-Heaven on Earth, Complete with Hot Springs
Embedded in Hakone National Park’s steep cliff-like volcanic humps, in between Tokyo and Mt. Fuji is Japan’s oldest, largest, and most famous hot spring resort, Hakone. The scenery here seems to have jumped right off the pages of a sixteenth century wood block print, or traditional brush painting. Hakone is paradise, one of the earth’s most beautiful natural frontiers, where dome shaped mountains and rolling hills sprout up towards the sky out of grassy plains, marshes, and placid Lake Ashi, whose surface mirrors a striking view of majestic blue Mt. Fuji.
-The Past is Always Alive
This region has always been known among Japanese to be the finest spot for a relaxing soak in a natural hot spring. During Japan’s medieval times, after Japan’s capital was transferred to Edo, present day Tokyo, Hakone acted as a gateway between the older western area, Kyoto, and the new eastern capitol, Edo. More than a gateway, Hakone actually set up a barrier, somewhat of a medieval customs fort. At the barrier, each traveler coming into Edo would be checked for guns, and shady looking characters involved in smuggling or other criminal acts, and travelers leaving Edo would be checked for stowaway women! Why women? Well, back in the day, Japan’s highest leader, the shogun, in order to prevent an uprising against himself, had required that all of his daimyo, or regional lords below him have their wives stay in Edo, sort of like hostages, while the daimyo ruled in their regions away from Edo. Daimyo were required to serve in Edo every other year, and so were allowed to see their wives. For the most part this hostage system worked out for the Shogun, and the barrier in Hakone was quite effective. Anybody caught trying to sneak around the barrier would usually be killed right on the spot. During this medieval era Hakone’s hot springs served to ease weary travelers having taken its long mountain passages by horse or foot. And during the Meiji era of free trade, Hakone provided foreign tourists a look into its unique world of tradition and natural beauty and that continues to this day. Hakone is no doubt the most popular get away for the Japanese with yearly visits of around 19 million tourists; over 14 million of them Japanese. With beauty like this it’s not hard to see why Hakone is so popular.
Whether it is by bus, train, car, or foot, there are many routes for getting to and getting around Hakone. For the average sightseer, use of trains and buses are most frequently used to access the area as they are more convenient. Today the main gateway to Hakone is Odawara, and by train. If coming from the Tokyo area, you can take the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station, the Odakyu “Romance Car” from Shinjuku Station, or any of the local train lines to Odawara. Once in Odawara, transfer to the Hakone Tozai Line and travel north. The Tozai Line stops at many popular spots throughout Hakone.
-Matroshkas and Sushi Rolls With Wood
Riding the Tozai Hakone Line from Odawara, one of the first stops on your way is Yumoto. Across the river and up around the corner is a tourist information center. This is a good place to start if you have no general plan of what to see. From Hakone Yumoto Station you can catch a bus going to Hatajuku running twice or thrice hourly. The bus will take you to the little village of Hatajuku where you can see first hand a craft famous to Hakone, marquetry, or ‘zaiku’ at the Zaiku Kaikan. Marquetry is an original craft of the region, and has been around since the Edo era. The completed designs created in this craft are simply fascinating. It really gives you an appreciation of this art when you can go there in person and witness it being produced right in front of you. The first thing that comes to mind when I see this, besides it being remarkable, is that it’s making appears to be like that of sushi, but with wood. Long and thin strips of different naturally colored woods are cut into precise geometric sizes, arranged in intricate patterns, glued and tied into block shaped bundles, and cut just like sushi would be cut using a saw or have thin layers sliced off it with a plane to create colorful wood paper. These wood creations are made into boxes, bowls, coasters, and anything in between and make the most excellent souvenirs. Another unique creation to look for are juni tamago dolls (12 egg shaped dolls). Juni tamago are similar to Russian matroshka dolls, a set of matching dolls from large to small, each one fitting into the next largest in the set. I was surprised to find out that the concept of this toy originated in Japan, in none other than Hakone itself. You can see examples of these Japanese dolls in local craft shops. They are usually painted in designs or as figurines of characters from the ancient religious story, the Seven Gods (Shichikami).
