July 10, 2016
Hakone – A Pleasant Surprise
When doing research on the Mt. Fuji area, I stumbled upon Hakone. It was a pleasant surprise! The region is a national park with steep, forested mountains, hot springs (onsen), a volcanic crater spewing toxic fumes, Shinto shrines, and several small towns with lots of history. We decided Hakone would be our staging area for climbing Mt. Fuji and I booked a room at one of the onsen spa hotels in Hakone-Yumoto.
We arrived in Hakone-Yumoto mid-morning. This small town is the first stop in the region as travelers come from Tokyo, and it has a lot of the onsen and hotels. The town also has a lot of small shops (mostly catering to tourists) and it seem to have an air of authentic, though maybe more touristy, Japan.
Driving in Japan
After a lot of research and deliberation, we decided to rent a car in Hakone. This would make it easier for us to get to Mt. Fuji (an hour’s drive away vs a 3-hour bus ride) the following day. Luckily, I had already secured an international drivers permit back in Seattle through AAA. This document, coupled with your passport and US drivers license, gives you a specific window of time to drive a car in different countries around the world.
With our pocket WiFi, we found a car rental place in town. We walked in to the small office, hoping they could help us get a car. We were in luck! The woman who worked in the office, didn’t speak English, but she was prepared for encounters just like ours. She was prepared to handle English speakers. She called their central office to get someone to translate and she also had preset English translations on her phone to highlight the details of the rental agreement.
After some finagling and gesturing, we were finally with keys in hand. The rental shop pulled a small, compact Nissan to the side of the building. I named it Yoshi. As cars sped by us on the tiny street, we performed the dent check.
After the check, we were finally ready to get on the road. This is when it all set in that the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car. In Japan they drive on the left side of the road, so the driver sits on the right, not the left of the vehicle. All the levers and pedals were in reverse. The wipers were where the blinker switch was. It was a disorienting experience at first. Plus, the fact that we were sitting on the side of the busy, main road that came through town made for a rather tense scenario.
Instead of making a U-turn on the busy street to head back through town in the direction of our hotel, we decided the best course of action was to just drive straight. We drove straight out of town. The road was extremely narrow and it weaved up the mountain. We passed through a lot of forest, small villages and resorts. About 5+ miles later, thanks to a wonderful co-pilot who was able to help navigate the road, we found an adequate place to pull over.
The spot where we pulled over just happened to be the Hakone Open Air Museum. Since this museum is a world class sculpture museum, we decided to check it out. The large park-like museum had so many interesting and unusual statues and sculptures. It was fun to explore. The museum was a mix of park-like forests, fountains, buildings housing art and just general things to explore. (We particularly enjoyed the foot bath, you have to see it to understand.)
After eating a delicious sushi lunch. We decided to continue exploring the area, so we drove over to a large lake that dominates the area. In driving to the lake we had to cross over a large mountain with volcanic activity. (There were groves of dead trees that had died from toxic volcanic gasses.) At the lake there was a gondola that took tourists to a volcanic caldera on this mountain. The caldera is famous for hard boiled eggs that when dipped into the sulfuric waters turn black. Unfortunately, we were not able to take part in this tradition because the whole area was closed off for safety reasons (noxious gasses at the site). We ended our trip with the car by visiting a famous Shinto shrine on the lake. There was a cool torii gate that sits in the water and the shrine itself was very pretty.
One of the reasons why we settled on the Hakone region to visit–besides being very convenient to Tokyo and Mt. Fuji–was that it is famous for its onsen (hot springs). In reading travel books on Japan, they suggested trying out the onsen. Not knowing much more than they are hot springs/baths and the Japanese love the onsen, I decided we needed to jump in head first with this cultural endeavor.
Luckily, the hotel we stayed at included an onsen. Upon checking into the hotel, the concierge gave us robes (yukata). These patterned robes were the recommended wear around the hotel and the onsen area. (We even saw hotel guests wearing them around town.)
