Beautiful Japan: Hakone

“How was your Thanksgiving?”

“Not bad. We stayed in a hotel favored by the Emperor and Empress, rode a train up a mountain, travelled over an active volcanic valley via cable car, and sailed on a pirate ship. Then, the next day, we visited a castle.”

No turkey for the Dalzells this year, but given the above itinerary in Hakone for our Thanksgiving trip, we didn’t miss it.

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Hakone is in Japan’s Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, roughly 60 miles west of Tokyo. It’s called a town but the area it covers includes numerous smaller mountain villages and a large lake in the crater of Hakone volcano. The area is famous for its onsen, baths fed by hot springs. There are tremendous views of Mt. Fuji, although I need to take other people’s word, since Fuji opted to hide from my camera. Hakone is one of those places in Japan that people rave about it because it encompasses so much natural beauty. I’ve wanted to plan a trip for a while but was intimidated by whether we should drive or brave public transportation. We opted for the latter for our two-night trip and I’m pleased to report it is quite easy to get around using a Hakone Free Pass, which gave us unlimited access to transportation in Hakone. For advice and info on travel, please scroll down to the end of this post.

On Thanksgiving, we woke up at home to Tokyo’s first November snowfall in more than 50 years. We dressed warmer but the snow mainly meant we had some beautiful views, although I was a little disappointed since I’d booked the trip to see fall foliage. Due to the snow, the train we needed to take to our hotel from Hakone-Yumoto Station was cancelled. Thankfully, finding the right bus was easy and there were lots of staff on hand to guide us. We crammed onto a standing-room-only bus and hung on for dear life while our driver navigated the many curves up the mountain road. It was dark by then and the bus windows were fogged by the many passengers so I can’t report on the view other than the sight of insane people walking down the mountain ON the narrow road while vehicles like our bus did their best to avoid hitting them. When the digital display at the front of the bus listed Miyanoshita in English, we hit the buzzer and got off. (Later we realized we could have exited at the next stop, Miyanoshita Onsen.)

Our destination for the night was Fujiya Hotel. Fujiya is a grand old dame of a hotel, founded in 1878 to cater to foreigners. Ever seen the Grand Budapest Hotel movie? It has that vibe. Past its prime but still retaining an elegant patina and many of the trappings of its best days. It sprawls over the side of the mountain with several wings and took our breath away when we saw it looming above us, glowing brightly in the snow. The lobby is all leather and wood beams and worn carpet. After obtaining our old-fashioned key and its giant wooden fob, a bell hop guided us through the meandering corridors to our room.  Along the way, we passed framed pictures of the dignitaries – Japanese royalty among them – and celebrities who have stayed at the hotel over its long history. Our room, alas, was in the hotel’s newest addition. One wing of the hotel, the Flower Palace, has rooms which are each identified only by the flower image on each door. The next night, we visited the hotel’s museum, where we saw pictures of former guests John Lennon and Charlie Chaplain, and learned about the U.S. occupation of the hotel post-war. This place is begging to have a novel written about it.

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We couldn’t afford to dine in any of its restaurants – certainly not with a picky-eating 6-year-old with us – so we ventured out to look for our meal. We ate our Thanksgiving soba noodles at a small restaurant a short walk from the hotel. We sat on the floor and were served by the restaurant owner in a room that felt like a living room.

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Friday was our day for exploring. The trains were running again so we walked up the hillside to the Miyanoshita Station for the Hakone-Tozan train line. So charming. Established in 1919, the narrow railroad is Japan’s oldest mountain railway, and by all appearances, has not suffered through any updates, right down to the old-fashioned conductor uniforms. We waited on a platform at the tiny station, next to a trio of little girls in navy coats and bonnets waiting to take the train to school. When the train arrived, we crammed ourselves in and rode it up the wooded mountain to its terminus, Gora.

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At Gora, we joined the crowd waiting for what the Japanese translate as a cable car. It’s a tiered train – each car has several levels – that ferries its passengers up the surface of a steep incline. If we’d had more time, there are several interesting museums and parks at the stops along the way, but I was mindful that we’d lose daylight by 4:30, so chose to continue riding to its terminus, Sounzan.