-Out on the Lakefront
A twenty-minute bus ride from Hatajuku will deliver you to Motohakone, a town that sits on the edge of Lake Ashi from where you can get a dynamic view of Fuji and the surrounding mountains. The lake reflects the blue sky above and strange as it may sound, there are old world European galleon ships, and a 19th century American river steam ship acting as ferries, although there is also a nice looking cruiser type as well. Riding lakeside will give you a chance for different scenery as you cruise along the smooth open water. A ride from Motohakone to Hakonemachi, or vise versa will take approximately 10 minutes. A ride from either Motohakone or Hakonemachi to Togendai will take about 30 minutes. From Motohakone, you can walk north along the lake (toward Mt. Fuji) to reach Hakone Shrine, and see such sights as the ancient Cedar Path.
Ancient Lake Ashi used to stretch northward covering Sengokuhara completely with water. About 3,000 years ago, Mt. Kami just east of the lake erupted, and its lava flowed to damn up the lake, splitting it in half. The south half, being the upper half, remained as Lake Ashi, while the north half being the downstream end of the lake, drained to become a marshland rich in rare flora- some found nowhere else on earth. The marshland is protected as a natural monument, and you can see all the amazing flora of the area plus others from around the world at Sengokuhara’s Botanical Garden of Wetlands. From Togendai, take Hakone Tozan bus to Sengokuhara.
-Hardboiled Owakudani Valley- Volcanic Style
Take a short drive or ride on the ropeway, which runs to Togendai and passes through Ubako. You can also pick up the same cable car from from Sounzan Station, one stop from Tozan Railway’s Gora Station. Billowing sulfur steam gushes out of the yellow rocks, and on the way up you may have already noticed a distinct egg-like sulferic smell. Although the smell is not really eggs, this volcanic hotbed is famous among locals for its black volcano boilded eggs, of which it is said that the consumption of one will add 7 years to one’s life.
-Check Out the Area’s Finest Shopping
If you’re in the area for a few days, Gotemba Premium Outlet, just outside of Hakone are worth a look around. Open from 10 to 9, the outlets offer the best prices on hard to find Japanese brands as well as those from around the world. You can get to Gotemba Station by bus from Hakone. There are two bus lines: Odakyu Hakone Highway Bus, and Hakone Togendai Bus. Bus stops in service of these lines can be found in Hakone locations such as Togendai, Gora, Motohakone, and Yumoto (in order of closest to farthest. From Gotemba Station, there is a ‘special shuttle bus’ that will deliver you to the Outlets. It runs every 20 minutes.
-Ease Into the Exotic Volcanic Hot Spring Waters, Japanese Style.
After walking all day and seeing all the sights, there is no doubt you will be hot and exhausted. This is the time to take it easy by taking a dip in one of the hundreds of hot spring spas of Hakone. Hot spring spas (onsens) are basically a place of public bathing, where water heated naturally by volcanic activity is pumped in, and temperature regulated. Before easing into the water, the body must be absolutely clean. For this there are usually showers, or a row of faucets where you sit on a bench and wash with a cloth and bucket. The cloth’s second function is to cover your essential parts while walking freely to and from the onsen, an act of politeness. Everything is provided for the washing task and sometimes on sale.
-Relax! You Don’t Have To Get Naked
At onsen spa resorts such as Yunessun, run by Hakone Kowakien, being in your birthday suit while bathing is not a requirement. Yunessun offers a whole Mediterranean style, bathing suit only spa section, some outdoors and some in rooms with spacious blue sky painted ceilings. If you did want to try things the Japanese way, a seperate open-air hot spring area surrounded by greenery and nature, Morinoyu (Forest spring) is just the place. While you are at Yunessun, have a look at the Miomall. It combines an original Hakone souvenir shop, a traditional Japanese house restaurant, and a European style grocery shop. The good thing about Hakone is that you can enjoy most hot spring spas (onsens) at any time of the day. And while you might not think that soaking in such high temperatures during the scorching hot mid day summer heat would be relieving, on the contrary, after a scalding soak, the summer heat turns cooler and the blood flows smoother, revitalizing and refreshing the body and mind. Onsen bathing is perfect for the summer heat, and it is what most Japanese look forward to when they come here. The health benefits of hot springs have always been apparent to the ancients as well as modern Japanese. With surreal scenery, natural beauty, and interesting cultural elements, you may remember Hakone as if it were a dream, and always long to return.