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While Tokyo and its many unique wards offers enough to visitors to spend your entire trip there, the Land of the Rising Sun has much more to offer. Even if you only have a week in the country, you should get out of the city for a couple of days. Luckily, this is very doable via the sophisticated rail system that links up the entire country. In just a few short hours, you can find yourself out in the mountains, breathing fresh air and enjoying a clear blue sky free of skyscrapers. One great choice is Hakone (箱根), a stunning mountainous region just 100 km west of the capital.
From Shinjuku station in Tokyo, you can use a vending machine to purchase a 3-day Hakone free pass (5,640 yen). This includes a round-trip train ride out there and also gives you access to the many different forms of transportation available in Hakone. Riding the standard express train called kyoku (急行) takes about two hours and is quite comfortable. Alternatively, you can upgrade to the “Romance Car,” which makes the trip in around 85 minutes and has nicer seats. Upon arrival at Odawara (小田原市), you need to get off and board another train bound for Hakone Yumoto. Due to bad weather and the fact that we were dragging our suitcases, we just went directly from train to train, but travelers are also free to leave the station to explore the area a bit and pay a visit to the Odawara Castle (小田原城).
Once at Hakone Yumoto, we switched trains once more – this time to the Hakone Tozan railway (箱根登山電車). The incredibly scenic ride takes you through a narrow, densely wooded valley, changing directions at three different switchback points. Enjoying the majestic views outside of the window really takes the “Are we there yet?” feeling out of traveling; in fact, getting there is half the fun when you make the trip out to Hakone. After the 35-minute ride, we arrived at Gora station, where we made one final transfer to the cable car. This small train makes the steep 1.2 km climb from Gora up to Sounzan station in about 10 minutes, with a few stops in between. We jumped off at Koenkami station and went about trying to find our accommodations. Unprepared for the rain, we were a bit lost and becoming progressively more soaked. Thankfully, an incredibly friendly Japanese man at the art museum invited us under the awning, chatted with us for a few minutes, and gave us clear directions up the road. At so many points in our short trip, we experienced the kindness and hospitality of the Japanese people, who were always eager to help a couple of confused gaijin (外人).
As far as sightseeing goes, there’s plenty to do out in Hakone. Perhaps the most famous sight is the picturesque Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖), which tourists can enjoy from the deck of a pirate ship. You can arrive at the lake via the ropeway, which gives you a panoramic view of the mountains and even a glimpse of Mt. Fuji on a clear day. Both the pirate ship and the ropeway are included as part of the Hakone Free Pass, by the way.
Along the ropeway, many people stop to visit the Great Boiling Valley (大涌谷), a volcanic hot spot full of sulfurous springs. Created over 3,000 years ago as a result of Mt. Hakone’s last eruption, this volcanically active area is full of sulfurous hot springs. As steam is constantly rising from the ground, this area is also commonly referred to as Jigokudani (地獄谷), or “Hell’s Valley.”
Aside from the nice view, the main attraction here is the Kuro-tamago (黒卵), or black eggs. Baskets of eggs are dipped into the steaming hot sulfuric water, where they are left to boil for a few minutes. When they’re finished, the egg shells turn black. It is said that eating one will add seven years to your life. Be careful, though, as you are ill-advised to eat any more than 2 1/2. Don’t ask me why…
Of course, no visit to Hakone would be complete without a dip in one of the many onsen (温泉) – natural hot springs that are a result of Japan’s volcanically active status. These public baths are believed to have healing powers, and many people use them as a way to relax and relieve the stress of the big city grind.
Onsen are commonly gender-separated, and are enjoyed in the buff. Some places feature more of a water park atmosphere, though, and these are meant for all people to enjoy together in the comfort of their bathing suits. During our stay in Hakone, we got the best of both worlds on a visit to the Yunessun Spa & Resort. One side is family friendly, with a variety of baths including a few special ones filled with coffee, red wine, sake, and green tea. The other side is more traditional, with open air hot baths where you can relax in your birthday suit and take in the stunning views of the Japanese countryside.
On the other side of the lake, you can visit the Hakone Checkpoint (箱根関所). This small museum serves as a reconstruction of the original, which controlled traffic along the Tokaido (東海道) back in the feudal Edo period. This important highway linked the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto at that time.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the Open Air Museum (彫刻の森美術館). A variety of sculptures are scattered around the grounds, which are situated in a great location for taking in the scenery of the valleys and mountains that surround. In addition to the many outdoor sculptures, there are also a few indoor galleries (including one full of Picasso’s work), some futuristic playgrounds for children, and a small garden maze. We took our sweet time wandering around the museum, and we even got to take a nice break to soak our feet in a small hot spring while enjoying some ice cream.
One day in Hakone can start with a scenic hike through the mountains in the morning, move on to a peaceful afternoon exploring art and nature in the parks and museums, and wind down with a massive traditional Japanese dinner before soaking in the steaming water of an onsen. If that’s not a solid day of vacation, then I don’t know what is!