We took a brief stroll through the town before joining the crowd waiting to board the ropeway to dangle us over the Owakudani Valley. (I would call a ropeway a cable car.) We accepted our three wet towels from a station attendant and boarded our car in a very modern station.

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Why the wet towels? Because the ropeway takes you over an active volcano zone complete with sulfurous gasses that linger like fog in the valley below. We breathed in the stench of sulfur but didn’t feel the need to cover our noses and mouths. The views on the way to the Owakudani station featured a snow covered valley.

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A few minutes into the ride, as we approached the station, the fumes took shape beneath us. The crater beneath us was created roughly 3,000 years ago when  Mt. Hakone erupted. Below you see one of the cable cars going the opposite direction. The steps cut into the valley are designed to help prevent landslides.

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We disembarked at Owakudani Station and ventured outside. The views, and smells, were eerie. There’s a not-so-small part of me that thinks turning an active volcanic area into a tourist attraction is perhaps a bit unwise but the experience is made almost – almost, not entirely – mundane by the hoards of tourists all joining in, pointing their cameras at the steaming valley, browsing the gifts stores and slurping noodles at the restaurants. And yes, we did all three. We passed on the area’s specialty, black eggs. They are chicken eggs boiled in hot sulfur spring water, which turns the shells black. Legend has it you can add seven years to your life just by eating one. That may be helpful in this area. The hiking paths and trails that surround the station are currently closed because they’ve been deemed too dangerous.

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The next leg of our journey was finishing our ropeway ride to the line’s terminus at Togendai, at the shores of Lake Ashi.  The ride featured more incredible views. As often happens, Liam made friends on the car. A friendly Japanese grandfather invited him to take in the sights from a spot next to him.

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img_4845Next, we sailed across the lake in a pirate ship. I’m not so sure about the historical accuracy of sailing across a Japanese lake formed in the caldera of a volcano in a ship designed for pirates but, as we often say to ourselves here in Japan: Why not? The pier is connected to the Togendai station.

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We splurged and upgraded to the First Class area of the ship after boarding. We spent roughly $10 – our regular fare was included in the Hakone Free Pass – and appreciated having fewer people around us for the trip and for the access to a separate deck where we didn’t need to jostle with others to take pictures.

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Ahoy, ye maties.

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I love this picture of the hubster enjoying a cup of coffee while Liam drinks what is probably the second Coca-Cola he’s had in his lifetime:

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The kid was already having a pretty good day:

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The lake isn’t huge. It took roughly a half-hour to sail to the opposite side, to the port of Motohakone. Some travelers are greeted by incredible views of a looming Mt. Fuji for this leg of the journey. We weren’t, but I loved looking across the water to spy the torii gate of Hakone Shrine.

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To visit the shrine, you walk along the edge of the lake. The town here has a number of restaurants as well as the Narukawa Museum (contemporary art) but, again, due to time, we opted to skip everything but the shrine.

We spied our pirate ship on its return trip to Togendai.

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We’ve become nearly professional connoisseurs of shrines during our two-and-half years here. Liam likes them so much that on a Thanksgiving list for school he listed “I’m grateful for shrines because they are peaceful” as one of the five things he’s most grateful for this year. (If you’re curious, “Playing with friends,” topped the list.)

I’m grateful for shrines, too, and particularly grateful that we visited Hakone Shrine. It is among the prettiest we’ve seen. You approach it by walking along a road lined by red lanterns, then climbing stairs, all under the ancient forest shadows of cedar trees said to be at least 800 years old. I don’t practice Shinto, so the shrine wasn’t someplace I visited for religious reasons, but the atmosphere there was thick and hushed. It felt special, holy, even with so many people around. The lingering dusting of snow from the previous day’s snowfall helped to enhance the atmosphere.

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I was intrigued by this stately cedar tree which was clearly designated as special. Later, I read that it is a baby wishing tree. Women who touch it after washing their hands at the shrine may either become pregnant or have a safe delivery, depending on which source you read. I simply thought it was beautiful.

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Approaching the steps to the shrine:

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The cedar trees and the walls of the path are intertwined:

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The shrine’s purification basin features a nine-headed dragon, harking back to the shrine’s founding: A monk converted the evil spirit of the dragon into a protective spirit and enshrined it.

