The boys woke up late. The run through Tokyo had exhausted us all, and the promise of a few relaxing days in Hakone were too much to bear. They slept in like crazy while I sat on the veranda and sipped tea, the light slowly filtering into the sky through the clouds. Part of me panicked as 7 came, then 8, and still no one was awake. We have things to do! Mountains to see! Black eggs to eat! This trip will take literally all day! Get them out of bed! But I let them sleep. They deserved it.
Around 9, everyone slowly woke, and slowly dressed, and slowly assembled for breakfast. We hadn’t purchased breakfasts with our stay, but there was a little café on the hotel grounds that was supposed to be good, so we all went down there to munch on toast and omelets and pancakes and sip tea and coffee. A perfectly American breakfast except for the Japanese instance upon a salad (yes, the lettuce and tomatoes variety) that was honestly a nice addition to the meal. Tummies full and legs still aching from Tokyo, we backtracked our way to the station.
On the way, we lingered to take photos of things we’d missed in the darkness the previous night: small waterfalls in the river; a heron fishing for breakfast; house upon house upon house of dark, cypress stacked as close as cards in a deck; several hotels; the ubiquitous vending machines. The shops were much busier this morning, selling snacks and trinkets. We wove through the crowds, trying to ignore the beautiful little souvenirs that made our hearts ache with desire, until we reached the station.
We pulled out of Hakone-Yumoto at about 11 a.m.; honestly, quite a late start. The trip to Gora, where we would switch to a cablecar, was uneventful, but beautiful. The forest over the mountains seemed thick and impenetrable, making even the Meiji Shrine forest seem open and airy by comparison. Tiny shrines and houses dotted the rolling hills and peeked from between the trees. One neglected shrine leaned back into the hills, the forest beginning to overcome it, seeming to call with its last breath for someone—anyone!—to stop and worship there. Alas, hardly anyone alit from the train. Indeed, the train only got more and more packed. We left the shrine behind us, moldering in the woods.
We switched to a cablecar at Gora, moving further into the mountains, before we arrived at Sounzan, where a cablecar waited to take us (and about a million other toursits) to Owakudani. Thank goodness for ropeways, which only allow as many people as there are seats for! We took our seats, the attendant closed the door, the car lurched forward, and in ten feet the earth fell out from under us as our weight sank onto the cable that pulled us up through the heavens into the spaces between the mountains. The ground shrunk beneath us, and the sky grew. Ahead, the crest of a mountain.
We stared in awe at the tiny trees below us and the widening sky ahead, then we crested the mountain, and as we did, Mt. Fuji raised its magnificent head. At that moment the sun grew brighter, the air cleaner; I could hear great waves crashing in the distance and a veritable orchestra of shamisens, tsuzumi drums and flutes joined in a traditional ballad. Tears flowed down our cheeks as we realized the fullness of the blessings we were experiencing in that moment.
Or that’s what probably would have happened if Mt. Fuji hadn’t been too lazy to get up that morning, preferring to roll over in its blanket of clouds.
Although the outline of the mountain was visible here and there if you were patient enough to wait for the clouds to move, it wasn’t the magnificent view I’d hoped for. But what could we do? Talk Susano-o into moving them for us? Like that would work. The boys would have to look at my 2004 pictures for the full view, and interview Steph about the experience of weeping in one another’s arms from the joy that comes free with the purchase of a ropeway ticket on clear days.
We alighted at Owakudani, the steam from the volcanic vents billowing all around the mountain and evaporating from the surface of hellish-smelling ponds and streams. Owakudani is a huge tourist draw, and as such received a brand-spanking-new visitor’s center recently, full of hot dogs and other food that I was surprised Japanese people would deign to eat. We wandered outside, and I was surprised and happy to discover a man selling roasted yams.
Quick aside about roasted yams: I’m not a winter person. I don’t get all verklempt about snow and chilly days and scarves and fireplaces and all that White Christmas crap. I get cold during the winter, and when I’m cold I’m cranky and unfortunately for everyone who knows me, that means I’m cranky for almost half the year. The only thing that can fix this is being hot. Not warm; fireplaces aren’t good enough, and neither are home heating systems. I take a lot of hot showers during the winter and sit directly in front of the heater until I feel like I’m about to start blistering on my back and pass out from heat exhaustion. Another coping mechanism I found during my first trip to Japan was roasted yams. They’re sweet and tasty and so hot they’ll boil your stomach acid. It had been cool down at the hotel, but up here on the top of the mountain it was so cold I worried my ears would freeze off. I rushed to the vendor gleefully and asked for a yam. They were only 100 yen apiece (about a dollar) and I walked away with one burning my hands through the crumpled foil. I choked it down with glee and wasn’t cold for a few minutes.
We explored the mountain and I attempted to not freeze so solid that parts of me could break off. The steam vents everywhere made it seem warmer than it was, which helped marginally, as did the occasional patch of sun. We wandered and looked at the plants and the rocks and the bubbling water and the tourists, and climbed further up the mountain in the vain hope of getting a better view of Mount Fuji.
