I’ve been deliberating on this last post of Hakone for a while. We’ve shared about our first Onsen experience, our encounter with the Little Prince and introduced you to the beautiful flora at Hakone Botanical Gardens of Wetlands. Now reluctantly, it’s time for our final post on Hakone…a place we’ve fallen so in love with and I can’t really describe why.Well, like most love encounters do…it started with some flirting…with the Grand Lady herself, Mt. Fuji.
Like a shy Geisha, she’s been known to be illusive this time of the year (rainy season) but Angie, knowing I am a ‘World Heritage Site’ junkie, took a gamble, booked a Ryokan famed for its view so that her husband could have a 50-50% chance of catching a glimpse of this beauty.
From Tokyo, we took the JR Train to Odawara and transferred to the Hakone Tozan Railway which brought us through the picturesque hillside of Hakone to Lake Ashi which was formed on the caldera of Mount Hakone after it erupted 3000 years ago (I did say I like heritage stuff!). Angie and I seem to have a penchant for volcanoes since we had our honeymoon on Mauritius (a volcanic island) and later, went on our 2nd Honeymoon in Hawaii (more volcanoes!).
School girls waiting for the Mountain Train. It’s not only for tourist.
How not to fall in love with a place like this? Railroad lined with awesome greenery and flowers.
Before we boarded the cruise to ride the Hakone-en ropeway up to Mount Komagatake, we had to ‘refuel’ at a nearby restaurant. Now, this is one of the wonderful things about having a local guide – Mr. Yoshida just stuck his head into a nondescript little shop then waved us in. Inside, an old lady and her son owned the little eatery and THERE,we had the most awesome TEMPURA meal! OMG! The batter was so fresh and crisp. After soaking up the miso broth, the flavours just exploded in our mouths. The accompanying soba was so light and fresh as it was handmade. Little did we expect to find heaven in a little Hakone shop!
Heavenly tempura and soba…all from a non-descript shop along Moto Hakone, along Lake Ashi.
After our satisfying meal and what seemed like a thousand ‘Oishi’ to the nice elderly lady, we went for our catamaran cruise across the 3000 year old caldera, Lake Ashi. There across the tranquil lake stands the iconic Torii Gate leading up to the Hakone Shrine which is shrouded by the dense greenery. The shrine, built on top of the Mount Komagatake was relocated to this site in 1667. In its heyday, it was very popular with the Samurais (whoa!) but today, we could only catch a brief glimpse of it through the shrubbery as the cruise slowly moved along.
I don’t think these ‘ducks’ know they are sitting on a 3000 year old caldera…neither did we, until now.
The Lake Ashi Cruise, a great way to slow down and take in the breadth of the place.
Seriously…I don’t mind having his job.
Taking the Ropeway we were able to see the awesome bird’s eye view of the Hakone Hillside.
Photos from a calendar? That’s the beauty of Japan. Everywhere I turn, I’m tempted to shoot.
Jack Sparrow? No…just a pirate ship for fun to take us across Lake Ashi.
Torii Gate of Hakone Shrine, an Edo period shrine frequented by Samurais.
Alas, when we reached the foot of the Ropeway we were greeted by dense fog. Mt. Fuji was obviously playing hard to catch! Nevertheless, we took the Ropeway up and in its unique way, it gave us a stunning view of Mount Hakone and the surrounding lake. The fog gave our ride a sense of mystique, perfect for that illusive romance we seem to be having with Mt. Fuji. We returned after a stopover at the top, taking in the canopy view of the forests. Honestly, even without seeing Mt. Fuji, the Mount Komagatake Ropeway has offered us an unforgettable view.
The Hakone Ropeway…a wonderful way to see Mt. Fuji and the stunning view of Lake Ashi and its hillside.
The rolling hills of Hakone: One of my fav shots that shows the various shades of green with a tinge of the evening sky on the top left.
