The plan was to visit Hakone yesterday and Fuji Five Lakes today. Unfortunately, yesterday’s weather conditions didn’t allow so now we could only afford to go for either one. We eventually, decided to visit Hakone this morning because there was generally more things to be seen there. The Lake Ashi there also offers a direct view of Mount Fuji.
Hakone is a popular tourist destination located in the Kanagawa prefecture. It is a volcanically active mountainous region cordoned off by the government as a protected national park.
To get to Hakone from Tokyo you have to take a train to the Odawara city from Shinjuku station. It is about an hour there by bullet train but costs over $50 per trip. Instead we decided to take the cheaper, Odakyu Limited Express train. Normally, a one way ticket to Odawara would cost $30.
Apart from JR’s Japan Rail Pass (which does not cover the trip to Hakone), there are actually a lot of other train packages not publicized to tourists. These offers cater to locals who just need a short break outside town and each train operator has its own tie-ins with different destinations. For only 5000 yen, we could get a round trip to Hakone from Shinjuku as well as unlimited usage of all buses, trains, trams, boats and cable cars for 2 days within Odawara, Hakone and the separate city of Gotemba.
Apart from the China couple sitting opposite us, there weren’t any foreign tourists on board the train. Lots of local families and old folk though. The guidebook we got from buying the pass was completely in Japanese, so we didn’t have much reading material for the trip. MJ bought a fashion magazine from 7-11 this morning but for the most part, we just slept through the journey.
It’s hard not to doze off on Japanese transport, all the seats are comfortably heated. On the way we passed by lots of scattered towns and farmland. It took us exactly 2 hours to reach Odawara.
Odawara turned out to be a nice sub urban town with a few large shopping centers. Here we had to switch to a local train to get to Hakone. We finally met with the hordes of other tourists who came by Shinkansen and Romance Car. We decided to drop off first at Hakone-Yumoto, the main town in Hakone for lunch.
Apart from the guide book, we also received a discount coupon booklet when we purchased our pass. Inside this booklet was an interesting challenge to collect 6 stamps from booths hidden around Hakone. We found the first stamp point here in the station but didn’t really bother after the first one.
If you could collect all 6, you could send in the form to claim a tote bag featuring Heidi (an old animation by Ghibli forefathers Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki). Hakone owes a thanks to Switzerland for providing them a means of transport in the mountainous area.
Hakone-Yumoto was a small little town at the base of the mountains. Along the main street are many restaurants, grocery stores and souvenir shops. Most of the souvenir shops here in Hakone-Yumoto specialized in wood crafts such as Kokeshi dolls and Karakuri trick boxes. They were really expensive.
We walked to the not so far end of the street where it eventually ended with a bridge that lead to the area where most of Hakone’s ryokan inns were located. Some of the inns were built along the side of the mountain.
There was a poster for Evangelion at a liquor shop here and some of the previous stores we passed by sold Evangelion themed snacks. Hakone is home to Tokyo-3 in the classic animation series. Many real buildings and landmarks are featured in the show. There is even an official Evangelion guide to Hakone which will help you pinpoint all the locations.
We returned to find a place to eat on the main street. Most of the shops here sold specialized in Soba. Wilson loves Soba so we entered one of them.
The menus were completely in Japanese, this particular shop didn’t really cater to the tourist crowd. Since all the customers were local, I felt reassured that we made the right choice in eating here.
Thanks to MJ who placed all his orders by pointing awkwardly, we obviously stood out as tourists. The middle-aged woman who took my order was very surprised that I could comprehend the menu. She asked where we were from and complimented my Japanese out of politeness. She also asked if we liked soba. We couldn’t possibly say no.
I needed something warm and soupy so I ordered the Otanoshimi Soba. It was enjoyable. Wilson ordered the cold soba while MJ ordered the Katsu don. Sitting two tables away from us was a woman who I swear was Morning Musume’s Michishige Sayumi’s older sister. She had the exactly same piercing eyes and carried herself with such great elegance. She was here having a meal together with her elderly mother.
After lunch we returned to a snack shop that we passed by earlier. They had this really interesting machine for making tiny bean cakes. The batter would be filled into hollow brass rings by the automatic machine and lead by conveyor out onto the pan. We bought a box of 10 to share. The cakes could only last a few days so we couldn’t buy any back. The shop also sold an assortment of other snacks I had never seen elsewhere. After asking an assistant, I learned that the shop would close at 7pm. Since we probably wouldn’t make it back in time, I bought a couple of boxes of snacks here.
