Hakone: the hardest place to leave

Hakone: the hardest place to leave

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:

Confusingly, the ‘Cable Car’ is actually a funicular, and the ‘Ropeway’ is a cable car, not some kind of hig ropes course (sad).

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.

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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.

Bliss.  (Photo from their website.)

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.

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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.

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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.

Kumano Kodo: shrines, springs and sore feet

Kumano Kodo: shrines, springs and sore feet

Our Kumano Kodo hike didn’t start that well.

The Kumano Kodo are a network of very old pilgrimage routes in southern Kansai, a couple of hours south east of Osaka.  Kumano is the pre-historic name for this region, which apparently evokes deep mystery for the Japanese — the area is associated with the Buddhist paradise, and the ancient Japanese land of the dead… Spooky.  Kodo means something like ‘old ways’.  Pilgrims from Kyoto followed the route in Imperial Japan, as far back as the 10th century.  There are three ‘great shrines’ on the way, and countless small ones, where various stages of purification ritual were undertaken (and still are).

The Kumano is a world heritage site, the only trail that’s been designated one in the world, except for the camino de Santiago de Compostela, which it’s sort of twinned with.

After eating ourselves silly in Osaka, the plan was to catch a bus a bit of the way along the trail and camp for the night, then start hiking first thing.  Instead, we got off the train in Tanabe to find we’d just missed the last bus of the day, so a night in a nondescript guesthouse it was.

Next morning we were on the bus at first light, clutching pastries and cans of hot coffee from the station vending machine.  We even managed to stow some of our stuff in the station luggage lockers, so our packs were light and our spirits were up.

Getting hot coffee in a can never ceased to amaze me in all of our time in Japan.  It’s one of the things that makes it feel like Japan is there to indulge you.  Travelling here is absurdly easy.  Thirsty?  There’ll be a vending machine within 30 metres or so, and it’ll have coffee.  Hungry?  There’s a convenience store either behind you or in front of you at all times.  (Except in Tanabe, where there will be a butchers or patisserie, but no convenience stores to be found…)  Tired?  Even hostels have oversized, soft, fluffy duveted, fine linened beds.  They also have coffee.  Free coffee.  What we would’ve given for free coffee once we’d been in China for a few weeks.

Getting the early morning bus meant we had lovely soft light as the scenery got lusher and more mountainous.  At first it was just us and a couple of other hikers on the bus.  A river ran by us on the right, and the road was flanked by steep tree covered hills.  We passed tiny three-house places (which had roadside vending machines), and a 12 foot high fiberglass rabbit.


After a toilet stop next to misty early morning fields, the bus climbed higher into the hills, and got busier and busier.  Hikers got on at every stop.  The trail runs fairly close to the road for much of its length, so it’s easy to pick it up at various points.  Clearly we were’t the only ones cheating and using the bus to cut down the mileage.

We only had one day on the trail, so we got off the bus in the middle of nowhere, roughly as far from that evening’s camp spot as we reckoned we could walk before nightfall.

At first the route went along a small road, but soon it veered off into the woods, and became the rocky, winding path that we followed for most of the day.


We met few people — a young Japanese couple, two older Australian ladies, a pair of middle aged Japanese men, and a large group of Japanese hikers in conspicuously new, top of the range kit, suitable for an Alpine expedition.

The path wound up hill and down dale, mostly through thick woodland, with the occasional small shrine or charming bridge to divert your attention.  And everywhere vivid, stunning, autumn leaves.


The water and scoops you can see bottom left here are for temizu, a Shinto purification ritual involving washing your hands and mouth.  But we didn’t know that at the time.  Arthur thought they were for symbolically feeding water to the stone dragons around the shrine…

As we plodded rhythmically through the quiet forest we composed haiku.

I put down one foot, 
then the other foot, on the
Kumano Kodo.


The path was very well marked, to the point that paths other than the Kumano Kodo were signposted thus.


Everything was pleasingly damp and mysterious, and there was a lot of moss, so I was having a lovely time.


After a picnic lunch we descended into a river valley, and were met by some of the overenthusiastic concrete application that’s evident all over Japan.  Often, roads snake along both sides of a river valley, and bridges unite them with bewildering frequency.  Now and again a bridge will boldly jut out to nowhere at all, ending abruptly at the valley wall.  Apparently, this sort of bizarrely pre-emptive construction is partly a result of the way the Japanese political system works.  Representation is still loosely based on the population distribution of the 1940s, despite a huge shift towards urban living since then.  So sparsely populated rural districts have disproportionate sway at a national level, which results in rural areas winning plenty of job-creating investment.


There was one particularly painful incursion on nature where a huge swathe of trees had been replaced by a carpark, which was completely empty, being down a dirt track in the middle of nowhere.


I think in this instance these were probably landslide prevention measures, which is fair enough I suppose, but it’s certainly not pretty.

Further along we found an abandoned village, slowly returning to forest.  Families began to move away during a recession in the 1940s, and 17 households became 8.  A sign by the trail told us that the government deemed this settlement, which was called Michinogawa, ‘unfeasible’, and the remaining families were resettled to a nearby town.  It didn’t say if they went quietly.  The houses still had kitchens, with tiled sinks.


After this the trail joined a road again, and passed through small villages.  There was almost nobody around, but small well tended rice paddies and neat lines of tea plants flanked the road.  We stopped to buy some satsumas (or ‘mikan’, as they call them here), from a roadside honesty stall.  The only things on sale were bags of satsumas, and tubs of pickled garlic.


