One of the greatest images of Japan would have to be that of Mount Fuji after the snowfall. Famous in print and art, “Fuji-san” around 3,776 meters high, is considered one of the most sacred mountains in the country, and the best place to see it is in Hakone. However, Hakone, a convenient 90-minute train from Tokyo, has far more to offer than just mountain views – it is a treasure trove of diversity waiting to be sampled.
Spanning 92.82 km, Hakone was only really developed during the Edo period when it became a checkpoint into Tokyo. However, with its magnificent lake (Lake Ashi), lovely shrine, hot springs and ‘black eggs’, it soon became a place for tourists to enjoy. The best way of reaching Hakone from Tokyo is to take the Odakyu Odawara Line from Shinjuku Station. There is both a fast train (The Romance Train, although it is not that ‘romantic’ but more like a local shinkansen!) and a normal JR train. The Romance Train takes about an hour and a half and costs around 2500 yen including a seat reservation. The JR local is cheaper –half the cost, and takes about 2 hours.
One of the best features of Hakone is Ashinoko, which offers beautiful views of Mount Fuji, especially on a clear day. The sight is breathtaking and sneaks up on you when you walk from the shrine and towards the main shopping area. Surrounded by clear water and fresh air, it’s amazing! The best time to see Fuji is at daybreak because the place is quiet and uninterrupted by the many tourists who descend in large commercial tour buses after 9.30am.
The lake itself is accessible by a series of local buses which regularly service the area (the first bus starting at around 7.30am). The buses cover all the major tourist spots and link Lake Ashi to the key JR stations of Gotemba, Gora, and Hakone. An English map outlining the area can be obtained at numerous tourist offices (it’s actually the only English brochure available) and is very handy. Surrounding the lake are a series of river inlets, where you can hire small fishing boats and explore the waterway. The forest which borders the lake is tranquil and rivals the view of Mount Fuji in terms of beauty.
Two companies, Hakone Sightseeing and Izuhakone Sightseeing operate boats here. The costs vary depending on the type of trip you select, the most classic of which is the ‘pirate’ ship that takes you across the lake.
Due to underground thermal heating, Ashinoko never freezes, even in the coldest of weather. Yet legend has another explanation for this natural phenomenon. A dragon hides within the lake, seeking refuge after being defeated by a traveling Shinto Priest. This Priest established a shrine overlooking the water to protect the area from the dragon returning. The new shrine was incorporated into the older 757 AD Hakone Shrine (Hakone Gongen) and has become the most photographed part of Hakone.
The lake shrine itself is very historic. During the Japanese Civil War (Genpei War), Minamoto no Yoritomo (The Genji), who would become the first shōgun of the Kamakura Shogunate, prayed at this shrine for guidance, after being defeated by the Emperor’s Heike forces during the Battle of Ishibashiyama. Despite the defeat, Minamoto finally won the Genpei War and became the patron of the shrine.
The foothill part of the shrine is older than the lakeside area and is known as the Hakone Gongen. It too is famous and mentioned in several Heian works of literature. Its main hall is dedicated to Ninigi no Mikoto, grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Within its grounds are many natural landscapes to enjoy, along with old traditional style structures and marker stones. The shrine also houses the Homotsu-den within a treasure room which, along with other historical objects, is opened once a year.
Owakudani is an area close to Ashinoko. Accessible via the pirate boat and a ropeway cable car, it was created during the last eruption of Mount Hakone 3000 years ago. The smell of sulfur, along with fabled black eggs that are said to prolong one’s life by seven years, makes this moonscape area a wonderfully diverse contradiction to that of Lake Ashi and the surrounding forests.
For those who wish to walk up the sulfur-soaked mount, the trail takes about 2 hours. It’s not an easy walk and the path can be rocky and windy. For those who are not so athletic, a rope bridge ‘flies’ you through the sulfur smoke.
At the top of the mountain are a series of shops selling these famous black eggs. The place has a truly ‘moonscape’ feel – with mines, tracks, smells and smoke that make you wonder if you really are in Japan.
So there you have it, Hakone in all its forms – from rich forest lake-scapes with views of Mount Fuji, to the serenity of Genpei shouldered shrines, to the grayness of a sulfur moonscape. Accessible from Tokyo by train, Hakone is worth the trip – even if you go for just a day. But… trust me, with all its diversity, a day in Hakone is just not enough!