Some days need to be recorded for posterity. Our second full day in Japan, chronicled in this post, was one of those days.
It began, like so many mornings on the other side of the world do, wide awake at 4 a.m. Jet lagged and excited I quietly slipped out from under the duvet, padded across the tatami mats, and set the kettle on for tea. We were in a ryokan — the highly recommended Aura Tachibana to be exact — for two nights of traditional Japanese luxury set in the hot spring resort region of Hakone in the mountains southeast of Mt. Fuji. It was supposed to be our treat after five nights of hosteling in Tokyo. Instead it ended up being a comforting retreat following the memorial service for Kristin’s father, Eric. The stress of the prior weeks had taken their toll; my saddened bride slept for ten hours, her body clock immune to the 14 time zones we crossed.
Clad in our yukatas and split-toed socks and corresponding sandals, we sat down to a breakfast consisting of seven courses, one of which contained nine separate seasonal side dishes. The centerpiece was dried horse mackerel. A bowl of miso soup with crab claws flanked a dish of sesame tofu and couscous salad. Any taste buds that weren’t completely shocked from this bevy of tasty, yet unusual breakfast offerings were soon reeling in puckered discomfort from the record-levels of sourness packed into the pickled plums. But enough about the food… for now.
We were blessed with a clearing sky and a plan: we would spend the day circling the Hakone National Park by rail, cable car, ropeway, boat, and by foot. By piecing together the info from several tourist maps of the area, I was able to convince myself — and Kristin — that this loop was feasible. Not only was it doable, but it should be considered mandatory. Here’s how to have one of the best days of your traveling life while in Japan.
It begins at Hakone-Yumoto station, a short walk down the hill from our ryokan. There we boarded the narrow gauge Hakone Tozan train to Gora. The two-car train climbed steadily into the mountains, stopping three times to switchback up the Haya River valley. At each switchback the two train conductors would alight from their respective ends of the train, meet on the side of the tracks in the middle, exchange pleasantries, then reboard the train. Off we’d go in the opposite direction we were just traveling, continuing along for a lovely, scenic 40-minute journey that ascends over 400 meters in elevation!
Once at Gora Station we exited the turnstiles from the train tracks, walked a few yards, and quickly and painlessly bought our tickets for the Hakone Tozan Cable Car, or what I think a lot of westerners would refer to as a funicular. Two two-car trains glide back and forth up the steep mountainside, ascending over 200 meters in just over 1 kilometer. The ten minute ride, like the switchbacking train, isn’t just transportation, but novelty entertainment! Unfortunately for us, being there in March, the hydrangeas that line the tracks of both the train and cable car were still several months from blooming. If you come in June for the flowers, expect long lines.
The cable car took us to Sounzan Station at an elevation of 768 meters. There the transit prices rose steeply, but so did the wow factor! We bought a one-way ticket on the Hakone Ropeway, all the way to Lake Ashi at Togendai. The four kilometer aerial gondola ride took us up and over the sulphur-spewing vents of Owakudani (where you can buy blackened geothermal vent-cooked eggs said to add 7 years to your life) high in the mountains. Keep your eyes peeled to the right hand side of the gondola as you crest the ridge as the sudden appearance of Mt. Fuji is not to be missed. Chances are, the collective gasping of the other people aboard your gondola will draw your attention.
Mt. Fuji was partially covered in clouds at first, but the sky was clearing by the minute. What a view to see Fuji from above the treetops and ridgelines of the other mountains to the south. I couldn’t stop taking photos, even as we transitioned from one gondola to another at Owakudani. So excited were we to see Mt. Fuji that we completely forgot to visit the tourist center at the top of the mountain (1044 meters above sea level) and buy our sulphur-blackened eggs.
Japan’s most famous volcano gradually dropped out of view behind the neighboring ring of mountains as we descended to Lake Ashi at Togendai station. And the closer we got to the lake, so did the 308 ton Vasa touring ship, a gorgeous green and gold replica of a 17th century Swedish warship of the same name. We opted for 1st class tickets for a few extra bucks and recommend you do the same for a spot on the spacious, raised quarterdeck at the stern of the ship. While the rest of the ship was jam-packed with people, we were able to move around, take photos from both sides of the ship, and avoid being jostled. There was also a comfortable inside cabin, but it was too nice a day to need it. In total, our transit costs for all four modes of transit, including the 1st class tickets for the cruise, totaled 7400 yen ($61 USD at time of writing).