Even the leaves are pretty here. (Taken at Onshi Hakone Park overlooking Lake Ashi)
Sensing our slight disappointment at not being to spot Mt. Fuji, our guide Mr. Yoshida suggested we visit the old Hakone Checkpoint which served as an ‘immigration’ check point for travellers going between Tokyo and Kyoto during the feudal Edo period. Here, the wooden structures remained largely intact with re-enactments and pictorial guides to show us the process of immigration checks that the people and their horses had to go through…much like our ports and airports today. It was quite surreal. Almost like a step back into time.
Time is the real commodity, for right next to the Checkpoint, we saw a timeless skill that was passed from generations of master craftsmen – the skill of making ‘Yosegi Zaiku’ or puzzle boxes made from Cedar-wood. These puzzle boxes are amazing – they looked normal from the outside but inside are a series of drawers for hiding jewellery and secret paper messages which can only be revealed through subtle shifting and moving of the joints (like a magical rubric cube!). You have to try it to believe it. Even more amazing is that these boxes come in all shapes and sizes, with some as large as cabinets! We had loads of fun with the craftsman who was trying to trick us with the boxes. Laughter breaks barriers!
Quaint little shops close to Hakone Checkpoint
Dana having a go at the puzzle boxes and seeing the master at work. These Cedar wood boxes are amazing! Even more amazing is the craftsmanship involved.
Not far from the Checkpoint , we walked a short distance and climbed some steps up to the Onshi Hakone Park. Here, a small stately bungalow with white-washed walls which used to be the former summer resort house of the Imperial family sits among a large garden of finely manicured plants and rows of splendid roses. With birds chirping and overlooking the lake, it tempts you to pause for a moment to take in the air of peacefulness, serenity and balance.
Big, bright and beautiful roses at Onshi Hakone Park which once was the summer home of the Imperial family.
After our stopover, we headed down to catch the Hakone Tozan Railway but had to bypass one of the most ‘magical’ places we’ve ever stepped foot into – The Old (Ancient) Cedar Path. Built in the Edo period, the path used by ancient travellers is lined with hundreds of gigantic 500 year-old Cedar trees that seem to shoot straight up to the sky (as high as 40 metres!). Some of these Cedar trees have a girth of 4 metres! We felt like dwarves from a Tolkien movie. I can’t help but to touch these ancient giants and just take in the refreshing Cedar-wood scent. I can only imagine the stories they would tell of Japan’s metamorphosis. This is an unforgettable walk but it’s not suitable for the elderly or the very young as the paths are uneven and steps rather steep.
Take a magical walk back in time to ancient Japan along this stone-paved roads (may not be suitable for very elderly or the very young)
It’s hard to imagine that we walked along the paths of the ancient Japanese as they traveled between Kyoto and Tokyo.
500 year-old Cedar trees that shoot up almost 40m into the sky. We absolutely loved this place! It left us speechless. That’s how tiny we are (above)
When in Japan…travel with a Japanese: me and our goodwill local guide who made a big difference to our trip! Thank you Mr.Yoshida!
Everywhere we turn, flowers flowers flowers…Beautiful flowers in their natural state.
Although we didn’t get to ‘meet’ Mt. Fuji at Lake Ashi, we were pleasantly delighted by what her ‘neighbours’ had to offer – the chance to peep into Japan’s ancient past and natural diversity. What a bonus.
Soon, it was time to make our way back to our hotel. Will we finally ‘meet’ the Grand Lady ? My heart sank when the hotel staff informed us that Mt. Fuji did not appear for the past week due to the rain and mist. Today was no exception. I was about to resign to my fate that the only way I can ‘see’ Mt. Fuji would be through the hotel’s posters pasted strategically along the hotel corridor windows where the iconic volcano would usually be sighted.
The next day was just as cloudy. We took the Hakone Tozan Mountain Train to Gora Park- the French Styled Landscaped Rock Garden. There, we were greeted by the panoramic view of the Hakone hillside and the incredible array of flowers planted in a symmetrical formation. Our guide then brought us for a brief Japanese Tea Ceremony and we treated ourselves to some Lavender Ice Cream in a cone – a must try in Japan.