When we first arrived we tried to find the onsen in the hotel. We found out that the onsen was in a building built up on the steep slope above the hotel, and in order to get there we had to travel through a maze of floors and hallways. The halls leading to the onsen were a bit weird and eerily creepy, almost Japanese horror film creepy. Don’t get me wrong, the spa area itself was nice and clean, decorated in a 1980s/90s style. The halls were laid with soft tatami mats and there were several rooms were one could lounge or sit in a massage chair and just rest and relax. But what made it creepy was that although there were people in the facilities no one spoke to each other, as well there was this creepy lullaby music playing on the intercom in all the hallways. After wandering through the maze of hallways, avoiding lullaby-listening specters and spirits, we finally made it to the entrance of onsen itself. Here there were two doors: one for men and one for women. We decided to stop here and return when we were ready to dive into the onsen.
In the process of finding the onsen we made a few cultural faux pas, the biggest one was wearing our shoes in the “non shoe” area. After finding the onsen and returning to our hotel room, Monica decided we needed to get more educated on the onsen and the onsen process–which, like many things Japanese, there was a necessary process to complete before jumping into the hot water. We watched this video to educate ourselves:
As you can see there are a number of steps that you need to take first in order to properly prepare for the onsen itself.
After watching the video, we returned to the onsen entrance where men and women were separated. We were a little bummed that there wasn’t a co-ed version of the onsen and we could not relax in the hot springs together. We said our farewells and ventured into our prospective areas.
Inside the men’s area there was a rather large locker room. I disrobed and with my “modesty” towel made my way to the cleaning area. A number of faucets lined the wall of this area. They were all at knee height and stools were placed next to them for people to sit down and wash themselves. I washed and soaped up and after made my way to the hot spring. The hot spring was located outside. There were several pools and tubs and a sauna. The pools were all very clean and, although man-made, they were very natural looking. There weren’t too many people in the tubs, but the few who were there did not speak. Instead, they were enjoying the lullaby music and the sound of bubbling water. The temperature of the water was rather hot, and in a few of the pools they were uncomfortably hot. I sat for about 15 minutes before I overheated and decided to return to the entrance to meet Monica. She was already waiting for me there. It turned out we both couldn’t handle the heat.
Hakone Free Pass vs Renting a Car: Originally when planning this part of the trip we panned to use the Hakone Free Pass (HFP). The HFP is a good deal when factoring all the modes of transportation that can be accessed on it (train from Tokyo, the historic mountain train, bus use in the Hakone region, the cable car and the lake boat). We purchased the HFP in the Shinjuku Station in Tokyo at the Odakyu desk. We probably didn’t get our money’s worth with the HFP because we ended up renting a car. Renting a car was a good alternative. It cost us a little bit more (about $150 for 2 days of use), but it made our lives so much easier because we planned to go to Mt. Fuji from Hakone for a day. If we had relied on the HFP and bus/train transportation to make this trip, it would have taken us at least 3-4 more hours each way to make the Mt. Fuji excursion. It was also nice having the convenience of the car to see some of the small towns and villages that would have been more difficult to get to in the Hakone region. In order to drive in Japan, I arranged to get an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) back in Seattle. The IDP cost $20, plus passport pictures. (The IDP mostly seemed like it provided a translation for police if you get pulled over, but you have to also show it at the time of renting the car.)
Where we stayed: While in Hakone, we stayed at the Hakonenomori Okada. The hotel offered the onsen experience and it is classified as a ryokan (I will explain more about this in a later post), a traditional inn. The facilities were nice, although slightly dated (late 1980s/early 90s?). There was also a tinge of cigarette smell in the hallways, due to a public “smoking room” that was on our floor. Also the location was on a large hill above the town. This gave for great views, but if you aren’t a walker it’s a steep climb from dining options in the town. Overall the price was decent and the onsen was an interesting experience. (www.hakonenomori-okada.jp/en/e-home.html)
Lonely Planet Misses: Monica and I thought that LP missed out on one hidden gem for their section on Hakone, the Tokaido Trail. The old Takaido Road was the connection between Kyoto and Tokyo during the Edo Period (1600s-1800s). There used to be inns and teahouses along the old highway. About 8 km still exists in Hakone. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a ton of extra time to do the trail, but from what we saw it looked like it was a nice trail that led through the hills and forests past shrines and temples.
Some Music to Get You in the Japanese Mood