Japan 2015, Episode 8: Putting the “Treat” in Retreat
After a continuous pattern of staying somewhere for one or two days and moving to other pastures before I had even gotten a true taste of it, I finally took it upon myself to stay a little longer somewhere. The place I chose to do this was Hakone: a land of rolling mountains, dense woodland, and the sparkling Lake Ashinoko. Amazingly enough, Hakone is only about an hour-and-half from Tokyo, making it a popular spot for Japanese and foreign tourists alike. Still, everything that Hakone has to offer makes every crowded cable car ride or “tourist traffic jam” worth it.
The area boasts hiking trails, art museums, and—if you’re lucky enough—views of Mt. Fuji. It’s also been a famous hot spring town for centuries, making it the perfect place to initiate yourself into the world of onsen if you so choose! So, if you love art, nature, and relaxing, you’ll find Hakone most enjoyable. The lovely early spring fog prevented me from seeing Fuji-san, sadly, but that made the time spent in Hakone no less meaningful. I bought the Hakone Free Pass and did a lot while here, so see the Places Stayed/Places Seen for a list of suggested activities. I have excluded the “Places Eaten” part of this section as all of my breakfasts and dinners came from my ryokan and any food in between consisted of green tea ice cream and bento boxes from 7-11. Make fun of my health habits all you want, but just know that my incredibly unnecessary luggage that I carried around most of the time led to some pretty exquisite guns, okay?
Anyway, in the wake of the deluge of tourists coming to see the cherry blossom activity near Tokyo, Hakone was getting more and more booked by the minute. I was fortunate to find the affordable and quirkily charming “Owners Gora” hostel to provide my lodging. Staying here gave me the chance to have a hostel-ryokan hybrid experience wherein I got to have in-house meals for breakfast and dinner – promptly served at 8:00 am and 6:00 pm, respectively. While this only gave me an approximate 9-hour window to be out and about, this was actually perfect as there really isn’t much going on in Hakone before/after those times. After so much continuous activity, it was kind of nice to be tethered, believe it or not. Thus, my nights consisted of catching up on writing, reading, and finally watching Grey Gardens.
The whole trip has been an ongoing panorama of beautiful scenery; no doubt about that. But Hakone, with its 360 degrees of serene landscape, was truly a perfect window for gazing at the natural beauty of Japan. This was the Japan I had seen in artwork and photos growing up. This was the Japan I only half-imagined when I fantasized about going into the Japanese countryside. This was the Japan that reminded me just how lucky I was to be visiting her.
See below for chronologically-ordered pics (oh, how orderly I can be!) after the jump.
First, I went a little crazy at the Open Air Museum. I’d skip over these next twenty pictures if you’re not in the mood for a spoiler alert (in all honesty, though, these pictures don’t do these pieces justice and this is still something you MUST see in person).
Fortunately, you can’t take any pictures inside the Picasso exhibit, which means you now HAVE to visit it! Muahaha.
You may be wondering why this picture of the artist Giacomo Manzu is posted below. One look at his fabulous disposition will tell you everything.
The below attempts at grabbing the area’s scenery proved to be immense motivation for me to get a REAL camera.
Checkin’ out a few models posing for a photoshoot in downtown near Hakone-Yumoto station.
Another unceremonious train-capture of a sakura blossom tree.
The grounds at Hakone Museum of Art.
This is actually a private area that I was trespassing in. Accidental, I swear!
Ah, the old Hakone ropeway. Gateway to Owakudani, or funitel into another dimension?
The Time Slip Express. Where it’s going, nobody knows…
Owakudani: Worth the poop smell, guaranteed™.
They say that one egg adds seven years to your life. If that’s the case, I’m pretty much immortal at this point.
My egg colleague posing in his natural habitat.
Judging by the condition of some of the public bathrooms in the US, this sign might actually be incredibly useful.
Pirates marching towards battle.
The throne for the ride.
Swashbuckler on the high seas.
Traveling to Hakonemachi via…the Vatican?
Funny thing about the Hakone Checkpoint: its primary purpose was to prevent women from escaping. Didn’t they hear the old saying about women who misbehave?
The would-be Fuji view from the top of the checkpoint. Still a stunner.
Part of the Cedar path.
