13 May 2014

Hakone High Jinks and Fujisan Fun

As I was about to leave my hotel room this morning, there was a huge — to my British mind — wobbling. For a split second, I thought I had some, er, rowdy upstairs neighbours but when I got back to the wifi this evening, I confirmed that it was a brief 5.0 earthquake. Just what you want when you're heading off to explore a volcanic region!

While staying Tokyo, I wanted to do a day trip out of the city. I thought about doing a tour to Mount Fuji but they tend to be quite expensive and, of course, you can't guarantee that you will get a clear view, especially at this time of year. Instead, a few people recommended that I go to the scenic Hakone region, which gets you into the great outdoors and, if you're lucky, offers numerous Fujisan photo pops. I took the bullet train to Odawara, the gateway to the region and a 35-minute ride from Tokyo.

You can travel around by various modes of transport including local trains, buses, a switchback mountain train, a pirate ship, several ropeways (what I would call cable cars) and a cable car (what I would call a funicular). If you buy the Hakone Free Pass (¥4000 from Odawara, or, if you don't have a JR pass and need transport from Tokyo, about ¥5000 from Shinjuku), you can use all of these transport options for two days. It's a little complicated but there are lots of leaflets and maps and the station staff are very helpful. Plus most of the sights are in a circular loop and the transport links are frequent, so it's all pretty convenient.

I took the K bus from Hakone Yumoto station, getting off at Amazake-jaya —a lovely, traditional tea house that serves amazake, a sort of hot, sweet, thick, fermented rice drink. That doesn't sound very appealing but it was tasty and calming. Very slightly reminiscent of Horlicks, as the friendly assistant said.

You can hop on and off the buses as much as you like, but I decided to walk the 2 km or so along the Old Tokaido Highway — now just a rocky, hilly path through the forest that takes you to the village of Motohakone-ko, on the shores of Lake Ashi. The path was almost deserted and although it seemed to be a matter of just following the rocks, there were, at various points, signs in Japanese that veered off piste. Luckily I made it to the lake without mishap and even managed a couple of leaps.

A few minutes north west of Motohakone-ko, there's a stunning and peaceful shrine, but if you don't have time, you can still get some great views of the red 'floating' torii. The sun had got its hat on by this point, right  on cue, and after I had grabbed a sushi snack pack from the 7-11, I was ready to board the pirate ship to take me across Lake Ashi, a 50-minute ride. On the top deck, I met some friendly visitors from the US who were also heading for the ropeway so we travelled together for a few hours. They kindly took my picture just moments after my first glimpse of Fuji-san. Hooray for clear skies!

After two bursts of ropeway, we reached Owakudani, a volcano some 1,000 metres above sea level that, on a day like today, has some stunning views of its more famous neighbour. I took over 150 photos just on the ropeway and on Owakudani, so I'll need to do some serious editing when I get home!

At Owakudani, you can buy a bag of five black eggs, which have been hard boiled in the volcanic waters. They are normal inside, though; at least, I think so. They were still hot hours later so I haven't cracked one open yet. I did try the 'egg' ice cream though. I wasn't really hungry but wanted to prove to my new friends that it would probably be egg custard flavour rather than omelette flavour. You never can tell in Japan, but I was right on this occasion.

The next ropeway takes you most of the way down at a vertigo-inducing incline. As it wasn't busy, I had my own car, but I was worried I would get told off if I attempted a leap. Finally, the cable car takes you the rest of the way down, to Gora, and you can then get an old-fashioned switchback train back to Hakone Yumato.

Back at Tokyo Station, I decided to check out the Ramen Street section of the food court, where eight of Tokyo's best ramen restaurants offer up their wares. As usual, you buy a ticket from a vending machine and then queue up for your food. I went to Oreshiki Jun and had a huge bowl of tasty noodles with broth, egg and pork, for ¥880, which meant I was still too full to try my black eggs.

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