Ted Beatie - Travel Photogapher/Writer

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Trains, Gondolas, and Pirate Ships

Where can you ride all of them in one day? About 80 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, Hakone is one of Japan's most popular tourist destinations. Well known for its onsen (hot springs) and natural beauty, it also offers unique ways for visitors to travel through, under, and over the landscape. The area encompassing the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park is particularly beautiful throughout the spring. Starting in early February, Joshi-Koen Park and Soga Bairin Orchard in Odawara host the region's ume matsuri, or Plum Blossom Festival. March and April bring Japan's famed Cherry Blossoms (sakura) into bloom. Hundreds of cherry trees surround Odawara Castle, a 16th century fort, one of the largest in Japan. In May, the azaleas and wisteria accompany the Hojo-Godai Festival, also in Odawara, honoring the feudal-era Samurai with a parade of armor-clad warriors marching through the city. Finally, in June, thousands of ajisai (hydrangea) blanket the mountain region. There are six different ways to explore the area, which is made much easier by using the "Hakone Freepass", sold by Odakyu Railways for about $55, which includes a round trip from Tokyo and unlimited use of local connections.

My first method of transportation in this springtime trip was by shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train. Traveling at speeds of up to 350 kilometers per hour, the Odakyu Kodama "Romance Car" departs Tokyo's Shinjuku station every half hour, and arrives in Hakone-Yumoto in about 90 minutes. Along the way, I got my first glimpse of Mt. Fuji rising above the countryside in the distance, a few wispy clouds encircling its peak. If one leaves sufficiently early enough, this entire adventure can be done in a day. However, I recommend a more leisurely two or three days, leaving Tokyo in the afternoon, and spending the evening at one of the many traditional Japanese inns. The Hotel Senkei (81-4605-5500) is a majestic mountainside villa. Room rates are $175 to $250 and include a traditional Japanese kaiseki-style dinner and breakfast. Built in Edo-era Japanese architecture, you feel as if you have traveled back in time to feudal Japan. For hundreds of years, the mineral-rich hot springs in the area are believed to have therapeutic health benefits, in addition to simple relaxation. Soaking in the rotenburo, an open-air hot spring bath at night is a truly wonderful experience. Like most public baths in Japan, they are unisex, however each room has a private indoor bath.

After a small breakfast and a leisurely soak, I made my way back to the station, and got on a train of a very different sort than the day before. The Hakone Tozan Train is a red and white trolley that slowly climbs through Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, making a few stops along the way and going through several tunnels. Three of the stops are at switchbacks where the train changes direction in order to ascend a total of 527 meters in elevation. During hydrangea season in June and July, the ride is especially rewarding as they bloom along the tracks. I stopped halfway at Miyanoshita station in order to hike up to the top of Mt. Sengen. A hike of about 2km affords a breathtaking view of the gorge below. Returning back down, I boarded the next train, and after another 15 minutes, arrived in Gora. The hike made me hungry, and so I made my way to the famous "Gyoza Centre" (11:30a-3p, 5-8p) on the main road in Gora, which offers thirteen varieties of Chinese-style dumplings. I enjoyed the pork and shrimp gyoza, but could not bring myself to try the natto dumplings, made from fermented soybeans. A set meal with rice and soup costs about $10. I then continued on to Gora-Koen Park ($7, 9a-5p), a French-style landscaped garden with a fountain and botanical garden. It also offers a striking view of Mt. Myojogatake, which has the huge Chinese character "Dai", meaning 'great', burned into the mountainside every August, but visible all year round. Nearby is the Hakone Art Museum ($7, 9:30a-4:30p), which displays Japanese ceramics. However, the real beauty of this museum is outside, where the beautiful moss garden made me feel as if I had stepped into a fairy realm. There is also a bamboo garden and a teahouse where you can sit and enjoy a bowl of green tea.

From the nearby Koen-Kami stop, the Hakone Tozan Cablecar continues another 214 meters up to Mt. Sounzan. Also known as a funicular or inclined railway, this is essentially a mountain elevator with large windows through which visitors can enjoy the scenery, including many of the mountain peaks of the Hakone Range. The trip is a short one, only taking about 5 minutes to reach Sounzan station. Once there, I boarded the Hakone Ropeway, the fourth and most spectacular of the area transports. The second longest in the world, this aerial ropeway covers over 4000 meters of the National Park at a height of up to 130 meters above the ground. Gondolas carrying 13 passengers leave Sounzan every minute, and take half an hour to reach Togendai on Lake Ashinoko.

At the highest point and halfway across is a station atop Mt. Owakudani, the active volcano that feeds all of the area hot springs. It is a convenient place not only to stop and take in the magnificent view, but also to sample a local delicacy. "Black pearl eggs" are boiled in small volcanic pools, which turn the shells black and give the eggs a unique tangy flavor. It is believed that one egg can add seven years to one's life. Owakudani means "Great Boiling Valley," and hiking the 30-minute Nature Trail gives a very good understanding of how it got its name. Seeming very much like an alien landscape, bright yellow rivers flow out of fissures in the rock, releasing a pungent steam that clouds the area in a sulphuric mist. Continuing onward, I got in an older-style gondola to make the descent down the other side of the mountain, and was awestruck by the view laid before me. A deep blue lake, Ashinoko was formed in the caldera of Mt. Hakone after its eruption 3000 years ago. A snow-capped Mt. Fuji rose majestically in the distance, framed by the lake and the matching clear blue sky. I counted myself very lucky, as clouds often block its view, especially in summer.

