Hakone

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A DAY-TRIP FROM TOKYO TO A LAND OF MYSTERY

Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba

Hakone, an onsen (hot spring) town located in Kanagawa, a prefecture adjacent to Tokyo, is a well-established tourist destination in Japan renowned for the steamy, volcanic valleys of Owakudani and the magnificent Lake Ashi amongst a myriad of other sightseeing hot spots. While it boasts its own share of accommodation options, many travellers opt to take day-trips to Hakone from Tokyo because of how easily accessible it is. This feature article documents my own day-trip experience to Hakone.

ENJOYING HAKONE’S HOT SPRING SCENERY

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I hopped onto the Odakyu Romancecar at Shinjuku and departed for my adventure. As the train raced along the tracks, the view outside my window gradually changed from blocks of generic buildings to luscious green scenery. After an 85 minute ride, I reached the hot spring paradise – Hakone. Of the many different ways to reach Hakone, the Odakyu Romancecar, departing from Shinjuku Station, is the most convenient and comfortable of them all.
The Romancecar can be accessed through conventional train lines by paying an additional fee and the enhanced holidaying experience provided through the “saloon seats” makes the Limited Express train trip popular amongst many travellers. Shinjuku Station on the Odakyu Line also has a counter for international visitors that offers assistance in a variety of languages. The “Hakone Freepass” allows for unlimited travel on different modes of transport for 2-3 days and comes highly recommended.

The mountainous location of Hakone means that different forms of transport have been set up to traverse the town, such as: the Hakone Tozan Railway, the Cable Cars which climb up precarious slopes, The Hakone Ropeway stretching between mountains and the cruise ships sailing around the lake. Not only can you experience the different sights Hakone has to offer by taking a ride on the various modes of transport, but you can do so without the hassle of buying individual tickets by taking advantage of “The Hakone Freepass”.

Onboard the Romancecar, vendors walk through the train-carriage aisles with drinks, lunchboxes and even alcohol available for purchase. Being able to sit back with a drink in hand as you watch the scenery go by from the comfort of your seat is the Japanese way to travel by train.

After relaxing in the Romancecar for the short 85 minutes, the train came to a stop at the entrance of Hakone – Hakone-Yumoto Station. From there, my plan was to transfer over to the Hakone Tozan Railway and head over to the Hakone Open-Air Museum, which is famous for its sculptures displayed outdoors amongst the majestic mountains, however, I decided to take a stroll around the town surrounding the station first.

Numerous shops line the streets in front of the station. The shops are jam-packed with local delicacies, snacks and souvenirs. As the main thoroughfare for day-trippers to and from the hot springs, it is always a bustling hot spot. Taking a step behind the hustle and bustle treats you to a view of a grand river flowing between the mountains. The ability to find little captivating treasures in unexpected places is one of the joys of exploring Hakone.

VISITING THE NATURE-FILLED OUTDOOR MUSEUM – HAKONE OPEN-AIR MUSEUM

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From Hakone-Yumoto Station, I took a trip on the Hakone Tozan Railway. At an altitude of 340 metres above sea-level, the train zig-zagged along the 6km long railroad, weaving through the mountains. After about half an hour of enjoying the view whilst being gently rocked by the train, I arrived at my destination – the Hakone Open-Air Museum.

The Hakone Open-Air Museum embraced the natural beauty of Hakone and opened its doors in 1969 as Japan’s first ever outdoor museum. It spans across approximately 70,000 square metres in area and the nature-abundant garden houses 120 impressive sculptures on display. A leisurely stroll through the great outdoors reveals the many different faces of the grand sculptures. The sight of the mysteriously profound objects towering over everything outside left me with an indescribable feeling of awe.

As I walked down the promenade and delved into the grounds, I came across the Picasso Pavilion displaying a collection of works by  the one and only, Pablo Picasso. Operating in conjunction with the gallery are a café and an onsen footbath, where I found groups of families and couples taking breathers after their stroll. The ability to leisurely stroll through the open-air museum, with scenery that changes along with the seasons, was a truly unique and exciting experience. This is definitely a spot to drop by when visiting Hakone.

