Miyanoshita is one of the seven hot spring towns in Hakone. The whole region has been popular with hot spring since the Edo Period. Its qualities and mountainous setting topped with views of Fuji and proximity to Tokyo had made this place as a popular destination.
The Hakone Tozan Railway, “Hakone Tozan Tetsudō”, is a private railway company which operated from Gōra to Hakone Yumoto. From Miyanoshita Station, “Miyanoshita-eki”, it is a steep walk down to the town centre. At nearby Naraya Cafe, patrons had lunch with the feet soaking in a hot spring footbath. Seemed like a novel way to have lunch. We walked past the famous upmarket Fujiya Hotel on the way to lunch at Miyafuji next to a small fish market – a lovely place to eat and rest. Best sushi in town with reasonable prices. Eating in places like this is a complete experience – delicious food, quiet, ambient setting and unhurried. It was very therapeutic.
From here we walked back up the slope with a heavy belly to the train station and headed to Hakone-Yumoto train station.
Hakone Chōkoku No Mori Bijutsukan
The cable car terminated at Gora. We wandered around the station. Gora is a hilly town loaded with hot springs. We met a road worker and strangely he had worked in Sabah and spoke a little Malay. All these little towns that dot along the train route are very idyllic – slow paced, limited vehicles, surrounded by lush forest and exquisite eateries. The idea is to slow down and look around. Back at the station, we caught the Hakone Tozan train to Chokuko-no-Mori. Here lies the Hakone Open Air Museum.
The setting of this place, nestled between mountains and valleys surrounded by greeneries is amazing. The man- made sculptures and various artworks had been laid, artistically and thoughtfully in this spacious and green environment. It is a wonderful place to wander at a slow pace and perhaps participate in some of the quirky designed pieces. Metal-work, wood- work, masonry-work and painting are all presented here in an outdoor setting. There is even a Picasso Museum. Macaques roamed the trees. Lee Cheng loved the outdoor hot spring foot bath to rest her tired feet. This open air museum has brought about a harmonic balance between nature and art.
There is a lovely indoor gift shop within the complex. From the museum we headed to a sushi place close to the train station. As usual, fabulous – the freshest sashimi! This was meant to be a snack stop before lunch. We walked back to the train station and caught another train to Miyanoshita.
“there were many bushes around here which I thought was strange because there was so much sulfuric acid in the area but I guess they must have adapted to it” – Navindd
Once the gondola gained elevation, the true beauty, immensity of the lake and the surroundings of this place can be witnessed. It oozed tranquility. Past Ubeko Station, the climb became steep. Now above the trees canopy, there were fabulous views of the width of Mt Fuji. A thick layer of clouds hung just below the reddish summit against an unusual blue sky. Plumes of steam rose from the ground as we approached Ōwakudani. From the station is a short nature trail around this active volcanic area. The pungent scent of sulfurous fumes hung heavily in the air. Little streams of bubbling hot water flowed from vents together with pools of bubbling mud. Although active in volcanic activities, many types of trees thrived here. One of the things to do here seemed to be to buy sulfur blackened eggs, “onsen tamago”. Tasted like ordinary eggs. Not wanting to inhale too much of the poisonous gases, we continued our rope-way ride to the summit of Sōunzan Station. There were great views of towns and the vast expanse of the Pacific. On the decent, we boarded a bright red funicular cable car to Gōra Station. It was a steep but a comfortable ride.
The view of Mount Fuji from Hakone, weather permitting, is one of the best. In the same light, Kawaguchiko would have been perfect – not for us though. Today, it showed its full grandeur. Regarded scared and for over thousand years, had inspired poets and artist, and pilgrims and “tourists” had climbed its slopes. Now we are part of that history. This morning, we were privileged. The morning sun shone brightly and the air clear. From afar, at Ōwakudani, the majesty of Fuji, apart from shadow cast from a streaking cloud, the view from its conical summit to its extensive slopes, the villages, the flora and landscape, were all clearly visible. As the sun moved, the vista constantly evolved. Like the seasons, nothing (view) is permanent. It is said that if a person was fortunate to see Fujisan in person, he or she will return to Japan. We certainly want to.
I woke up early this morning. It was bright outside and looked promising. Armed with my camera, I hurried outside towards the end of the corridor. A perfect conical Fujisan glowed in the dawn sun. It was a perfectly clear day. I could see the mountain huts and three trails – Subashri, Gotemba and Fujinomiya treks scratched on the slopes. It was a beautiful sight. The lush green forest in the foreground accentuated the view. I was mesmerised by the phenomenal mountain. Although I had earlier climbed to the summit, looking from here gave me a different perspective- one of awe, impermanence and beauty. You cannot see a mountain when you are on it. As the sun rose, the colours changed with it. From reddish to hazy brown and the sky pale blue. A golf course nearby the hotel was still in darkness.
