Recently, I’ve been sorting through old photos to upload to Facebook and given that I take way too many, it’s not exactly been a quick five minute job. Because of that, I currently still have photos from three months ago still hidden on my laptop. While looking through April’s pictures, I found the ones from the trip to Hakone, and I figured it was about time I actually documented that day.
Located on the opposite end of Kanagawa Prefecture, it’s not as close to Yokohama as Kamakura is, but the trip only takes about an hour from the main station. My local station is actually further along the train line but we still had to wake up reasonably early to make the most of the day.
After a quick pit stop at My Basket for some picnic food, we caught the train, arriving in Odawara Station mid-morning. There, we bought a Hakone Free Pass each which is easily the most convenient way to travel around the area. While IC cards are great and I swear by them in everyday life, they’re not always eligible for specialist routes (the monorail to Enoshima being one example.) The Free Pass groups together designated routes under one fixed price and includes the Tozan Railway, which is Japan’s only mountain railway. Even if it’s not quite as packed as the Tokyo metro during rush hour, it does fill up fast so I‘d recommend getting to the station early.
Outbound to Gora station is a picturesque railroad up the mountains, and during June it’s lined with fully bloomed hydrangeas, making the journey even more beautiful. We visited during the school holidays so it was a little early for that, and a little crowded too. But, it was still worth it (we’ll just ignore the fact that a suzumebachi flew in at one point!)
Instead of riding all the way to Gora, we got off the train early to explore.
There are a couple of museums and a park in the area, unsure of which one to visit in the relatively short amount of time we had, we used that exploration time to make our decision. Both the Hakone Museum of Art and the Open Air Museum seemed like good places to see, but they also seemed like the kind of places that would need an hour of more to appreciate properly, so we ended up going to Gora Park instead.
It’s small enough to see everything in a reasonable time and even better, admission comes free with the Hakone Free Pass. The park is mainly Western themed with French influence, so it’s a nice little slice of Europe nestled in the surrounding mountains. Back in April, the cherry blossoms were still flowering, which probably made it seem prettier but I bet it looks good all year. The park has a couple of greenhouses
At the time, the humid heat was warmly welcomed after the winter, but I’m not sure if it’s get the same reception in the height of summer (if you could feel a difference at all!). After about ten minutes we emerged, and I felt the cool spring air against my face. Within a short time of meandering through the park, we came across a Japanese style tea house. As the only obviously Eastern part of the garden and a venue for workshops, it’s not to be skipped if you’re visiting the park.
Next was the cable car up to the top of the volcano. It didn’t seem too far away from Gora Park – and besides – we’re used the hills of Yokohama so originally we’d decided to walk to it. On the way we passed a cute little ‘Ghibli House’ with Totoro stickers in the window, and a ninja café. There was a station around the halfway point and the regret had already started to sink in. Caving in the face of another 15 minutes and a kilometre uphill, we used the train for the last part of the trip. It’s definitely further than it looks on the map.
As we got on the cable car at Sounzan Station, I was reminded of my visit to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway two years ago. I remembered feeling very nervous that time, and I remembered my heart rate jumping every time the carriage hit one of the support posts and started to swing.
I’m not actually scared of heights (or cable cars for that matter) but the Palm Springs Tramway is a staggering 8,000ft so I applaud anyone who doesn’t feel a little bit shaky in that situation. I reasoned that at just under 1,000ft, the ropeway would be a piece of cake.
The Hakone Ropeway provides excellent views of the Owakudani volcano, suspended over natural sulphur vents as it travels upwards. The tannoy in the carriage promised a Fuji view, but unfortunately the sky was too clouded by dust blown over from mainland Asia. It doesn’t bother me because I get to see it on my way to work, but I do feel sorry for tourists who pinned their hopes on seeing it that day.
I personally thought that the dust made it look better; the yellow tinged sky really suited the rest of the volcanic aesthetic. That’s not to say that there was no blue sky all day, in fact, it’s actually more common to have blue skies than not here.
When we reached the top we were greeted by sun, cool mountain air, and a gift shop. This is a tourist destination after all. Upon arriving in the shop, there was a huge Hello Kitty statue stood by the door, as Sanrio had a collaboration with Owakudani at the time.
It was one of those moments when you stop and think: “only in Japan”, as ‘Kitty-chan’ was dressed as Owakudani’s famous delicacy – kuro tamago.
Kuro tamago (黒卵, literally translated as black eggs), are eggs boiled in the sulphur hot springs nearby, which turns the shells a deep shade of black. Allegedly, if you eat one you’ll add seven years to your lifespan. I’m not really a fan of eating eggs on their own so I passed on trying it but I plan on returning at some point so I’ll definitely do it then.
The gift shop had a lot of cute kuro tamago merchandise and even if I didn’t eat one, I could still collect a momento of visiting the volcano. It was also Easter at the time so I decided I’d buy myself a little egg-themed Easter present (It doesn’t quite make up for not having chocolate eggs but it helps). The Sanrio collaboration wasn’t just restricted to Hello Kitty, and fortunately my favourite character was also included. It would be weird if they weren’t, as the merchandising department would definitely be missing a trick if they didn’t choose Gudetama the lazy egg to promote kuro tamago.
After a walk round and a little picnic later, it was time to catch the ropeway down the other side towards the lake…
Part 2 coming soon!