EATING LONGEVITY-BOOSTING BLACK EGGS AT OWAKUDANI

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I left Chokoku-no-Mori Station (Open-Air Museum Station) and got off at the next stop, Gora Station, to take the Hakone Tozan Cable Car to Sounzan Station, which acts as the
hub to transfer onto the Hakone Ropeway to Owakudani – my next destination.
Caught up in the thrill of ascending the steep slopes in the cable car, I arrived a Sounzan Station in no time at all. From there, I transferred over to The Hakone Ropeway. With services operating at one minute intervals, I did not have to wait very long to hop onto my transfer. As I gazed upon the beautiful scenery below, an astonishing sight took my breath away.

A station away from Sounzan is Owakudani. Owakudani (literally, “Grand Boiling Valley”) was formed approximately 3000 years ago from an eruption of steam causing a landslide, coupled with a small scale pyroclastic surge approximately 2900 years ago that brought about a large deposit of volcanic sediment. The mineral rich hot springs create a dreary atmosphere as plumes of white smoke fill the air with the force of volcanic activity still ever present. Until the Edo period, it was known by locals as the “Valley of Hell” and now, despite the fear it once garnered, it is a top tourist attraction in Hakone for the unique scenery it offers. With the awe-inspiring sight suddenly appearing before my very eyes, I was speechless.

The smoky scenery can be experienced up-close upon arrival at Owakudani and, on clear days, Mount Fuji can also be seen framed by the colours of the changing seasons. While it was once possible to hike to the source of the rising smoke, it is now prohibited due to the increased volcanic activity.

One experience that absolutely cannot be missed, is the eating of kuro tamago (black eggs), which are said to add 7 years to your life. The act of boiling uncooked eggs in Owakudani causes iron (a prominent hot spring mineral) to permeate through the porous egg shell. Hydrogen sulphide then reacts with the iron, turning it into black-coloured iron sulphide, resulting in black boiled eggs. As time went by, the health benefits from the hot spring minerals somehow translated into increased longevity through the ingestion of the eggs. The highly unique black boiled eggs are definitely worth a try.

ALL ABOARD THE SIGHTSEEING CRUISE FROM TOGENDAI

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After enjoying the magnificent view and delicious black eggs at Owakudani, I hopped back onto the ropeway for my next destination – Togendai Port. Togendai is situated on the northern bank of Lake Ashi and is a highly trafficked hub for different modes of transport including the ropeway, buses and tour boats. The perfect way to see all the great sights around would be to set up base at Togendai and head further north to see the Hakone Venetian Glass Museum or The Little Prince Museum (opened in 1999 to honour the author’s, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 100th birthday). Alas, with only a day to spend exploring Hakone, I decided to take the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise to the northern Hakone-machi Port and then make my way back to Hakone-Yumoto from there.

Paying an additional fee of 500 yen on top of the basic fare, grants you access to the luxurious first-class cabins on the ship. While the basic fare seating areas are often full, access to the first-class cabins allows for a relaxed experience seated at the front of the ship. In addition to the spacious seats, first-class ticket holders can also head out to the exclusive viewing deck to soak up the beautiful lake scenery in peace. The trip from Togendai Port to Hakone-machi Port takes approximately 30 minutes. Grand, mountainous scenery envelopes the ship and as it nears its destination, torii gates start to come into view and almost appear as though they are floating in the lake itself. On clear days, this mysterious sight is also coupled with a beautiful view of Mount Fuji in the background. While I was unlucky to be met with clouds on the day of my trip, it was still very
pleasant, nonetheless.