Arriving in Togendai, I then boarded a pirate ship bound for Hakonemachi. "Vasa" is emerald green and modeled after a ship built by King Gustavus of Sweden in the early 17th century. She shares the blue waters with French and British warships as well as a Mississippi riverboat, as part of the fleet operated by Hakone Sightseeing Cruises. Sailing across the lake takes about 45 minutes, and as one approaches the southern end of the lake, the partially submerged bright red Torii gates of the Hakone-Jinja Shrine come into view on the eastern shore. Landing in Hakone proper, one steps upon the Old Tokaido Highway, which linked Edo (Tokyo) with Kyoto during the feudal Edo Period. Made famous by the woodblock prints of Ando Hiroshige, the 488 kilometer Tokaido was an important commercial route. To enforce security and deter rebellion, the nearby Hakone Checkpoint ($2.50, 9a-4:30p) was founded in 1619 so that the Tokugawa shogunate could monitor the traffic along the highway.

Just beyond the Checkpoint, Onshi-Hakone-Koen the Hakone Detached Palace Garden is free and open to the public. Once a 19th century imperial summer villa, the garden offers views of the lake and Mt. Fuji. From there, I walked down the highway through "Cedar Avenue", where over 400 majestic cedar trees were planted in 1618 in order to protect travelers from snow in winter, and to provide shade in summer.

After a 2 km walk through the vaulted forest, I arrived in Moto-Hakone and made my way to Hakone-Jinja, a Shinto shrine founded in 760 by a wandering priest. During the Nara Period of the 8th century, the Japanese believed that steep mountains were the dwelling places of the gods, and thus practicing their ascetic disciplines in such places would give them magical abilities. Destroyed by numerous fires over twelve centuries, the main hall was last rebuilt in 1936. While the shrine itself is free and open to the public, there is a $2.50 admission to the Treasure House, where pre-Meiji era Buddhist artifacts are on display. A short walk through the woods down a dirt path towards the lake, the famous Torii gate seen from the ferry was actually built in 1951 to commemorate the peace treaty between Japan and 49 other nations that formally ended World War II. I sat at the foot of the gate and watched the sun set over the lake and behind the mountains, truly one of the most memorable sunsets of my life.

Walking back to Moto-Hakone, I stopped in one of the many crafts shops and was introduced to Yosegi-Zaiku, a wooden inlay technique that originated in the late Edo period and is native to the Hakone region. Using naturally colored woods from the wide variety of trees found in the area, about 30 local craftsmen create beautiful mosaics that are applied to handcrafted boxes, chests, and trays. Thin pieces of different woods are glued together and then squeezed in a vice to create intricate geometric patterns. This cross-section is then shaved to make paper-thin sheets that are glued onto various handicrafts. One of the more notable applications of this art is in the creation of Himitsu-Bako, elaborate puzzle boxes that are adorned with these complex patterns. Designed over 100 years ago, these "personal secret boxes" are entirely enclosed with no apparent lock or opening. However, its surface contains several hidden movable pieces that follow a very specific step-by-step sequence of 4 to 120 moves in order to open the box. The art of creating these boxes has been passed from craftsman to apprentice for three generations, and there are currently only 9 such artists, the youngest of whom is about 60 years old.

After purchasing a couple of these boxes for myself and as gifts, I boarded the sixth and final transport, the Hakone Tozan Bus, which brought me back to Hakone-Yumoto via twisty country roads in about 35 minutes. Having spent a very long day traveling around the mountain region, it was now time to relax and enjoy a good meal. A short 10 minute walk from the station is the Hotellerie Maille Coeur Shougetsu (81-4605-5748), a hot spring hotel and restaurant overlooking the Hayakawa River. Blending international influences in a classic Japanese kaiseke-style, chef Mitsuo Kikuchi creates seasonal menus using local ingredients. After a leisurely multi-course dinner, I then relaxed in the rotenburo listening to the sounds of the nighttime forest and the river below.

Hakone is truly one of the most unique places that I have ever visited. Hanging above the ground, descending towards a volcanic lake with the majestic snow-capped Mt. Fuji as a backdrop against a clear blue sky was only one wonder among many. Flying so fast along the ground on the Shinkansen that you could feel the whomp in your chest as another train whizzed by at over 700 kilometers per hour. Riding a pirate ship across a mountain lake, looking at a lone red Torii gate standing proudly in the water and then watching the sunset from beneath its arch. Sitting in a hot spring-fed bath on a cool night in March underneath the stars, and watching yellow rivers streaming down the side of a volcano. Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park has all of this and more. It is clear why this is one of the most popular travel destinations in Japan. And yet it manages to not feel too crowded, retaining the sublime beauty and relaxation that has been drawing travelers to the area since merchants and feudal lords needed a resting place on their pilgrimages to and from the capital. Hundreds of traditional Japanese inns, many of them designated as national historic sites, offer modern travelers the same escape, and the mineral-rich hot springs soothe and purify both the body and the soul.

Ted Beatie