Saturday, 22 August 2009

Exploring Hakone (by every means of transport available)

I woke up stupidly early this morning so I could head to Hakone for the day, essentially with the aim of taking a bath. Hakone sits at the top of the Izu peninsula and is surrounded by active volcanoes, which provide fantastic hot springs that you can bathe in - it is these onsen that make Hakone a famous tourist destination.

I started my journey by taking the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Odawara and then buying a Hakone freepass. This two-day pass set me back £27 and was well worth it. I then hopped on the 'normal' train to Hakone's Yumoto station, where I switched onto the Tozan train. This ancient old electric train winds its way up through the jungle and into the mountains, taking forever to do so but allowing for some pretty views. I got off at Chokokunomori and went to the Hakone Open Air Museum. The name is a bit misleading as this is actually a huge art gallery with expansive sculpture gardens and the largest collection of Picasso works outside of Spain. It is easliy one of the best art galleries I have ever been to.

The whole site is landscaped beautifully so that you keep stumbling across new areas by accident. I could have spent all day just walking around, wishing that I was under the age of 13 so that I could play on the kids areas, which were so awesome!

I really like the way that they used the surrounding scenery to enhance the impact of a lot of the outdoor sculptures:

Here are a few of my other favourites:

It hasn't come out too well in the photo, but the giant head in the pond was actually crying...

After spending far too long looking at art, I hopped back on the Tozan train to Gora to get some lunch. My boss had recommended a tonkatsu restaurant and now I know why - the hirekatsu was delicious!

I then took the funicular train up the side of Mt Komagatake to the stop at Sounzan, where I got on the cable car. This goes over 'death valley' (a very friendly place...) where the mountain (it's actually a volcano) lets off steam through loads of vents and also deposits lots of sulphur.

The overpowering smell of egg is not the nicest thing, especially when I don't even like eggs. A local delicacy are eggs that have been cooked over the sulphurous vents - this makes the eggs cook from the inside out and they're eaten when the whites are still a bit runny. I just took people's word for it when they told me that they tasted good...

From up the cable car, on a clear day, you can get fantastic panoramic views of Mt Fuji. This is what it should look like:

And this is what I could see:

I swear that they just photoshop Mt Fuji into all these photos and that it doesn't actually exist - I have been living next to it for 6 weeks now and still haven't managed to see it!!

At the end of the cable car at Togendai is the massive Lake Ashi that sits in part of an ancient crater at an altitude of over 700m. It's pretty cool and the scenery is beautiful. I decided to get to the other side of the lake (and back to Hakone) by taking the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise, as this sounded like a good idea. It turned out to be a fantastic idea; check out the boats!

To be honest, there weren't that many 'sights' to be seen (although the audio tape came up with a few dubious ones...) but the faux pirate galleon more than made up for it. It was definitely one of the 'only in Japan' moments that I experience regularly!

I then caught the Tozan bus to Tenzan onsen. This complex of buildings and outdoor hotsprings was just fantastic. All the buildings are traditional Japanese ones, inside and out, and there were lots of different types of onsen to choose from. There were huge reading/relaxation rooms to chill out in before and after you bathe, as well as a bar and a few restaurants. The onsen themselves were amazing - they are all set into the hillside and surrounded by lovely plants and trees. There was one that went into a wee cave and another that was all cloudy because the water was full of some combination of minerals. After considerable showering and soaking, I can honestly say that I have never felt so relaxed. I only wish that we had onsen at home! Although then we would have to have volcanoes too; so maybe I'll take back that wish...

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