The next leg of our DIY Japan trip couldn’t be more of a contrast: From the dense, busy streets of Tokyo and Asakusa plus our ‘high-octane’ experiences in Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea, we took the Shinkansen to the idyllic town of Hakone (90 minutes away).
Honestly, we were so close to abandoning Hakone prior to our departure due to seismic activities from the nearby volcanoes (yes…plural). As it turns out, just like how we took a gamble to visit Hualian, Taiwan years back despite the Typhoon then, we fell in love with Hakone. Here’s our love story…and like most love stories, it involves gardens, parks and a Prince.
We’ve always believed that one way to immerse oneself in the place of travel would be to visit their parks. From Central Park in New York, Boston’s Public Gardens to Hyde Park in London, we’ve intentionally taken time off (and stepped out of shopping malls) to slow down and stroll through them, taking in the sights and sounds of what nature has to offer in different parts of the world. These intentional detours from modernity and urban civilisation never fail to enchant us.
“Where are the people?” resumed the little prince. “It’s a little lonely in the desert…”
“It is lonely when you’re among people, too,” said the snake.
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
(箱根湿生花園, Hakone Shisseikaen)
Japan, 〒250-0631 神奈川県足柄下郡箱根町仙石原
The Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands is a botanical garden in the highlands of Fuji Hakone Izu National Park. Founded in 1976, it is a unique garden which features some 1700 plant varieties of wetland plants and 1300 varieties of alpine plants. They include Iris, Hydrangeas, Liliums to name a few, all grown wild amidst the marshlands. Dotting the garden are the crimson canopies of the Japanese maple trees which, when contrasted against the green foliage, is just simply stunning. It was such a welcomed change to see some of these beautiful, delicate flowers in their natural habitats and not in some fridge in a florist shop.
As we strolled in the garden, we were accompanied by dragonflies and butterflies dancing around. This garden is best visited in June where many of its wild flowers are in bloom. It is closed during winter months. The garden offers a network of boardwalk paths through different types of marshland where we can learn about the native plants that populate the wetlands. Information signs are in English and Japanese. I’m in my element here walking among the flowers and photographing nature for about 2 hours. In fact I got lost in the bushes…literally.
Ok, I’ve run out of adjectives to describe the flowers I’ve seen there. I would now let my photos do the ‘talking’. Perhaps you, my kind readers, can help me with some adjectives in the comment space below? We passed our compact camera and let Dana dabble in some nature photography in the garden. The 1st 4 photos below were taken by her.
(Musée du Petit Prince à Hakone)
Japan, 〒250-0631 神奈川県足柄下郡 箱根町仙石原909
“If you love a flower that lives on a star, it is sweet to look at the sky at night. All the stars are a-bloom with flowers…” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Almost like magic, as the Hakone Tozan bus we were on turned the corner, it appeared – that familiar blue and white pennant fluttering. Could it be? Why yes, it’s the Little Prince Museum! How quaint! We were thrilled!
As someone who loves allegories, I’m a fan of de Saint-Exuperay’s The Little Prince: The story of a pilot who crashed his plane on a strange planet, befriended a Little Prince and together travelled through distant planets and eventually to earth. Along the way, gained many profound insights to life, love and everything in between.
Dana with our Goodwill Guide, Mr. Yoshida, at The Little Prince Museum Garden
“Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Stepping into the Little Prince Museum, we felt like we’ve entered the a little French village complete with a maisonette, a beautifully manicured garden filled with summer flowers in full bloom! Wandering in the courtyard alone is already such a treat! We had to remind ourselves we were still in Japan! Outside, there were characters from the book framed by more plants. I was almost like a kid in a candy store, seeing these characters ‘LIVE’.
“What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…”
From the French-themed Garden, we stepped into the museum and were instantly ushered into the world of the late Antoine de Saint-Exupery who is assumed to have perished in a covert aerial mission during WW2 (he was a skilful war pilot before writing the book).
The museum is divided into 9 exhibition areas separated by themes and topics from the book and from the author’s life. There is an extensive historical coverage of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s life right from a child to the time he participated in WW2. The Little Prince story is well covered too, with an auditorium where we watched an animation video which briefly describes the book and its author (it’s in Japanese though). Within the rooms are artefacts from the story including a life-sized plane replica flown by the fictitious pilot.
