2 Weeks during sakura season 2014
Day 6: Travel to Hakone - 箱根町
Friday meant leaving Kyoto for Hakone, a mountain town east of Mt. Fuji. Hakone is bit touristy, but it’s a beautiful area and accessible by train.
From Kyoto, we took the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Odawara and picked up a “Hakone Free Pass” there. This pass was an amazing value, and made travel for the weekend extremely easy. At around $42 each, this provides train travel from Odawara to Hakone, mountain train travel farther up the mountain, bus access around Hakone, boat access on Lake Ashinoko and scenic ropeway access over Hakone mountain.
The trip from Odawara up to Hakone itself takes a while. The train to Hakone is quick, but soon after you’re on a train especially designed for the mountain pass which slows things way down. There were some amazing views out the side, especially as it pulled off to the side to let other trains pass. After 5 hours of traveling, we made it to our ryokan.
Our First Ryokan Experience - 旅館
A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, which originated on the foot highways that connected Kyoto and Tokyo. These paths have existed for hundreds of years, with ryokans dotting the road every few dozen miles (equal to a days travel). In more recent times the same concept has been adapted to more remote locations where people can get away from the city and be pampered.
How is a ryokan different from a hotel? For our case that starts when you pull up to the curb, where they checked our name against reservations and took our bags. After reaching the entrance we slipped off our shoes and changed in slippers, with them keeping our shoes safe during our stay.
Our room was similar to a western room with an additional extra room without any furniture. This room would serve as a dining room and optionally a sleeping area. One of the bathrooms also featured a hot mineral bath which we took advantage of multiple times. Rather than washing in this bath, however, you soap up and wash on the stool outside of it with a showerhead and bowl. After you are clean and have rinsed off all soap, you’re ready to jump in the mineral bath.
Our room was so unexpectedly awesome, we ended up taking a few extra photos of it. If you’re looking for a place to stay in Hakone, I’d recommend checking out the Mikawaya Ryokan.
Eating at a Ryokan
Many ryokan, including ours, offer breakfast and dinner served in your room. This is coordinated with an attendant who greets you and acts as a point of contact with the hotel. Ryokan meals are experiences of their own. It’s customary to take a bath before dinner and change into a yukata, provided by the ryokan.
We completely forgot about the bathing tradition for our first meal, which our attendant seemed to notice, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the amazing meal presented to us. The size and scope of the meal was more than we expected, but we ate every last bite.
Day 7: Mountains of Hakone
Time to venture out into the Hakone area!
At 7:45am on Saturday morning, our attendant arrived and started setting up breakfast. Even though it might look similar to dinner, it was much more sweet and tofu heavy. For this meal we had 4 different types of tofu. Although I’m generally a meat guy, the tofu dishes were memorable and delicious.
Owakudani - 大涌谷
Reachable by ropeway, Owakudani, “Great Boiling Valley”, is a small volcanic valley bursting with steam vents and boiling water. It’s also a stop on the ropeway, on the way to Lake Ashinoko, and worth exploring.
After you exit the ropeway, you’ll be hit by some tremendous, cold winds. These nearly blew us over and we weren’t prepared for the temperature. We continued on to the vents themselves, following the crowd. The eggs cooked in the sulfurous water turn black, but taste the same as any hard boiled eggs. They claim that each egg you eat adds 7 years to your life. At $5 for 35 years, that’s quite a deal.
We explored the area and the small shops dotting the path. If you’re in the mood for an “American Dog” (corn dog), this is the place. Otherwise you can grab a Hakone beer, or some local cider for later.
Lake Ashinoko - 芦ノ湖
The ropeway lets out right at Lake Ashinoko, where we jumped right on one of the two ships that traverses the lake. This picturesque but extremely crowded boat took us from the mostly uninhabited north side of the lake to the much more lively south side.
Unfortunately for us, it was a cloudy day when we were there. On a good day, you can see Mt. Fuji during this trip, but we were treated with fog and chilly mountain air instead. Despite that, the lake air was refreshing, and we were at the other side before we knew it.
The guide we read mentioning stopping for a quick lunch of lake smelt close by, which a number of restaurants along the lakeside serve. We found a small casual restaurant overlooking the lake and stopped in for a bite. The smelt had a similar taste to fresh fish sticks, but were tasty.
On the south end of Lake Ashinoko lies Hakone Jinja, a small Shinto shrine with a welcoming gate you can see from the water. We made the short walk over the ship through the tall Cyprus trees to the main entrance. The Shrine is small, but was worth the visit for the path alone.
We learned that the Hakone shrine is also a place for women to go to ask for a boyfriend. This might explain the groups of women we spotted in the Hakone area.
After a day of traveling around Hakone, we returned to our room with enough time to get in a relaxing mineral bath in our room before dinner. This meal included blowfish, something I wasn’t expecting to try, but was on my bucket list while in Japan. As exotic as it was, I wouldn’t order it again. It tasted like fish, but beyond that the intricacies were lost on me.
Day 8: Hakone & Tokyo
We left the ryokan and traveled to Tokyo.
Our last meal at the ryokan was breakfast on Sunday morning. It was raining out, so we took our time eating before checking out.