Gora Park, a French-styled garden opened in 1916.
The layout here is symmetrical and balanced. Nicely laid out.
Once a year, pilgrims will come to the hillside, offer prayers and celebrate ‘humanity’ by lighting the figurine along the hillside.
We participated in a simple tea ceremony here at Gora Park amidst the lush greenery.
When in Japan, eat Lavender Ice-cream…shiok!
After lunch, we headed to the Hakone Open Air Museum. This is another magical place where modern man-made art sculptures co-exist with Mother Nature. Opened in the late 1960s, this place has become an icon of Hakone even as residents themselves (including our guide) remembers coming here as a youth and then bringing his own children here. The amazing thing is that all the sculptures and permanent exhibits here remain virtually untouched by time.
I was intrigued….What’s in Open-Air museum??
Simply put…it’s an Art Museum with gigantic and authentic pieces of modern art placed alongside nature. It was surprisingly refreshing.
Yes…there is a sizable collection of Picasso pieces here.
I didn’t know what to expect from this Hakone Open Air Museum initially and was wondering if Dana would appreciate these art installations. That worry was unfounded as the beauty of the place lies in how these huge sculptures were put to perfectly balance the outdoor environment it sits on, captivating both child and adults alike. Visually, these exhibits can be provocative but aesthetically, they are stunning. You would need a good 4 hours at least to enjoy the Museum, including its indoor gallery with seasonal exhibits on display. On the day we visited, they were showcasing Bamboo Art and we got to see the marriage of art and science in that collection.
Do pay a visit to the indoor exhibits here. They change seasonally.
One of the highlights for us was Symphonic Sculpture which is a huge 3-story giant kaleidoscope where we could enter it and be part of it. It was nothing short of awesome. Quite an experience! There are also other art installations where children and adults can enjoy (read: touch and feel). One such are the giant Sunny-side up eggs entitled La Victoire de Villedaneuse and Garden of Stars – a huge indoor gym concept art installation where kids can go in and play. Whether you’re an art lover or not, there is something to take away from this very unique, one in the world place – The Hakone Open Air Museum. A must visit definitely.
These are Fried Egg shape benches
Inside here is the Garden of Stars, an indoor children’s playground of sorts (and an art piece) unfortunately it was closed when we visited.
Have you been IN a Kaleidescope? We have!
The Symphonic Sculpture – a 3-story high glass sculpture making us feel like we are in a Kaleidescope!
But…the most remarkable of all, is Mother Nature’s handiwork – the flowers and leaves with beauty lies within diversity.
Finally, as another day ends, the question remains, will I be able to say ‘hi’ to the illusive Grand Dame? When we returned in the evening, we gasped as we walked past the ‘strategic spot’ in the hotel, there she was! Mt. Fuji – the clouds slowly lifting to reveal her regal beauty that has graced the Japanese landscape for millions of years…and finally we meet! The next 1 hour, the clouds slowly parted and we could see more of her. Though the Summer heat had melted her signature snow-caps, her symmetrical cone was clearly visible. With nightfall looming, we quickly snapped away, including views from our room balcony. When it was too dark to shoot anymore, we settled down for dinner, right next to the looming silhouette of Mount Fuji. Next morning, it rained and we didn’t see her again. Our ‘meeting’ was brief but memorable.
Finally…the Grand Dame showed herself..and I checked off another item on my bucket list. Thank you for gracing our trip.
Hakone is more than just the view of Mt. Fuji. It offers travellers a taste of the relaxed and idyllic countryside of Japan – a much needed respite from the intensity we’ve experienced the past few days at the Theme Parks.
This is our last post for Hakone, for now and…I feel sad. Honestly, Hakone has been a gem for us. It has part nature, part community, part heritage and every part Japan. For that, it was extra meaningful that we included Hakone in our trip – the natural beauty and wonder of Japan that has captured our hearts.
Us at Gora Park. Another memorable family portrait in a place we love so much.
Our DIY Japan Trip 2015 (Summer):