Japan: Hakone

After enjoying a day exploring Tokyo and more specifically Odaiba, we were debating which day trip to embark on the next morning. The fact that there are so many incredible day trips from Tokyo to choose is a testament to the diversity of the sites in Japan. It is also, emblematic of the unbelievable transportation network which Japan possesses. Prior to researching our trip to Japan, I was certainly familiar with the bullet train; however, one is quickly overwhelmed with the rest of Japan’s train infrastructure as well.

The abundance of route options is impressive in its own right; but the speed and punctuality with which their transportation system operates is perhaps even more noteworthy. The subway being a focal point is of course common in New York, London, and other major cities; but the Tokyo subway is whole new level as far as I’m concerned.

We visited Japan at the beginning of June, which is around the start of their rainy season in a typical year. Due to this fact, we decided that hiking Mt. Fuji was unfortunately a far more questionable choice. After much debate, we decided that visiting nearby Hakone in an attempt to see Mt. Fuji was the best option for the day. Hakone is a beautiful mountain town located about a 70-minute train ride to the southwest from Tokyo. On a clear day, the views of Mt. Fuji are stunning from Hakone; making it a very popular tourist destination. In addition, Hakone is full of hot springs (known as onsen) if one has more time to spend in the area. The optimal time of year to visit Hakone is generally said to be the winter time as Mt. Fuji is frequently in the haze or clouds during the summer.

Well, our June visit was far from the optimal time of year, so we ended up never seeing Mt. Fuji. Our day trip schedule also precluded us from visiting any of the onsen. So, our day trip must have been a bust or a disappointment right? In the words of Lee Corso, “No so fast, friends!” We had an incredible time in Hakone and it was a great day. I’m sure we would have thoroughly enjoyed other day trips we considered instead as well, but I can honestly say that we had no regrets regarding our choice of Hakone. The area is still quite scenic and the opportunity to explore a mountain town in Japan gave us a much different perspective than our time in Kyoto and especially Tokyo. I can only imagine how much more stunning our visit would have been with Mt. Fuji as a backdrop, but visiting Hakone was still an awesome experience. The power of the mountains is universally prodigious and Lake Ashi is splendidly pristine.

Another reason why we enjoyed the day so much was that the typical tour of Hakone is completed by traveling around a multi-method transportation circuit, which is an event itself. First we took a train from Tokyo out to Odawara Station, from which you can see Odawara Castle.

We then transferred to a local train to head up to Gora where a cable car awaited us. Usually, we would have boarded the “ropeway” (a gondola) afterwards, but the sulfurous gases of Owakudani were seeping out at an unusually high rate, so one of the segments was closed for safety. So, we took a bus detour to the other side of the ropeway. Luckily, we were still able to travel on the ropeway up toward Owakudani to see the volcanic lair. We had read about the closure the night before, but the volcanic gases were far more visible and dramatic than we expected. On the way back down on the ropeway, we were given shimmering views of Lake Ashi as well. When we finally reached Lake Ashi, we boarded a pirate-looking ship for a gorgeous tour of the area. The vibrant green hills blended beautifully with the azure lake and sky.

After our train ride from Tokyo, we boarded the local train.
Next up, we got on the Hakone Tozan Cablecar
The surrounding towns or villages along the way would’ve been fun to explore if we had more time.
This picture may not be that exciting, but I didn’t take many pictures on the relatively short cable car section.
The Hakone Ropeway was definitely one of the highlights of our visit.
We were given masks to wear as protection from the volcanic gases. As we got closer the unmistakable odor of sulfur became quite strong.
For safety reasons, we weren’t permitted to go outside at the top of Owakudani.
The view from the top.
Approaching Lake Ashi
Our boat tour awaited while we had lunch and a beer at the visitor center.
A local beer from nearby Gotenba.
Before I start on our tour of Lake Ashi, I want to take a moment to discuss my experience with beer in Japan. The Gotenba Kohgen beer I had slightly more character than the big brand names found in Tokyo. Most restaurants in Tokyo seemed to simply list “Draft Beer” on the menu, so we didn’t have a choice of brands frequently either. This was just as well since the four major beers of Japan (Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, and Sapporo) are all simple mild pilsners. All of the beers tasted essentially the same to me, but the style of beer fit the hot summer of Japan quite well actually. I live in Denver, which is a notably awesome place for craft beers, so it was strange to have such a limited selection. If Japan possesses a craft beer scene; it certainly didn’t make its presence known on our trip. I enjoyed several refresh light lagers on our trip, but wanted to point out my experience given my interest in beer at home.
Leaving the visitor center on our boat tour.
We enjoyed a gorgeous day on Lake Ashi.
A fun building hidden just off shore.
A Torii signifying the entrance to a Shinto in the depths of the forest.
Lake Ashi is an incredibly pristine lake and the surrounding area is brilliantly verdant.
Hakone itself is a quite small and tranquil mountain town.
Earthquake warning sign at the end of the road.
A tanuki (possibly spelled tanooki)…the inspiration for what we always referred to as the racoon suit in the Super Mario Bros. video games.
Yep.
“Enjoying” wasabi flavored ice cream!
Green tea (macha) ice cream in Japan was ubiquitous, which we took advantage of on several occasions. Black sesame, red bean, and many other unique flavors were also very common.
I don’t know the story of this statue, but I like this picture.
Hakone
Enjoying some fresh mountain air in Hakone on our day trip from the frantic pace of Tokyo turned out to be a wonderful decision.

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