The previous day’s rain seemed to have created a sharp image of the green pine forest and the blue Lake Ashi. The air was fresh but chilly. It was a promising day to venture other parts of Hakone. We made arrangements at the hotel via a luggage transfer service to deliver our luggage to Hakone Yumoto train station. From here we walked to the pier and caught the Hakone Ropeway to Ōwakudani. Hakone is a popular tourist site, not only for views of Fuji but renown for natural hot springs and spas. It is after all a volcanic area. It lies within the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park.
“….the magnificent Mt Fuji was red like Mars, towering in the distant” – Navindd
As we approached Moto – Hakone, the vegetation on the shoreline thinned. Expansive views of mountains with the mist lifted and partially blue sky emerged. The constant drizzle had stopped. The sight of the towering red “torii” of Hakone Shrine was quite startling against the placid Lake Ashi waterfront, soothing green forest and the dark rain clouds. On a “good day”, the peak of Fujisan will show just above the mountains. Small boats lay anchored in a line close to the shoreline. Although gloomy, it was quite invigorating walking along the shoreline. A small shrine with stone statues added a ‘Zen’ sentiment.
A towering red “torii” marked the entrance to Moto- Hakone. In the foreground was the bus stop. On the right, a road led to the Old Tokaido Highway through dense vegetation. Continuing on from here on preserved stone path is possible towards Hakone –Yumoto. Dusk set in quickly as we checked out the bus time-table. We were unable to explore this neat little township and popular Hakone Shrine. We had no idea when or if any transport was available this late in the day. Most retail shops here close early. Finally a bus arrived (not knowing where it was heading, I just mentioned Togendai to the driver). He dropped us off at Yunessun. This town is popular with a water theme park. There was no time. Fortunately, another bus took us to Sengoku. From here there are late buses back to Togendai. Relieved at last!
From Sengoku, there were several late buses that plied to Togendai. Now with more certainty, we tracked down a neat little restaurant by the main road. Their specialty was Chinese dishes. It had a cosy atmosphere. Lee Cheng and Navindd tried the pot sticker. Apparently, it was very tasty. I settled for some vegetarian soup with mushrooms and noodles – a little blend but quite fulfilling.
There were several more eateries along this main road. Finally, we caught a bus back to our multistory hotel in Togendai. Today had been a long journey but a good one albeit the challenging weather condition. No views of Fuji.
The continuous drizzle did hamper our movements but we forged on. First, some lunch. Hakone-Machi is a collection of houses, a pier and a bus stop. It is a small place that is best seen on foot. A short walk from the boat pier is the “Hakone Sekisho”, Hakone Checkpoint. On the old Tōkaidō Highway between Edo [present day Tokyo] and Kyōto [old capital], this post under the governance of Tokugawa Shogunate, checked everyone who passed through. The restoration is great and with wonderful views of mountains and lake.
A stone path led into manicured gardens. We continued on along an avenue of old cedar forest towards Moto – Hakone. Through dense vegetation, views of the red “torii” on the water’s edge, gently swaying anchored boat and misty mountains came into view. Maple trees, still with green leaves, were planted along this road. It was a pleasant walk under a humid and wet climate. It was getting towards dusk. Does the public bus still run on this route to take us back to Togendai? This question began to occupy my mind. The brochures and time table we had were quite confusing. Even the locals were unsure.
While travelling through Sengoku towards Hakone, large undulating meadows were covered in “Susuki”, Silver Grass, one of the “Seven Grasses” of late summer. Zen philosophy states that a grass has the same status as the mighty pine trees or the glowing azaleas and deserved the same respect, attention and high regard.
Our journey continued towards Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture, as we prepared to leave our comfortable hostel in Kawaguchiko. Masuo dropped us off at the train cum bus station. We caught a local bus to Gotemba. En-route, we passed by a theme park with views of Fuji and the dense cedar forest of Sengen Shrine in Fujiyoshida town, the traditional starting point to climb Mt Fuji. The road wound through forested areas and small towns. We passed glassy Lake Yamanaka, the largest of the Five Lakes. However, today were a grey and cloudy day and no views of Fuji. At Gotemba, we purchased a convenient 2- day Hakone Free Pass which entitled us to use various modes of transportation within Hakone area. We caught another bus to Togendai, near Lake Ashi, “Ashi-no-ko”. The journey passed through some lovely open areas with undulating meadows covered in beige mass of flowing grasses – “Susuki”, Silver grass. Looking at them dancing in the mist is soothing. After negotiating through scenic Sengokuhara town, we reached our palatial hotel in Tōgendai. It was massive and white. It was our first western style bed. Our large room had a commanding view of the green pine forest, gray lake and the surrounding undulating mountains.
“ ….hotel was a white dot amongst a green and grey backdrop” – Navindd
We walked to the pier and hopped into a boat to sail across the caldera lake. For company, we had heaps of wide- eyed kids with minders in tow on a school trip. With colourful backpacks and identical yellow hats, they added colour to a rather dull grey and wet day. No views of Mt Fuji.
As we approached Hakone-Machi pier, the surrounding mountains were engulfed in heavy mist. The scenery was mystical. The combination of water, towns, thick forest and a red “torii” sticking out of the water was spectacular. In the shadows of rounded mountains, the coastal town of Moto –Hakone was drenched in mist and almost invisible.