Our journey to Hakone was a bit of an epic, but it was absolutely worth the effort. We went to catch a glimpse of mount Fuji, and do a bit more hot spring wallowing before hitting the bright lights of Tokyo. Hakone is a mountain region about an hour and a half away from Tokyo, so it’s a popular weekend trip for Tokyo-ites.
From Nara we took a train to Kyoto, spent about 45 minutes scouring the station for a luggage locker (there were hundreds, but all were full), then had the afternoon in the city (more on this to come), before getting a night bus to Tokyo. The bus was slower than billed, so we got into Tokyo around 9.45 am. By the time we’d got a subway to Shinjuku station we were very hungry and in need of coffee, so we really wanted Mister Donut.
Mister Donut is a Japanese chain of coffee / doughnut shops. Actually it was originally American, but some takeovers happened or some such thing, and the American bit became Dunkin’ Donuts. Fun fact.
The doughnuts are really good, and pretty cheap for Japan (about 50p upwards), but the main draw is the coffee, which is also perfectly nice, but mainly they do FREE REFILLS. Heck yes. They even do a ‘morning set’ of a doughnut and limitless coffee for about £2. We tended to supplement this with additional doughnuts for a nice wholesome breakfast. Morning sets are a general feature of places serving coffee in Japan, and tend to be pretty good value breakfast options, especially given that coffee on its own can be quite expensive.
Anyway. We arrived at Shinjuku in dire need of a Mister Donut, but could see none. They’re often found in stations, so we were a bit put out. Shinjuku is the busiest station in the world, with something like 4 million people using it every day, and 50 odd platforms. It also has over 200 exits. We used one of these to venture out on a doughnut quest, but clearly chose the wrong one (silly us). It took about half an hour of increasingly disgruntled wandering, fully laden, to find our breakfast.
When we emerged, full of doughnuts and feeling much saner, we found we were right next to an entrance to Shinjuku, a good 800 metres from where we’d exited. It took us another half an hour to find our way back from this entrance to the ticket hall we needed for the next stage of our journey.
Japan’s patchwork of privately owned railway lines can be infuriating at times. It means you have to know which line your destination is on, then find the ticket office for that line. Route maps rarely show competitor lines, so if you need to change you’re left having to piece together maps and often buy multiple tickets. Gah.
So by the time we’d got our tickets for the next leg it was well after noon. Then it was two more trains, requiring separate tickets, to get us to Hakone-Yumoto, where we popped into tourist information to grab a map of the area. Actually, you can get straight to Hakone-Yumoto without changing, but you have to pay more to go on the special ‘Romancecar’ train, which didn’t seem like our scene.
We were starving again by this point, and the only readily available food was more baked goods, so it was carbs and sugar for lunch too. I was getting grumpy (again). Finding enough savoury, relatively healthy, vegetarian food to keep me out of hunger/sugar slump induced foul moods has sometimes been a challenge on this trip… Poor Arthur.
Hakone’s USP is the ‘Hakone circuit’, a route around the area using several different modes of transport, starting and finishing in Hakone-Yumoto. I think the idea is you just ride round the route for the day, catching views of mount Fuji and the local volcanic scenery along the way. Here’s the route:
It sounded kind of fun, but also kind of expensive, so we decided to skip it in favour of hiking up some hills to catch a Fuji view. This turned out to be a good call, because the cable cars at the top of the circuit were closed, and had been for several months. The volcanic fumes coming out of the mountain beneath them had got too intense.
We were staying in Gora though, so we got to ride the first bit of the circuit to get to our hostel. The little mountain train zig-zagged up the hillside, reversing direction at switchback stations along the way. When this happened the driver got out, locked up his cabin, and strolled to the other end of the train to install himself at the controls there. The frustrations of the journey receded as we climbed higher and higher. You can’t not have fun riding up a mountain through tunnels and switchbacks on a little red train.
The sun was setting on us as we arrived in Gora, a little village with a few hot spring inns and not much else. The steam drifting from the springs wrapped the whole place in a mysterious haze. Our home for the next two nights was Hakone Tent, the classiest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. An array of soft slippers welcomed us in, and the crotchety day getting there became a distant memory.
We picked out our futons in the tatami mat dorms, popped to the village shop to get some supplies, and cooked up some noodles in the kitchen while sipping a beer.