We returned to the train station to take the Hakone Tozan line that would bring us up the mountain to Gora. It’s a mountain railroad with a small trainset, it only had 3 carriages to fit the many tourists headed in the same direction. Because of the steep mountain terrain and to minimize the amount of space the railway occupied, the train had to stop thrice to switchback up the mountain.
At Gora, there was nothing of particular interest other than a few gourmet cake and dessert shops. Each of these shops offered only limited quantities. Some shops served only 10 customers a day! The desserts were also affordable ranging between 500-1000 yen each. Unfortunately, we didn’t stop to try out any. Instead we joined the queue for the inclined railway line which would bring us further up the mountain.
Everyone packed into the tiny 2 carriage tram that climbed slowly up the mountain. Along the way I noticed another stamp point at a stop for a museum. We were headed for its last stop, Sounzan.
We left the protection of the station for a look around. There were a few more residences and hotels at Sounzan but we didn’t spend much time here either. Thanks to the crazy weather, the temperature in Tokyo was pretty low the past few days. It was literally freezing here in the mountains though. There were still patches of snow on the ground from the past couple of days. We should had came here yesterday just to see snow in Spring.
After standing out in the open for a while, I needed to get a hot drink despite my policy to carry water with me now.
From Sounzan we had to take a ropeway even further up to Owakudani, one of the main attractions of Hakone. Ever since the thrill rides at DisneySea I’ve been expecting every subsequent vehicle to plunge suddenly. The cable car accelerated out of the dock and jerked when left suspending but other than that the ride was pretty smooth. We shared the cabin with a bunch of Korean tourists.
The Hakone Ropeway holds the Guinness Record for the busiest gondola lift in the world. We reached Owakudani only after 5 minutes. Along the way we passed over some sulfur mines and a reservoir.
An active volcano, Owakudani was the tallest point here in Hakone. Owakudani is famous for offering the legendary spring eggs (as featured in Harvest Moon).
The tall mountain also offers a clear view of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy today. For a brief moment we managed to make out a silhouette of the grand mountain after some clouds passed by.
More tourists were gathered at Owakudani here than any other place in Hakone. A lot of them came by the tour buses parked by a canteen. Though I spotted a few Filipinos, most of them were from China and Korea. They were all headed toward some steam vents along the mountain. We followed the crowds towards the destination.
It was a tiring walk to the shack along the mountainside. It was quite a distance away and the climb was pretty steep. We were also some 1000 meters above ground here at Owakudani and the thinner atmosphere was making it difficult to breathe. With the heat pouring out from crevices in the ground though, it wasn’t nearly as cold here as the other spots.
We met with one danger sign after another on the way there. The signs warned people with health conditions to stay away and everyone else not to stay for long on account of the poisonous gases.
According to the legend (that was probably fabricated just to sell eggs to tourists), consuming each egg here adds 7 years to your life. Having come all the way to Hakone though the spring eggs were a definite must try item.
I was pretty fearful of the long queue that had developed outside the egg shop. Upon closer inspection though, it just turned out to be a whole bunch of PRCs standing around enjoying the sulfur fumes. Most of them weren’t even eating eggs.
I bought a pack of 5 eggs to share. MJ had one for 7 more stamina. Wilson and my health points increased by 14 each. In front of the shop, all the inconsiderate tourists threw egg shells on the floor.
Each of the eggs were cooked in a sulfur pool which the shop was built next to. The shells were discolored black, but none of the color seeped into the eggs.
Since we had eggs for breakfast everyday, this was to be my 3rd and 4th eggs today. It turns out though, the eggs taste exactly like normal hard boiled eggs from Singapore. Quite a feat considering all the other eggs in Japan tastes otherwise.
Next to the trash bin which we stood beside to peel the shells, we spotted a trolley that delivered the eggs back to the canteen which we had passed by.
We returned back to the canteen to check out what it sold. They had some ramen with the sulfur eggs and ice cream made from the milk of Hakone cows. Inside, it also sold touristy snacks but at almost double the cost of other places. MJ disappeared for a while before appearing with a cone of ice cream.