“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Whether you’re familiar with The Little Prince story or otherwise, you’ll enjoy a visit to this quaint French ‘village’ and maisonette which is so well replicated, down to the smallest detail (trust the Japanese). This was also not originally in our itinerary but what a great chance find. It left us enthralled by the fantasy world that is of the Little Prince. While you’re there, remember to visit the gift shop too. There are intricate, pretty and unique souvenirs and stationeries there on sale including, yes, of course, The Little Prince book.
“My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. But since the grown-ups were not able to understand it, I made another drawing: I drew the inside of a boa constrictor, so that the grown-ups could see it clearly. They always need to have things explained. The grown-ups’ response, this time, was to advise me to lay aside my drawings of boa constrictors, and devote myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar.” The Pilot.
Angie’s Traveller Tips to Hakone
- Getting to Hakone
a. Japan Railways (JR) Local or Rapid Trains – You can travel from Tokyo to Odawara in about 70-90 minutes by local or rapid trains on the JR Trains for about 1500 yen one way. These trains are covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
b. JR Shinkansen – For faster access, take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo Station and you will reach Odawara in about 30mins and costs 3500 yen one way (fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass). We took the Shinkansen, met our goodwill guide at Odawara where we then purchased and activated our 2-day Hakone Freepass to enjoy the various modes of transport around Hakone.
c. Odakyu Railway – The one way journey on Odakyu’s “Romance Car” limited express train from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station to Hakone-Yumoto Station is about 85 minutes and costs 2080 yen. If you take the slower Odakyu Express Trains (kyuko), the journey takes about two hours, requires one transfer at Odawara Station, but costs only 1190 yen.
c. Odakyu Hakone Highway Bus – Direct highway buses operate every 30 minutes between Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station and the Lake Ashi area in Hakone (among other places the buses stop at Togendai and the Hakone Prince Hotel). The one way journey costs about 2000 yen and takes about two hours.
- Buy The Hakone Freepass
We purchased the 2-day Hakone Freepass that covers all modes of transportation in Hakone -Tozan Railway, Gondola, Cable Car, Pirate Ship and the bus, for 3,900 yen at Odawara Station. It’s good for 2 days and also offers discount admissions to some of the popular sightseeing destinations in Hakone. The Hakone Freepass is highly recommended. You can buy the Hakone Freepass from Odakyu Sightseeing Service Center inside Odakyu Railway Shinjuku Station (West Exit) or when you arrive at Odawara Station. We bought ours from the Odawara Station (upon our guide’s advice) as it is cheaper.
- Sightseeing in Hakone
This is a popular sightseeing route recommended by many locals and tourists: Hakone Model Sightseeing Course. We spent 3D2N in Hakone and managed to cover most of these attractions except The Great Boiling Valley of Owakudani (大涌谷) as the area was closed off due to active volcanic activities. We also missed the last Pirate Boat of the day but it’s alright, Hakone is a place we would love to return.
- Use the Bggage Delivery Service
Upon arrival at the Hakone-Yumoto station, we had our bags and small trolley luggage forwarded to our hotel so we can start the excursions right away without having to make a detour to the hotel for check-in. The services are operated by Ta-Q-Bin and very affordable. The hotels and Ryokans in Hakone area will receive the baggage on your behalf and even deliver them to your room even before you arrive, making the Hakone stay hassle-free!
- Get a Goodwill Guide
One of the main reasons why our Hakone visit was so enriching and enjoyable was because of a very capable goodwill (volunteer) guide. Mr. Yoshida communicated with us in fluent English over emails months before our trip, patiently answering my queries on safety and accommodation. He also took initiative to fine tune our itineraries, right down to the train timing. Through our interactions, we found out that Mr. Yoshida is a semi-retired engineer who had lived overseas in Silicon Valley, USA for years. His kids are studying in the local University, wife is a teacher so he devotes his free time showing visitors around Hakone. We salute the dedication and passion of these goodwill guides and have been spreading the word about this service to our friends and family since our return.
You can submit a guide request online through the OHSGG Club (Odawara and Hakone Systematized Goodwill Guide Club) – a voluntary organization established in 1996 as one of the systematized goodwill guide groups under Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).
- Accommodation in Hakone
Since it was on our bucket list to see Mount Fuji, we did some research and finally picked the Green Plaza Hakone Hotel for our 2 night’s stay. We booked directly via the hotel’s website and chose the Japanese room with the dinner plan for an authentic experience. Hop over to our Onsen Post to check out the views!
Stay tuned as we bring you more trip reports of our enjoyable time in Hakone in our next Travel Tuesday posts!
Our DIY Japan Trip 2015 (Summer):