HAKONE TOKAIDO CHECKPOINT AND HAKONE SHRINE

The Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint greets me as I sail into to Hakone-machi Port. Upon the commencement of the Edo period in 1603, various checkpoints were placed at various major roads as observation posts by the Tokugawa shogunate. The checkpoint at Hakone played a vital role during the Edo period in monitoring the Tokaido Road (the most important of the Five Routes in Edo Japan) in much the same way border security patrols country borders today. Nowadays, tourists are able to explore the fully restored historical checkpoint after 5 years of hard work put into excavational digs and restoring old furnishings. Make sure to include the Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint on your list of places to visit!

Located at a 10 minute ride on the Sightseeing Cruise or a short 30 minute walk from Motohakone Port, is the gorgeous Hakone Shrine which can be seen beyond the torii gates on the lake. This is another great spot steeped in history for a deeply spiritual, cultural experience.

A FAVOURITE OF EDO PERIOD FEUDAL LORD PROCESSIONS – AMAZAKE-CHAYA

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After getting my art fix at the Hakone Open-Air Museum; walking in mid-air on the ropeway; eating unique black eggs whilst gazing upon an intrepid view; and soaking up the sights of Hakone on a lake cruise, I was ready to wash my exhaustion away with a relaxing dip in a hot spring, however, there was one more place I wanted to drop by on my way back to Hakone Yumoto. I hopped onto the Hakone Tozan Bus from Motohakone Port and took a little break at Amazake-chaya.

Amazake-chaya is situated precariously on the Tokaido Road halfway up Mount Hakone. The teahouse, which boasts a 400 year history, famously served the feudal lord procession travelling along the route to and from Edo (now Tokyo) for many years. Today, it is a much-loved refuge for hikers traversing Hakone. The current owner is a 13th generation ancestor of the original owner some centuries ago. Even to this day, their ecipe and brewing methods for amazake have not changed since the Edo period, with local Uruchi rice and rice malt the only two ingredients used in their organic concoction. Amazake is a type of traditional, sweet drink and is known for its characteristically cloudy appearance. While the character for word for wine – sake – is contained in the name, it contains an almost negligible amount of alcohol, making it more of a sweet beverage.

As expected of a Japanese purveyor of amazake, you can also enjoy delicious Japanese sweets and marvel at the impressive thatched roof while you sit around the indoor hearth. To able to sit back and feast your eyes on the unchanged Edo period furnishings in the tea house before setting off for the hot springs is a seasoned traveller’s dream.

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JAPAN’S MAGNIFICENT ONSENS

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Renowned hot spring towns can be found all over Japan. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to 3 of them. The beautiful winter wonderland – Ginzan, the easily accessible from Tokyo – Hakone and, one of the Big Three famous Japanese onsens – Kusatsu.

GINZAN

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Located in the snow and watermelon abundant town of Obanazawa in Yamagata prefecture lies Ginzan Onsen. The onsen inns here are concentrated on either side Ginzan River, 10km east of the main Obanazawa township. As the sun sets, the gas lanterns of the retro-styled inns lining the river are lit up, creating a romantic atmosphere reminiscent of the early 1900s.

Although Ginzan Onsen is particularly famous for its beautiful night view, it has equally stunning sights for every season. Its brilliant greenery in early summer and colourful autumn leaves, for example, make it a popular tourist spot all year round.

Following the discovery of silver in the 16th century, this town thrived in the early Edo period through its abundance, hence the name – Ginzan (Silver Mountain). Once the silver rush had subsided, it is said that the town turned its attention to customers seeking the hot springs for their health. Remnants of the silver mines can still be found today above the large waterfall deep within the onsen district.

The milky thermal waters of Ginzan Onsen are said to be beneficial for nerve pain, rheumatism, skin conditions, injuries and female illnesses. Dip your feet into the hot springs as you listen to the gentle sounds of the flowing river with a delicious meal and enjoy your stay.

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HAKONE

Hakone Onsen is located right next to Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture and is easily accessible via car, train and bus – making it a popular onsen spot. The fastest way to get there is via the ‘Romance Car’, a train which leaves from Shinjuku station and can take a mere 85 minutes to arrive at Hakone Onsen.