Part of Hakone shrine.
Hakone shrine in its full splendor. That mountain backdrop, though!
Observations/Tips for Hakone
This is by no means a place off the beaten path, so be prepared to be surrounded by tourists from all over if you come to Hakone. It wasn’t terribly crowded when I came due to the chances of seeing Mt. Fuji being so low, but I can’t even imagine how it gets during Golden Week or the fall, when the foliage starts changing color and the atmosphere clears up.
As I mentioned previously, there really isn’t much going on here before 9:00 am or after 6:00 pm. Should you be looking for a nightlife hub, you are better served in Tokyo or Osaka (as would be expected).
The Hakone Free Pass is a misnomer because it’s sure as heck not free, but it’s nonetheless a smokin’ deal if you’re interested in fully exploring the area. I bought the three-day pass for 4,500 yen and probably saved well over 10,000 yen in doing so.
I highly recommend spending, at minimum, two half-days and a night in Hakone and doing the Hakone Round Course, as described here.
Places Stayed/Things Seen
Accommodation: Gora Owners (note, the name varies by website, but the booking site I used, Agoda, refers to it as “Hostel Owners Gora Hakone”) – follow the link for a description/review.
The Hakone Open-Air Museum. This would have to be my number-one choice for things to do in Hakone. An amazing set of pieces (including a Picasso exhibit!) with an awesome, varied terrain, a delicious cafe, and a couple of fun kid’s areas to boot.
Hakone Yuryo onsen. While I had used private onsen in my accommodations throughout the trip, this was my first experience using the public baths. If you’ve ever wanted to be naked in front of a bunch of strangers but never had the opportunity, now’s your chance! Yes,if I haven’t mentioned it yet, going to the onsen is an experience done exclusively in the buff. It’s worth noting that men and women are strictly segregated, which makes things more comfortable.
Another thing to note about onsen is that most of them are extremely strict about not allowing people with tattoos in – this one included. Trust me – I’m the proud owner of two (incredibly tiny) tattoos and I nearly got kicked out of here before one of the staff came to my rescue and placed bandages on them. The strictness comes from the taboo tattoos have in Japan due to the yakuza (Japanese gang members), but as another tourist visiting the baths pointed out: “Does she look like a gangster to you?” I was both amused by and in agreement with this statement, but I had to go by the rules.
Owakudani. This giant, boiling fissure filled with toxic gases is actually an incredibly beautiful place! I know, that’s like saying “That serial killer’s actually a super nice guy!” But honestly, Owakudani and its magnificent black eggs (of which I had five in one day…oops) are a must-see stop and hold the number 2 position in my list of favorite places in Hakone.
Lake Ashinoko Cruise. A fantastic way to see the lake while simultaneously feeling like you’re in the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I highly recommend shelling out the extra 500 yen for first class, as you will be infinitely more comfortable and will have access to higher points on the ship.
Hakonemachi Checkpoint Museum. A unique and immersive reconstruction showing what life was like at one of the checkpoints along the Old Tokaido, the highway which connected Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period (1603 to 1868). There is another great potential view of Mt. Fuji here if the weather is clear enough. While the checkpoint itself has plenty of information in English, the small Tokaido Museum near the checkpoint is primarily in Japanese.
Cedar Path to Motohakone.From the cruise drop-off point at Hakonemachi, it is possible to walk about 20-45 through a pleasant, cedar-lined path. This served as part of the Old Tokaido and is significantly more pleasant than taking a bus.
The Hakone Museum of Art. This small art museum has give sections and if focused on Japanese ceramics. The grounds here, however, are the truly stunning portion.
Hakone Shrine. Situated about a five-minute walk from Motohakone pier, this stunning shrine might be one of the most beautiful Japan has to offer with its giant torii gate, lantern-lined path, and misty ambiance.
The Detached Palace. I actually was able to walk around its grounds a little bit, but did not see the building up close. However, it supposedly has stunning views of Mt. Fuji when weather permits.
Most of all, it should not surprise anyone after this entry that the most important thing to see next time is Mt. Fuji! I can’t fear, however, for I am certain that my next trip to Japan is just a short time away.
While this nature sure did nurture me, it is off to the big city again for the final episode of the trip, Episode 9! It can’t already be here…can it?