I’d been wanting to visit Hakone since our last trip to Japan, initially planning for it to be a day trip out of the city. After realising that travelling to and from would significantly limit our time, I decided to wait until our most recent trip to stay a couple of nights in the area.
Catching the ‘romance car’ limited express from Shinjuku, we watched the scenery change from the built up city into suburban towns and countryside hills over the one and a half hour trip. Once inside the Hakone area, we took the Tozan Railway up the slope, watching outside as it began to pour down rain while fog calmly rolled in over the surrounding mountains.
The railcar reached its final station at Gora, a small little township built upon the side of the mountain where we would be staying for the next two nights. From here, we changed to the local cablecar which took us further up until reaching the station closest to our hotel.
Our hotel was nestled down a small and quiet local street and though we had arrived almost an hour before check-in, the kind owner welcomed us and gave us our keys. The room itself turned out to be a fully serviced Japanese apartment with a full kitchen, separate living space and a tatami room with proper futons for sleeping. From outside our balcony we could see the mountains in the distance, partly hidden in the cloudy fog. It was truly beautiful and I would go back there in a second if the opportunity came up.
Arriving later in the afternoon meant that it we didn’t have a lot of time to get out and explore, however we decided to walk down to Gora Park that features many landscaped gardens and pathways to explore. It was a great way to end our travel day before picking up some bentos for tea at the nearby Daily Yamazaki.
Our only full day would be started by picking up breakfast (for me, a couple of onigiri) and heading back to Gora park to eat at a quiet bench (free entry with the Hakone Free Pass). From there we walked back to the closest cable car stop and took it to the top most station before changing to the ropeway. As we were in transit between the two we were given hand towels to cover our faces once we reached Owakudani, reminding us that we were heading into a volcanic area.
The ropeway continued up the mountain side, treating us to an overhead view of Gora. While I was busy taking photos of the town, we passed over the lip of the mountain and I heard several people gasp behind me. I turned around to see huge smoke clouds billowing into the air, surrounded by nothing but rock and withered trees. I didn’t realise how drastic the change would be between areas and to think that we had been staying just on the other side of this.
Getting off the ropeway at Owakudani valley, we admired the volcanic gas vents from the look-out, the egg-scented sulphur filling the air. A strange industrial hum seem to be constantly coming from the gas vents, like it was powering a huge machine hidden below the mountain. Meanwhile, the shops along the outlook sold ‘black eggs’, boiled in the natural spring waters that contain sulphur and iron that turn black on the outside and are said to increase your lifespan when eaten. The whole experience was surreal and I guess somewhat humbling, being up close to this natural phenomenon that could erupt at any time.
After having spent enough time in the volcanic valley, we travelled on the ropeway down the other side of mountain before arriving on the northern shore of Lake Ashi. Grabbing a quick lunch, we used our free passes again to board the very comical ‘pirate’ ship that would take us across to the southern side. Compared to Owakudani, our trip across the lake was in contrast very quiet and calm. It was nice to watch the tree-covered slopes slowly pass by us on both sides while getting glimpses of shrine gates and small fisherman boats along the shoreline.
Reaching the southern side, we found ourselves near the Old Tokaido and Hakone checkpoint, a restored area that played an important role of controlling traffic during the Edo era. It has been saved from almost complete ruin and is now looked after by local volunteers. We explored the checkpoint as well as its accompanying museum, admiring the views of the lake.
Having arrived mid-afternoon, we were running short on time before the buses finished running for the day and the local Gora restuarants closed. We decided to check out one more site – the Detached Palace – before heading back. The palace itself was a little disappointing (its history was interesting but there’s not much to see) but the views and surrounding gardens were worth it.
With little time to spare, we headed back to Gora and as a final treat went to the Ninja cafe, a cute little place hidden a few shops back from the station. All the food is ninja themed, the guy serving was dressed as a shinobi and for $3 you even have a go at throwing ninja stars. It was a great way to finish off our day.
I’m glad we took the time to actually stay and enjoy Hakone this time around. I feel we only touched the surface of what it has to offer as there are many museums and other beautiful places we didn’t have time for but what we did see was beautiful. Would definitely love to visit the place again :).