The fifth city we visited in Japan was Hakone. Known for its hot springs and Mt. Fuji views (only on a clear day mind you), Hakone is a nice little town to explore if you are looking to relax and escape the big cities of Japan. The railway to get there is pretty slow when compared to the sleek high speed trains we had been used to traveling on so you know it is not a highly frequented destination. The railway was also run independent of the major lines, so we had to buy tickets and could not use our Japan rail passes. It really felt more like we were riding a little two car trolley through the woods from one of the main train stations to our hotel. There were several stops where the train reversed directions in order to share the tracks with other rail cars going the other direction. I think quirky is the best way to describe it, but it got us to our final destination all in one piece!
We decided to splurge in Hakone and get a high end ryokan complete with our own private open air onsen to relax a little toward the end of our trip! This was the most expensive place either of us has stayed to date, and once you check out the meals, you might start to get an idea of why…Let’s begin with a tour of the room.
After a quick survey of the room we were presented with two yukata (Japanese pajama) options to wear about the hotel and in the near future to our dinner they had already begun preparing. We knew part of the reason the price of this ryokan was so high was because they provided large breakfasts and dinners as part of the room rate, but we were not entirely prepared for what came next…I missed a few dishes here and there, but I captured most of them…*drool*
And if that were not enough, the next morning they provided a very substantial breakfast!
After breakfast we decided to check out the open air museum in the Gora area (near our hotel). It got good reviews and we did not really have anything much planned for our stay in Hakone other than relaxing. We went to ask the front desk about other things to do and despite our proximity to the nearest cable car/ropeway stops (right outside the hotel), they offered to drop us off anywhere we liked. Ah the benefits of paying too much for your accommodations. There have to be some perks, right?
The museum itself was a large open park with many different kinds of sculptures and “gizmos.” Some of the moving sculptures were the most fascinating to me. They also had quite a large indoor Picasso exhibit going on at the time, I am not sure if it was a permanent attraction or more of a traveling show. Either way, we had a good time walking through the park and trying to guess what some of the statues were and/or what the artist’s intent could have possibly been. Neither of us are particularly knowledgeable about art these days…
After the museum we took the cable car up to the ropeway and then the ropeway across the volcano to the crater lake! The ropeway was one of the highlights of Hakone for me because you get to see all the sulfur and steam vents with gas coming out of the volcano at one point. They even provided us all wet cloths we could hold over our faces as we traveled above this section to prevent us getting sick from the volcano off-gas (though no one used them). This area is known as Owakudani, otherwise referred to as great boiling valley. This section of the ropeway was actually closed for part of 2015 into 2016 due to volcanic activity in the area. Fortunately it was opened back up prior to our trip. There is a neat little museum there that explains more about the man made retaining walls built to prevent landslides and the workers who help ensure a steady supply of hot spring water to all the public and private onsen in the area. I believe there may have been another hiking opportunity we missed here where you can get down closer to the valley itself, but the two times we passed by it was very windy/cold or raining, not ideal hiking situations. We also managed to catch a farfetched while waiting in line to board one of the ropeway cars at one of the three stations. This pokemon is exclusive to Asia from what we have read, and since China and google maps do not play nice, we have had 0 opportunity to catch one even though we live in Asia…but enough about pokemon, back to our original story.
Hakone really has quite a wide variety of transportation options from cable car to ropeway to bus, to train, to boat…We bought a 2 day “Hakone Free Pass” which let us use any of these for a prearranged price, but if you intend to go on the ropeway even once, it almost entirely pays for itself. Despite it being too cloudy for a good view of Mt. Fuji, we opted to take the boat ride across the lake for the experience.
After arrival on the opposite shore we wandered in and out of a few shops on the other side of the lake, got a nice far off view of another tori gate in the water, caught a few more pokemon, and called it a day. After all, we had to get back to the hotel in time for dinner!
A specialty of Hakone, we learned, were these detailed geometric wood patterns called “Hakone Yoseki-Zaiku.” They could be found on a wide variety of products, everything from chopsticks to jewelry boxes. This technique was developed in the late 1700s and the mountains around Hakone were an ideal place for this kind of handicraft as they are rich in many different kinds of tree varieties. As you can see, the different types of wood/colors allows for enough variety to create beautiful high contrast patterns. To make the patterns they start with different shaped and colored blocks of wood and fit them all together into a solid block to create the pattern. Then they shave off thin pieces to be incorporated into different items (like boxes, chests, etc). I was quite taken with how pretty some of these designs were. This is a kind of art I can truly appreciate.
After our browsing through some shops it was time to catch the most crowded bus ever so we could get back to our hotel in time for dinner!
We really enjoyed our time in Hakone and I think I would have enjoyed spending another day or two there to explore the area more. As we only intended to relax it suited our needs well, but we discovered there were many more things we would have liked to explore with a little more time.