We disembarked the Vasa after a thirty minute cruise to the south end of Lake Ashi, in Hakone-Machi. A quick lunch of curry chicken katsu and ramen (Japanese comfort food) and then we were off on foot along the Avenue of Cedars, a 17th century section of the Old Tokaido Road that was lined with cedar trees in order to protect travelers during the windy, frigid winters. The Avenue of Cedars took us halfway to Moto-hokone and, more importantly, to a magical spot on Lake Ashi’s coast where Mt. Fuji can be seen rising above the waters of the lake, fishermen in the foreground, and a bright orange Torii Gate on a distant shore. It’s a quintessential photo-op; there’s no reason to buy the postcard when you can take the shot yourself.
Now, if the weather isn’t cooperating or you don’t feel up to a six mile hike in the hills, there’s a bus from Moto-Hokone that will take you all the way back to Hakone-Yumoto station. But, if you’re up for some adventure, spot the bus stop, cross the street, and head up the unmarked side road for several hundred meters. The trailhead for the Old Tokaido Road, an Edo-era stone-paved road, will be on your left. You can’t miss it.
The road is chock full of history and contains some historical signage along the way, translated into Korean and English. But it’s also extremely slippery after a rain and a very rugged surface. Hiking boots are highly recommended and trekking poles would really help for balance. The trail crosses route 732 multiple times and will periodically seem to disappear. Learn the style of signs that are used to mark the trail and stay on the lookout for them. The Old Tokaido Road is easy to follow for the first several kilometers, to the historical thatch-roofed Amazake Chaya teahouse (worth a stop, but its namesake rice-porridge tea is pricey), but it then turns to a narrow nature path that joins and leaves the roadway through a series of steep switchbacks and the signage becomes less frequent. We ended up walking the last two miles along route 732 which may or may not be the only way to complete the loop — we saw no signs. Don’t fret though, as the trail is never far from the road and there seemed to be a bus stop every 400 meters. We eventually made our way back to our ryokan, completely on foot from Hakone-Machi in roughly 3 hours, including a stop at the teahouse. We tend to hike very quickly though.
Back at the ryokan, we wasted no time in changing into our yukata and heading down to the hot spring baths. In addition to terrific multi-course meals, ryokans are famous for their public hot baths. Attending one can be a bit intimidating at first, but we’re happy to report that there’s nothing to worry about. You’re naked with other naked people, but it’s Japan. Not only is nobody going to stare, but they’re going to try their hardest to be invisible and act as if you are too. Also, the vast majority of hot springs, onsen, are separated by gender. Just grab a locker for your room key, clothes, and any valuables you foolishly brought with you and grab a wash cloth. Your first stop is the showering area. Aura Tachibana has a spacious bathing area with a dozen or more stalls where you can sit on a wooden seat and use the shower hose and faucet to wash yourself good and clean. Body wash, shampoo, and conditioner was provided along with a small cedar bucket for you to finish rinsing off with. Once you’re good and clean, grab your (rinsed-out) washcloth and mosy over to the hot springs. Feel free to carry the washcloth in front of your privates if you’d like or just toss it on your head and strut your stuff. Whatever you do, don’t let the washcloth or any other towels or clothing enter the water. That’s a big no-no. Unlike a hot-tub, the water is minimally treated (if at all) so it’s important that no dirt, grime, or clothing go in the water. Japanese men place their washcloths atop their head.
Kristin reported some light chatting among the other women in the hot springs but none of the other men in the hot springs were talkative beyond konichiwa. My formal reply of hajimemashite was greeted with a chuckle. Point taken: naked strangers can probably go with the informal greeting.
The onsen aren’t just about a relaxing soak, but are really for bathing. The drying room and locker area had a number of sinks stocked with razor blades, cotton swabs, shaving cream, lotions, and hair care products. It sure beats a truckstop shower stall.
Our second and final dinner at Aura Tachibana was one for the record books. They have three menus, one for each night of your stay (at nearly $300 USD per couple per night, including taxes/gratuity, they don’t get many people who stay more than 3 nights). I’d tell you all about it, but at nine courses and twenty-two dishes, I think it’s best to just let some of the pictures do the talking. Fortunately, each meal came with a printed menu (in English) that helped to identify the dishes.
If the last few paragraphs felt a bit rushed, they were. It’s almost dinner time here on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi and reliving those two days at the ryokan are making my mouth water. It was the type of experience I wish everyone could have… and savor. What a day! Four modes of transportation, incredible views of Mt. Fuji, a 10 kilometer hike on a 17th century road, a soak in a hot spring, and two world-class meals to bookend what, as of now, has to go down as one of my greatest days ever.
Ahhh… it’s great to be back on the road!