortunately Windows Live Writer has been adding codes into the posts/pictures, making it impossible to format on WordPress.com. Long story short, I had to start over on this post, which is a pain since we have a lot of pictures to re-add.
I also wanted to add to Brandon’s recap. We had packed very lightly thinking that we’re going to be in Kyoto, where forecast was warmer than Tokyo. I wore flip flops. That’s also when I noticed that I. Was. The. Only. One. In. Tokyo. Wearing. Flip. Flops. Talk about fashion faux pas! Plus, it was colder in Hanoke. I was uncomfortable to say the least. Not that I didn’t enjoy Hakone with cold legs & feet. 🙂