While we were stopped a rather perturbed looking American caught us up, and asked us if we’d seen his friends, who he’d lost some time before.  We hadn’t, but we gave him an orange.  This turned out to spark a very long run of Karma, in which almost everyone we met in Japan gave us an orange.

Shortly afterwards we got to a cafe, which served coffee made with hot water from their hot spring.


Obviously we had to try this.  It was very nice, though nothing like any coffee I’d had before.  A rich, almost pungent taste, with sharp coffee flavours, but something muskier going on too.  The ladies behind the counter seemed very amused to serve us.  I suspect they don’t get many foreigners in.

From the cafe it was mostly a descent to Hongu, a town that houses one of the ‘big three’ shrines on the trail, and our sort-of final destination.


The shrine was very busy with tourists, but also monks chanting away in the main building.  It felt strange to emerge into the hubbub after being cocooned in the forest all day.


After the shrine we plodded through town to the giant Torii which marks the original site of Kumano Hongu Taisha, the shrine at Hongu.  It was moved up hill from a river plain after floods more or less swept it away.  Then it was time for the last few kilometres to our campsite for the night, at Wataze Onsen.  It was a scramble to get there before it got pitch black, since we’d somewhat underestimated the hill between Honshu and our bed for the night.  I was entertaining visions of snakes lurking in the falling dark, and the shrines that had seemed pleasingly eerie in the sunlight became genuinely creepy.

On the way we passed Yunomine Onsen, which is a little town in a steep river valley, full of steam from the hot springs that bubble forth all over the place. (An onsen is a hot spring bath.)  In the middle of town is a tiny wooden hut perched perilously over the river, which is the only hot spring in Japan that’s a Unesco World Heritage site.  Being there was like going back in time.  It was very quiet, and very misty, as people clopped around in their sandals and cotton yukata.  The sound of splashing water drifted from the windows of hotel bath houses.

A little further up the road we eventually found our campsite, though nobody on it to pay.  A bit of guessing on Arthur’s part secured us a pitch (the hotel next door turned out to run the campsite), and by 7 o’clock we’d made our home and started on dinner.

When we woke the next morning we found the site was very scenic, though it was obscured in darkness and steam the night before.


Dinner was noodles and stuff, which was all well and good, until we realised that we’d left our chopsticks in the station locker in Tanabe.  Our fellow campers got treated to a ‘westerners eating noodles with their bare hands’ show, which I’m sure was hilarious.

Wataze has several hot springs, but the main draw is the rotemburo, which is an outside onsen, apparently the largest one in western Japan.  The rotemburo was utter bliss after a long day walking.  There aren’t many better ways to spend time than lying stark naked in hot water, surrounded by trees, next to a rushing river, watching steam drift by a fat full moon.

Men and women bathe separately, so it was some solitary time for us too, which is really quite nice after two months in each other’s continuous company.

Going to an onsen has some procedure about it.  You undress in a changing room, and leave your things in a locker or basket, then it’s into the shower room, usually through a sliding door, which totally threw me the first time.  Standing naked, helplessly rattling a door which you know should open, but won’t open for you, is a humbling experience.

Showering in Japan involves sitting down.  First you rinse off the little plastic or wooden stool with the shower head, then seat yourself facing the taps, and go about your shower in the usual manner.  At an onsen this is in a big open room with a row of showers along the wall.  There’s usually a basin with the stool, but I never quite worked out why this was necessary — most people seem to use it to chuck a deluge over their hair when they’re washing it, but I find the shower head more effective.  When you’re finished you rinse off the stool again.

Once you’ve had a good wash, you’re ready to get into the hot bath, or baths in this case.

Wataze rotemburo has five baths of various temperatures, the hottest one is hot enough that I could only stand it for a minute or so.  I spent a very happy hour or so milling between the baths, with a Japanese mother and toddler, and I think Grandma, for company.  The little girl was having a great time splashing calmly about in the warm water, but I could hear some more boisterous splashing and laughter coming from the men’s bath over the wall.  I think the dads had more children to look after.

Once I’d dragged myself out of the hot water it was time for another shower (though purists would argue you shouldn’t wash off the hot spring water because it’s good for your skin).  Then I made full use of the free hair dryers and combs, and chilled spring water to drink, while I very languorously dried off and got dressed.  All of this luxury, by the way, cost about £3.50.

After our onsen we wound down further with a vending machine hot chocolate (it was a tough choice — beer and Haagen Dazs were also available), and tucked ourselves up in our tent.  I slept the best I have in years.

Next morning there was just time for an improvised hot spring by the river before hopping on the bus back to Tanabe.  You can dig into the river bank to make your own spring, since hot water springs up from only a foot or so down.  The whole area is volcanically active enough that hot springs pop up all over the place.  Thankfully we didn’t have to dig our own spring (we’d neglected to pack our shovel), and we just used one somebody had left behind.  I think this hot spring au natural experience is pretty popular if it isn’t raining, which it was.

“I hate Mondays.”

Swimwear is useful for this onsen experience, since you’re lying in full view of the whole town.  That didn’t stop the Japanese man who pitched up next to us from stripping off though.  His wife stayed on the dry bank, looking somewhat put out.

Getting back into our clothes without getting soaked by the persistent drizzle was something of a challenge, and we nearly managed it, but not quite.

Luckily the bus driver stopped at a vending machine on the way back, and we got a hot coffee to warm us up.

Life’s hard sometimes…