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Japan: Hakone - Mt. Fuji, Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo
Hakone - Mt. Fuji, Japan: Gateway to Mount Fuji
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
No trip to Japan would be complete without a visit to Mount Fuji. As a regular traveler like me, you wouldn’t actually climb the famous mountain; instead you would want to view this snow-capped beauty from a distance that’s just about right to soak in this Japanese icon from the base to its peak. That being the case, you would need to move around in the Hakone area.
Ideal railway station to alight would be Odawara. It falls on the main Osaka Tokyo line. An opportunity to hop on the Shinkansen – The Bullet Train. Odawara is just 35 minutes from Tokyo, making it possible for visitors to make a day trip. Many local tour operators also have daily bus trips departing Tokyo. However, I would reach Odawara from Osaka.
Not all Shinkansen trains stop at Odawara. Only a few do. I opted to board the 10:13 AM Shinkansen – The Hikari Express that would bring me to Odawara at 12:34. Watch the time. You can set your watches… Japanese punctuality. Generally speaking, you would be recommended to reserve a seat. However, I was advised, and quite rightly by the ticketing staff, to avoid the reservation as the train was to commence its journey from Osaka. Moreover, since it wasn’t rush-hour time, seats would be easily available. The fare was ¥11750. Reservation would have cost me another ¥750.
Special tracks & corridors have been laid to operate these speeding monsters. Platforms are very clearly marked. Unreserved compartments would be in the front and at the back. A 16-car Shinkansen would have 8 to 10 unreserved compartments. You will be impressed by the passengers waiting patiently in marked lines to board the train. If you are travelling from Osaka, opt for a window seat on the left side… you have a chance to view Mount Fuji as the train leaves Fuji station (doesn’t stop there, though).
At 12:34 I was at Odawara. I had booked myself for 2 nights at Hotel Tozan, a couple of minutes away from the station on foot. It’s a small hotel in one of the by lanes. A single room costs ¥6500 a night which is quite reasonable I guess. Additional ¥200 will get you breakfast. But don’t get misguided; it’s a boxed breakfast that has just a sandwich and a salad. There’s a coffee machine in the lobby that offers complimentary fills. I dropped my luggage in the room and was ready to explore.
In tune with my usual habit, I picked up a map of Hakone Area. There was no rocket science to realize that a 2-day Hakone Free Pass would be my best buy to see all that needs to be seen in Hakone. A 2-day pass costs just ¥3900 and offers unlimited travel on Hakone Tozan Bus, Hakone Tozan Train, Hakone Sightseeing Cruise, Hakone Tozan Cable Car and finally, Hakone Ropeway. Between these modes of transport you are good all along.
I was lucky to find an English speaking guide at the Information Desk at Odawara Station. Instead of taking the suggested route as recommended in the map, I asked the guide a simple question, “If you were to picture Mount Fuji, where would you go?” Looking at my enthusiasm she said, “To Otame Toge, that falls between Sengoku and Gotemba.”
The suggested location was not on the map. But the guide insisted that the location offers a spectacular view of the mountain all the way up from the base. Well, that being my objective, I decided to take this uncommon route. It was about 1PM. The sky was clear. The weather forecast for the next morning was clear too. However, not wanting to take a chance with the weather Gods, I decided to carry on. Weather plays a very, very important role. The mountain air can swallow the mountain and you can see nothing. You have to be lucky to view Mount Fuji on a day trip. That’s the reason why, I decided to stay overnight and spread my chance to view the mountain.
Just outside the station is the bus stand. From platform 4, I got a bus that would take me to Sengoku in about 60 minutes. Buses have electronic signs that announce the stop name. It’s still a good idea to double check with the driver. Many names sound the same but are actually miles apart. I was dropped on a lonely road at Sengoku. A block’s walk away was a bus stop from where I could board a bus going towards Gotemba. I was the only one around and the signs on the stop were in Japanese. I was clueless. After waiting for about 15 minutes, a bus pulled up. The driver confirmed that the bus would indeed stop at Otame Toge.
After a few stops and 15 minutes later, we crossed a tunnel. At the other end, shining in the bright afternoon sun, stood the majestic Mount Fuji… almost completely covered in snow. I alighted at the bus stop and spent time walking along the road… all the time watching the mountain. At a vantage point is a restaurant. I walked in and ordered my lunch after pointing to one of the dishes kept in the glass cabinet. I got a good window seat. It was 3 degrees Celsius outside. After the meal, a cup of hot coffee was more than welcome.