Once I could feel small chunks of ice moving through my veins, I took a break in the older of the three visitor centers and took a bathroom break.
When I’m in Japan, I go wherever there’s space. If that means a Western toilet, I use the Western toilet; if Japanese, I use Japanese. (They’re not that flipping difficult, guys!) So when a Western toilet opened in Owakudani, I took it. For Westerners, using a Western toilet seems like the most natural thing in the world; what could be less complicated? You sit down, you do your business. Well apparently there’s some confusion, as I was greeted with helpful signs showing me how to use the toilet properly. There are no words for this sign, so I’ll let it speak for itself.
After successfully not standing on the toilet, I headed back out. We were all starving after our long trek up the mountain and decided to try the ubiquitously advertised “black ramen,” with black noodles inspired by the famous black eggs that are hard boiled in the sulphurous spring water that bubbles out of the mountain. The line in was plenty long, but as cold as it was, I was surprised the line wasn’t longer. The staff took our order and punched it onto a receipt to hand off to the staff inside the restaurant. Our group of four was a little large to fit in one place, but eventually we got a table and sat down. We handed our ticket to the server and ordered tea, then made conversation while we waited.
The ramen arrived quickly, bowls steaming full of creamy brown soup full of shiny black noodles, fat glistening on the surface from the thick slice of pork that floated among the noodles. A single hard-boiled “black egg” perched on the side of the bowl, its white brownish from its superpower-granting soak in the hot springs, promising seven years more of life should we eat it. The soup was savory and luscious, thick and satisfying with fat and umami. The noodles themselves were properly springy, and the eggs slightly sulphuric in flavor from boiling in the hot spring.
We slurped down the ramen and its heat, storing it up in our stomachs until we were sweating. When we finally stepped outside, the cold was refreshing on our faces, the heat safely trapped in our coats. We took a few final photos of cloudy Mt. Fuji and fought the massive tourist crush to get an unpeopled shot of the Owakudani signpost before we headed back onto the ropeway down to Lake Ashi.
The gondola scooped us sickeningly up and carried us precipitously down to the lakeside, the clouds ahead clearing until the surface of the lake turned to liquid gold. Unfortunately, the clouds around Fuji grew thicker until the mountain disappeared completely. We wished it goodbye and looked back to the lake where our next mode of transportation floated cheerful and ridiculous: two “pirate” ships, complete with fake cannons and golden mastheads, one bright red, the other bright green.
We caught the last ship of the evening, clambering aboard with other tired tourists and jostling for position to get pictures of the sun setting over the mountains and the torii in the water at Hakone Jinja, the sky pink and purple in the gathering twilight. When we reached the far shore, we shambled off the boat and waited for busses to take us back to Hakone-Yumoto, winding through the darkness of the mountains.
Get there: Take the Hakone Tozan Train from Hakone-Yumoto, Tonosawa, Ohiradai, Miyanoshita, Kowakudani, or Chokoku-no-Mori stations to Gora, the terminus. Switch to the Hakone Tozan Cablecar and ride to Sounzan, the terminus. Switch to the Hakone Ropeway and ride one stop to Owakudani. (These stations are very small and difficult to get lost in, but if you need help, staff in Hakone are uncommonly accustomed to helping English-speaking tourists. Just have the word “Owakudani” handy.) To get to the pirate ships from Owakudani, take the Hakone Ropeway to Togendai pier. You can choose a “cruise” to Motohakone or Hakonemachi, where you can take a variety of busses that run as far as Gotenba, Odawara, Mishima, and Numazu.
Price: The full loop starting at Hakone Yumoto is 3780 yen ($32.90 USD) if you buy regular tickets at each station; however, I’d suggest buying a Hakone Free Pass instead. It’ll cover all the trains, busses, cablecars, ropeways, and cruiseboats you need within the Hakone area for either two or three days, starting in either Shinjuku or Odawara, depending on the “flavor” you pick. For example, our two-day passes from Odawara included our fare for the loop through Owakudani and our busses from Hakone Yumoto to Mishima Station to get out of the area: a 5760 yen trip ($50.15 USD) for 3900 yen ($33.96 USD).
- Buy the Hakone Free Pass! Seriously. You’re just throwing away money if you pay station-by-station. The pass also comes with a super helpful map with plenty of English.
- Try the black eggs at Owakudani. Boiled in the sulphuric hot springs on the mountain, they’re said to grant you seven additional years of life for each on you eat. Although scary on the outside with their black shells, once peeled they’re pretty much your standard hard-boiled eggs. You can pick them up with pretty much every vendor on the mountain, and watch them shuttle down from the springs to the stores using their own little ropeway.
- I was too cold to try this, but Owakudani is also known for it’s wasabi ice cream. I’ve heard that it’s much more sweet than spicy, but I can’t say from firsthand experience. If you try it, let me know! I’m curious!
Based on my diary entries from November 11, 2013.