The snow was still thick on the eaves of the temple. Great soft chunks of it kept sliding off.  At one point, a man about to pray was “blessed” by a heap falling onto his head. He was unharmed and laughed about it with the surrounding crowd.

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We crossed back down the path and continued on down straight to the lake’s surface, where the ‘floating’ torii gate stands in the water.

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Can you feel the peacefulness of the place?

After the shrine, we returned by bus to our hotel. Friday night’s dinner was at another small restaurant in Miyanoshita. We dined on tempura cooked in front of us by the owner and served to us by his wife.

Saturday morning dawned clear and brisk. Before checking out, we walked through the Fujiya Hotel’s extensive gardens, which include ponds, waterfalls, greenhouses and bonsai trees. It was worth packing up a little early so we’d have time to explore.

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The hotel has an indoor pool filled with hot spring water as well as male and female onsens. I had opted to soak in the spring water that filled our bathtub. Outside, we found the outdoor pool, which appeared original from the 1920s.

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img_5167We rode the Hakone-Tozan train back down the mountain, covering the section of tracks we’d missed because of the snow on Thanksgiving. The route included three switch backs. It was fascinating to watch the conductor exit the train, walk along its length, and enter the other end so he could drive forward on what had been the back of the train. The views out the window were lovely but I was also impressed by the elegance of the train itself and its antique controls.

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I think we could have continued toward home at that point and counted ourselves fortunate for a nice trip, but we had one more stop planned. At Hakone-Yumoto Station we transferred to the return train to Odawara Station. There, we disembarked so we could visit a castle.

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Odawara Castle is a 15-minute walk from the station. Originally built in the 15th century, it was destroyed several times by warring factions and by earthquakes. The current structure was built in 1960. Rather than a historical reproduction, most of the five floors inside are dedicated to museum space highlighting the castle’s history during different eras. It is the closest castle to Tokyo and could be visited as a day trip from the city.

The castle is surrounded by a large park and has a moat and several reconstructed gates. Weirdly, there is also a large cage with monkeys in the castle yard.

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An outdoor observation balcony on the castle’s top level provides views of the nearby mountains and sea.

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I doubt we will ever have another Thanksgiving quite like this one again. One of the pleasures of living abroad is the opportunity to shake routines up, to ride pirate ships and eat soba instead of shop sales at Target and dine on pumpkin pie. When we return again to the U.S., I’ll be grateful both for the return of treasured traditions as well as for the memories we’ll carry of holidays spent on volcanoes and mountain trains.

Travel tips: Getting to Hakone and around

There are a number of routes you can take to get to Hakone via train, including a bullet train (Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen) from Tokyo Station to Odawara Station, but we opted to travel via Shinjuku Station. The Odakyu Sightseeing Service Center at the west exit of Shinjuku Station sells a Hakone Free Pass for two or three days of unlimited transportation in Hakone. We paid Y5,640 each for our adult tickets and Y1,750 for Liam.

The two-day pass is slightly cheaper, as is a pass that you can purchase in Odawara, on the way to Hakone,  but we figured it made sense to use it starting from Shinjuku. (Budget note: If I added up what we paid over the course of the three days for transportation, I’m not convinced we saved money, per se, but it was worth the convenience to skip all ticket purchasing lines for the transportation we used and to not fuss over the exact fare required for individual busses.)

The staff hand you your passes and 5-minutes later you could be on your train. The pass also allows you to ride a train called the Limited Express Romance Car  but you have to purchase an additional limited express ticket, either at the station or before hand online. We rode on a regular Odakyu line train from Shinjuku to Odawara. The trip took nearly two hours. It wasn’t fancy but the views out the window were nice.

I planned my trip primarily using the Odakyu.jp website, which features a ton of resources. Need sample itineraries? How about a map of bus routes and advice for taking the busses? Need a general map of the area (scroll down the page to find it) that shows which forms of public transportation can take you to which attractions? I printed both that map and the bus route map and found them both useful as we were sightseeing.

Our trip to Hakone was quick – some tourists even visit for a single day from Tokyo – but there were many attractions we missed, including an amusement park spa called Hakone Kowakien Yunessun. (Yes: It’s the one where you can dip yourself in a jacuzzi filled with wine. Oh, Japan. Why not?)

Like this blog and want to get travel directions to the locations mentioned? You can find this post on the GPSmyCity travel app.