With enough pictures clicked, I took the bus back to Sengoku. Another bus got me all the way down to Togendai, located on one end of Lake Ashi. On the other end is Hakonemachi. Hakone Sightseeing Cruise, brightly coloured and decked up as pirate ships, shuttle on the lake between these two edges. I boarded one of those ships and cruised on Lake Ashi. In less than 30 minutes I was on the other end. It was a lovely experience sailing on the serene waters amidst mountains.
With a circumference of 20 kms., Lake Ashi is a crater lake and is also known as Hakone Lake and Ashinoko Lake. It was formed thousands of years ago on the southwest wall of the caldera of Mount Hakone. The lake offers stunning views of Mount Fuji, but only on a clear day. As I said the weather plays a major role. Just a couple of hours ago, it was a clear sky. But when I got to the vantage point on Ashi Lake, Mount Fuji was barely visible. Visitors on a relaxing trip can opt to stay in one of the many hotels in and around Hakonemachi or Moto Hakone-ko.
Buses from the Hakonemachi pier leave for various destination, including Odawara. Opt for an express bus as opposed to a local one. The express bus uses the toll road and reaches Odawara station in around 30 minutes. Local bus may take over an hour. That evening I moved around the neighbourhood of Odawara station. Shops, malls, restaurants, nightclubs are all around. My dinner was at KFC. It was early to bed. I would explore the other modes of transport beginning early next morning.
At 8AM, with the boxed breakfast in me, I took a local train from Odawara to Hakone Yumato from where I boarded the Hakone Tozan mountain train to Gora. The 60-minute journey snakes through picturesque mountains and a few waterfalls to finally reach Gora after changing directions twice. At Gora, I took the Hakone Tozan Cablecar to reach Sounzan – the final destination. It’s just a 10-minute journey though. Sounzan is the boarding point for Hakone Ropeway. As luck would have it, the service was suspended due to heavy winds. So be it.
With the ropeway I wanted to reach Owakudani – the highest point on the journey and a vantage point to view Mount Fuji. Owakudani is lovingly called The Great Boiling Valley because of the active sulphur vents and hot springs. Surely, I wouldn’t want to miss this popular destination. From Sounzan I took another bus that took me to Owakudani. Since this bus was operated by other company, I had to pay ¥300 for the 15 minute journey.
The wind just blew me away as soon as I got down from the bus. The chill factor was acting at its peak. It was so windy, that it was hard to keep my camera still! Nonetheless, I braved the weather to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji that was playing hide and seek with the passing clouds.
Owakudani is famous for its black eggs. Hard boiled in the hot springs, the eggs turn black and smell a bit of sulphur. It’s believed that eating these eggs adds 7 years to your life span! There was a queue to buy the eggs. However, you have to buy at least 5 eggs costing ¥500. I refrained from the temptation, thereby increasing the risk of not being around for some more years.
By the time I came out from the store, Mount Fuji had disappeared, completely engulfed in the fog. I thanked my stars for having given me the idea to explore the region a day before. I felt sorry for the folks who came in droves by buses from Tokyo. There was no Mount Fuji for them. Just eggs, chilly winds and of course the hot springs.
Another bus brought me down to Kojiri making me poorer by ¥330. The buses out there have quite a unique method of collecting fares. At the time of boarding you pull a ticket that would show the stop number you boarded at. As the bus moves forward, fares for various stop numbers keep updating on an electronic board mounted above the driver. Before alighting you drop the slip into a collecting funnel, and the fare to be paid is also displayed. You pay and walk out.
A good 10-minute walk from Kojiri will bring you to Togendai. From there, like a day before, I took the cruise ship and crossed over to Hakonemachi. There was no sign of Mount Fuji. It was just around noon and there was no point going back to Odawara. Why not, I thought, to take a chance with the weather and go back to Gora? If I am lucky I might just be able to ride the ropeway! With a mission on hand, I took the bus and got off at Hakone Yumato. Took the mountain train and reached Gora. And guess what? The services of the ropeway had begun!
Just near the Gora station, but only at the end of a steep street, is the Hakone Gora Park. The entrance to the park is Y500 but is complimentary for Hakone Free Pass holders. After walking through the park and some green houses I took the cable car from a station near the park to reach Sounzan. From there I took the Hakone ropeway to come all the way down to Togendai via Owakudani and Ubako. While I did accomplish the mission of riding the ropeway, sadly I couldn’t see the elusive Mount Fuji! On a clear day, the view from the ropeway would have been simply stunning.
From Togendai it was a return journey to Odawara. Not by cruising Lake Ashi but using the ropeway up to Sounzan. Then to Gora. Then to Hakone Yumoto. And finally to Odawara. An eventful day was over.
The next morning I would take the Shinkansen to Tokyo.
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