Surrounded by mountains and nature, Hakone has far too many sights to see in one day – from hot springs to art and gourmet food. Of course, the hot springs are the town’s main drawcard. There are over twenty onsen districts in the areas around Mount Hakone.

At the entrance of Hakone is the Hakone-Yumoto area which boasts over forty onsen inns and stores. It is the largest and oldest onsen area in Hakone Onsen. The thermal waters are simple alkaline based and are said to benefit those with nerve and joint pain, as well as improve blood circulation.

The onsen district lies alongside two rivers – Hayakawa and Sukumogawa. Various different styles of ryokan sit on the riverside, such as old, nationally treasured inns, traditional Japanese inns and even large scale spa resorts. With over twenty establishments that offer day trip options, one can see why it’s popular spot for a casual dip in an onsen.

KUSATSU IS A RENOWNED HOT SPRING WHICH HAS SOOTHED THE BODIES AND SOULS OF COUNTLESS JAPANESE FOLK THROUGHOUT HISTORY.

KUSATSU

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If you’re departing from Tokyo, Kusatsu Onsen is another highly recommended spot. One of the Big Three Onsens (Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma, Gero Onsen in Gifu and Arima Onsen in Hyogo), Kusatsu is a renowned hot spring which has soothed the bodies and souls of countless Japanese folk throughout history. It has the highest natural thermal water yield of any hot spring in Japan, boasting over 32,300 litres a day.

Kusatsu Onsen is also one of the few acidic hot springs in Japan with a pH of 2.2. Its unique sulfuric, highly acidic waters can dissolve an aluminium 1 yen coin within a week of submersion. Thanks to its antibacterial qualities, the thermal waters are said to benefit those with chronic skin and digestive ailments.

The hot spring field in the heart of the onsen district is what keeps Kusatsu Onsen alive. 4000 litres of thermal waters flow out every minute and the area is constantly draped in rising steam. Inns and souvenir shops surround the area in order to draw from the hot spring field.

Kusatsu Onsen is the biggest resort town in Japan with over 130 inns and hotels and over 120 souvenir shops. Nearby lies Mount Kusatsu-Shirane with its crater lakes, Kusatsu Kokusai Ski Resort, as well as Mount Asama and Karuizawa to the south, so a combined trip to the surrounding areas would make for a fulfilling trip.

NARAYA

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Gunma, the heart of Japan. Situated amongst towering mountains in the nature abundant, onsen (hot spring) filled town of Kusatsu, dwells a history rich, long-standing ryokan – NARAYA. Take a dip in an onsen and soothe your soul as you soak up the ultimate experience.

If you are looking to experience a long established ryokan steeped in tradition, then look no further than NARAYA. It has the privilege of being located right next to a hot spring field in the centre of Kusatsu. Established in 1877, NARAYA has created the perfect balance of old charm with a clean and modern touch. NARAYA’s main attraction is, of course, the onsens. Of the six main veins of natural springs in Kusatsu, the oldest one is said to be the Shirohata (White Flag) spring which bubbles up next to the hot spring field.

NARAYA draws from this slightly cloudy, high temperature spring. Before the thermal waters are piped to each individual bath, it goes through a process known as yumomi – the act of cooling the waters with 1.5 metre-long paddles by heaving it through the air. This inn is one of a select few which still continues this traditional practice today.

Along with public baths segregated by gender, NARAYA also has private baths, made with Japanese cedar, available for reservation if you wish to be alone with your thoughts. The superb thermal waters combined with the refreshing scent of cedar gently caress the soul for a truly blissful experience. Also included with the private bath is a tatami mat room for you to relax in after a good soak.

After a relaxing dip in the onsen, you can look forward to a traditional Japanese dinner made with the finest seasonal ingredients. Eating a delicious meal in a yukata is sure to blow all the stresses of travelling away.