There was a small amusement corner for children inside the station for parents to leave their restless children while they went to increase their stats. There were also more souvenir shops selling grossly overpriced goods. After a quick pass through, we took the separate ropeway over to lake Ashi.
Lake Ashi is a volcanic crater that stretches along the south west section of Hakone. There is a ferry service between the 3 ports of Lake Ashi. The ropeway brought us to the north west port.
It was our intention to take a round trip here on the lake but reached in time for the last available ferry service. This meant that we would be left at the southern most port which had no bus services to Gotemba, which we planned to visit in the late afternoon. Traveling through Hakone took much longer than expected. It was already nearing sunset and we realized we had no choice but to skip the trip to Gotemba.
A red boat was docked at the port, another green boat arrived which would be the one ferrying us across the river. Compared to the rides at DisneySea, the themed boat felt extremely cheap and tacky. They would had been better off just providing a normal ship. Throughout the journey, a ridiculously dressed pirate walked around the ship offering to take photos for a price.
The main deck offered no protection against the freezing mountain winds so I stayed underneath at the lower deck, at least I could occasionally hide behind the pillars there for cover. Since the boat was traveling south, the view of Fuji would be on the left side of the boat, so I camped out there for most of the journey. On the right, the sun was beginning to set.
This route trailed the southern shore of the lake so the famous Torii gate was quite far away from us. You can see the tiny red spec in the above photo. Beyond the mountains there was Mt Fuji, it was nowhere to be seen.
We arrived at the deserted jetty of Hakone-machi. Took a few more shots of the ugly boat here.
After hanging around at the jetty for quite some time. We headed over to find the bus service back to civilization. The building that housed the bus information counter was already closed. I began to fear that perhaps, we had missed the last bus service.
We found a bus stop over by the main road though. The tourists from the ship were here in line for the bus leading back to Yumoto. We queued in a separate line for the bus for Odawara. We could see the moon clearly in the sky this evening.
The tourists jumped into our queue when they learned that our bus passed by Hakone-Yumoto as well. The bus looped around the long mountain road down the mountain. After Yumoto, the only people remaining in the bus were a few locals and a worried Caucasian couple. The bus carried us through the quiet sub urban streets to Odawara station from which we could take a direct train back to Shinjuku.
At the station, Wilson walked into a carton of eggs someone had left on the group. There was a large department store here at the station. We decided to come back later after finding some place to eat at the side streets.
We ending up finding a Freshness Burger at a street with balloons. MJ mentioned that it looked like snow. We decided to introduce Wilson to the awesomeness that was Freshness Burger.
This Freshness Burger outlet was cozier than the others. They provided fleeces on every table. How thoughtful! MJ was irritated by the strange music the outlet was playing. They were playing Strawberry Fields Forever, apparently MJ has never heard of the Beatles.
After dinner, we returned to a Mister Donut shop that we had passed by earlier. While I would had preferred a Krispy Kreme, I didn’t miss out on the chance for donuts. We each got a magnetic member card that stored 10% of our total amount spent as credit.
We returned to the department store at Odawara station where I headed to the pharmacy to stock up on more products for sensitive skin. Wilson wanted to get a leather passport holder from some brand he referred to as Angyar Bay. I couldn’t for the longest time figure out what he was talking about.
It turns out he was talking about Agnes B. A contemporary brand popular among women in Singapore for their grossly overpriced synthetic handbags. Agnes turns out to be French, so I could sort of understand how the Agnes was supposed to be pronounced as Angya. But no matter how you look at it a B is a B. For me, I’m only willing to pay top dollar for fashion that is either classic or exclusive, Agnes B is neither of this.
Back at the hotel, we finally remembered the bean cakes we had bought from Hakone-Yumoto after lunch. We completely forgot our intention to eat them up in the mountains. We finished them in the comfort of the hotel lobby instead.
Back in my room, I still had the donuts from Mister Donut. I was still quite full so I only managed to eat two tonight. The segmented sugary donut was light and bouncy. The fluffy texture was really nice. The chocolate one was more normal though.
Today was our busiest day since DisneySea. It was unfortunate that we weren’t able to see Fuji in the cloudy weather. Hakone turned out to be a much needed break from the countless days of shopping though. It’s really nice that the locals are able to take an affordable train out during the weekends to any of the natural scenic areas around Japan. After a long day, I finally retire to bed. Tomorrow we visit the Tokyo Anime Fair at Odaiba.Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.