After dinner we went for a soak in the onsen. Yep, a hostel with an onsen bath. Life was good. Two baths actually. The one we chose was a little square wooden pool in the cave-like lower ground floor, a space that seemed carved out of the rock.
The water was hot and minerally. We sat cocooned in the steam, muscles and brains relaxing into happy stupor. After our soak I did a yoga class, as you do. Then we had a giant mug of ice cold beer at the cedar shingled bar, and went to our squashy, warm futons.
Next morning dawned bright and cool, and we set off to hike. First we crossed the valley below the hostel, passing some interesting buildings amid the greenery.
Then it was up, up, up the other side, to a ridge that led off towards Fuji. We were so busy debating whether to stay here forever, that we didn’t notice Fuji creeping into view between the trees.
After this its snow capped cone was more or less our constant companion, as we hiked along the ridge through autumn leaves and bamboo groves. The sun was warm, but the mountain air icy cold in the shadows. Across the valley back towards the hostel we could see steam flowing out of the mountain.
Around lunchtime we got to a particularly good viewpoint, and met a Japanese lady who took our photo for us. We began to meet more people after this, mostly older Japanese hikers, but usually we had the path to ourselves. A bit further down the path we stopped in a patch of sun to have a lunch of onigiri and fruit.
Following the path through thick bamboo groves, we finished off by climbing a mountain that has a view straight across the valley to Fuji. It was steep in places, and the sun was beginning to set, the temperature dropping, but the view was well worth the chill.
At the top was a little ramshackle cafe shop, which we took to be closed for the winter. But as we left, an old lady emerged, shouting excitedly. She wanted us to sign her visitor book. When we were done she gave us an orange*, and disappeared back into the dark building. It seemed like she must have been living alone up there, on top of a cold mountain, only accessible by a very steep, rough footpath. Perhaps she had family there that we didn’t see.
The light was nearly gone by the time we’d descended back to the valley, and hopped on a bus back to the hostel for another evening of hot baths and cold beer.
Having breakfast on the roof terrace the next morning, we seriously considered stopping here longer… or possibly indefinitely. The idea of spending the winter there, bundled up in the snowy mountains, was almost enough to drag us away from travelling on. Also, they had deckchairs.
Tokyo beckoned though, so we eventually managed to leave, and headed first to Hakone Open Air Museum, an art museum a couple of kilometres down the road. Entering through a smooth concrete tunnel, you’re met by a broad mountain view, and sculptures dotted about into the distance. You could tell from the natty outfits on display that the Tokyo hip had joined us for a weekend day out, mostly young families with toddlers in minimalist trainers.
The museum was excellent. It’s mostly a sculpture park, but also has a building of Picasso’s work. The Picasso was very interesting, especially because they’ve got so much of it in one place, you can see some ideas and obsessions running through. There was a great mix of media too. I didn’t realise Picasso had done so much ceramic work. Some of it was pretty cool, though much of it looked like something you’d do at one of those paint your own plate cafés.
Even better than the Picasso though, was wandering through the sculptures in the last of the autumn sun, mountains ranged around us. Occasionally the little red train would chug past the edge of the park. Otherwise it was quiet and calm, but for the happy sounds of kids playing on the interactive sculptures. It was busy, being the weekend, but not crowded, and we passed most of the day there, enjoying another picnic in the sun.
Quite a lot of the work is big scale stuff you can walk around in, or play with in some way. There’s a maze-like concrete warren sunk into the earth, and a tower of stained glass you can climb. The most fun one, a pyramid of clear plastic balls you could clamber through, was off limit to adults though. Sucks to be a grown up.
We rounded off the day with delicate sweets and an elegant pot of powdered green tea in the tea room, which was all glass and pale ash furniture, followed by a free foot bath. For some reason the hot spring water was full of lemons and oranges. The kids were having a great time chasing fruit up and down the bath.
All good things come to an end. Eventually it began to get cool again as the afternoon drew to a close, so (somewhat reluctantly) we dried our feet off and plodded off to Tokyo, down the mountain to our next adventure.
*This was at least the second time this happened in Japan, after we gave the American an orange on the Kumano Kodo. When we were leaving the campsite we stayed at that same night, a pair of bikers from Yokahama gave us an orange as we sheltered from the rain together under a porch, and they packed up their bikes ready for the long drive home. It happened after this too, but I’ve lost track of the times. Perhaps this is an aspect of East Asian hospitality we’ve never heard of before, or perhaps it really was Karma.