The assistant manager of NARAYA, Tatsuya Saeki, spoke to us about the their views on hospitality. Here’s what he had to say, “All of Japan, including the onsen-filled town of Kusatsu, is gradually getting accustomed to welcoming foreign guests from around the world. Here at NARAYA, we have particularly large numbers of foreigners staying with us. They have made the trip deep into the mountains to our country town, so the least we can do is ensure they leave here with fun memories. This is why we do our very best to maintain this wonderful atmosphere and provide the best service.”

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NARAYA
Address: 396 Kusatsu, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma
Tel: 81-279-88-2311
Email: naraya@kusatsu-naraya.co.jp
Web: www.kusatsu-naraya.co.jp

TIPS BEFORE YOUR FIRST VISIT TO AN ONSEN RYOKAN

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Learning some ryokan and onsen etiquette before your first visit is sure to make for a much richer experience. Here are some handy tips before you take the plunge.

THINGS TO NOTE WHEN MAKING A BOOKING

Many of you might be worried about how much English is understood at ryokans. If you’re not a fluent Japanese speaker, the best way to make a booking is via email or fax. Fluency in spoken English is still uncommon in Japan, so it’s best to put your booking in writing to avoid mistakes.

It is very important to be aware of peak seasons before you make plans to stay at a ryokan. Christmas/New Year’s, Golden Week (late April – early May) and Obon (mid-August) are particularly busy, leading to higher booking fees. Sometimes rooms will be booked out one year in advance for these periods, so make sure you are well prepared.

Another point you should be careful of are the prices displayed for booking. Unlike in Australia, the prices are per person, not per room. Also, although credit cards issued by major banks are accepted at many places, some only accept cash. Have some cash on hand, just in case.

ARRIVING AT THE RYOKAN

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Make sure you remember to take your shoes off indoors in Japan. When you arrive at the ryokan, take your shoes off at the entrance and slip on a pair of the provided slippers. However, once you’ve entered your room, remove your slippers so you do not damage the tatami mats.

If you happen to stay in a traditional Japanese room there may be a small shrine in the corner of your room with a scroll and seasonal flowers. As it is considered a sacred place, avoid placing any luggage or items there.

There will be a yukata placed in your room. Yukatas are a type of casual kimono made of cotton which can be worn around the ryokan. The correct way to wear a yukata is to slip it on like a robe, fold the left over the right side and then tie the obi (belt) around your waist just tight enough so that it stays together.

If you are unsure about anything, just ask the nakai-san. The nakai-san is in charge of taking care of guests during their stay. She will be at the entrance to greet you upon arrival at the inn. She is also the person who brings tea, snacks and meals to your room. Once you have finished dinner, she will come to retrieve the dinnerware and set up your futon. You’re sure to become very familiar with her during your stay.

Although it is not customary to give tips in Japan, if you wish to express your gratitude for the nakai-san’s services, place 2000-3000 yen in an envelope and pass it onto her as you check-out.

TAKE A DIP IN THE ONSEN

If you’ve never been to an onsen before, it may seem like a daunting experience. Aside from cleaning times, onsens are open all day and all night, so you can take a dip whenever you please. You can also hop in as many times as you want during your stay. The customary Japanese way is to have a soak before dinner.

Start off by grabbing the provided towel and head over to the bathing area. Most baths are separated by gender. Take your clothes (or your yukata) off in the change rooms and wash your whole body in the showers. Most onsens stock their showers with shampoo and soap.

Before finally hopping into the onsen, you must not forget to kakeyu. This is to scoop up some of the mineral waters with the provided ladle and pour it over your body. It is important to do this, not only to rinse off any remaining dirt, but to acclimatise your body to the heat and feel of the thermal waters.

The temperature of onsens differ from place to place. Some may be lukewarm whereas others may be piping hot. The thermal waters are packed with minerals, providing a wide range of benefits for your skin. Some people go to onsens purely for its health benefits.