28.2.15

Japan: Day 3 - Hakone


So the day has ended with me chilling out with the locals in an onsen followed by pretending to be karate kid fully dressed in a Yukata, fighting the kids who are staying at the same guest house as me (to the delight of the parents who just seem to be thankful for the break!) ... but back to this morning.

I woke up early and left the apartment at 8am and made my way to Ikebukuro station to start my journey to Hakone. Hakone is a town in Ashigarashimo District in Kanagawa and is located in the mountainous far west on the eastern side of Hakone Pass. Most of the town is within the borders of the volcanically active Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, centered around Lake Ashi. And it's for this very reason that it was high up on the list of places for me to visit. I love the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, but I also want to see the real Japan.
Even though Hakone is rather close to Tokyo there's no direct transport link to it, which makes it rather tricky, especially for foreigners who can't read the signs! From Ikebukuro station I took the Marunouchi Line 8 stops to Tokyo station. This station is the main intercity rail terminal in Tokyo and is the busiest station in Japan in terms of number of trains per day (over 3,000), and the fifth-busiest in Eastern Japan in terms of passenges. I looked that up because when I arrived it was a sea of commuters rushing in a thousand different directions ... so a tourist like me meandering through the station with a huge bag on my back knocking into people isnt as in tune with the etiquette as most. Which is probably why the Japanese work I have used the most so far is gomen'nasai (sorry!)

Once I finally found the right platform it was plan sailing from then on. This was the first of quite a few journeys that I was going to be using the Shinkansen. This is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan. The first line was the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, which opened in 1964 and is actually the one I took today. These bullet trains reach speeds of up to 200mph!

I've heard that trains in japan run on time but was still very impressed with the system and how strict they are. I arrived 20 minutes early for my pre-booked train so saw the one arrive and depart prior to mine. Reserves tickets have carriage and seat numbers on them and the carriage door positions are marked on the floor so people very neatly queue up within these lines. The train arrives 15 minutes before it departs, the cleaning team go onboard and then 5 minutes before it leaves the doors open for the passengers. Everyone gets on and it sets off. It seems so easy ... so why the hell is it a constant cock fight to get on the train in the UK, once it's finally arrived!
I was on the train for 6 stops until it reached Odawara. From here I had to naviagte myself through the train station and an adjoining shopping centre to find the bus station where I had to track down the platform where buses to Senkyoro-mae departed from (I told you it wasnt a walk in the park). After waiting 20 minutes the bus arrived and I was on the last leg of the journey.
Senkyoro-mae is a small village hidden within the mountains, which is central to the atractions of Hakone, making it a well positioned base.  After a 40-minute bus ride I tracked down the guest house which was pretty well hidden just off of the main road through Senkyoro-mae. This place is the real Japan I was hoping to find. The rooms are basic but very traditional which fits with the environment you find yourself (it wouldnt feel right staying in some fancy 5-star hotel amongst this landscape).
After checking in and being given the tour by the sweetest old Japanese lady, I quickly dropped my stuff off and got back out on the road. There's a number of things on my to do list for Hakone which I need to split between today and tomorrow morning before i head to kyoto so I wanted to make sure I don't waste a minute of it. From the hotel I headed back out and caught a bus to Togendai. Togendai is where the ropeway departs from; taking you over the vast mountainous landscape to Ōwakundani which is home to one of todays attractions I was really excited to check out.   
Ōwakudani is a volcanic valley with active sulphur vents and hot springs. From where the ropeway (which by the way gives you some pretty stunning views of both Mount Fujiand the sulphur vents just below the visitor's center) drops you off it's around a 1-kilometer trail to the actual site which is most famous with the Japanese, and curiously Chinese. The local speciality is Kuro-tamago, which are basically eggs hard-boiled in the hot springs. What's so special about that you may ask? Well ... the boiled eggs turn black and smell slightly sulphuric! Consuming the eggs is said to increase longevity. Eating one is said to add seven years to your life. How could I not give this a go! They have one main point, which sells these eggs at the highest point you can climb to. They have a series of benches where you're suppose to devour these life givers. Everyone was at it! You have to buy a bag of 5 that come with a little sachet of salt. I'm not going to lie, it wasn't my favourite. And I managed 1 and 1 only. The remainder I gave away.






But this little fella seemed to be enjoying tucking into one!! 
This also seems like a pretty good stream of revenue for the district as they sell pretty much everything shaped as these black eggs, along with a cartoon character of course. But it didn't beat my favourite cartoon character of the day ... Mr. Mount Fuji!
From here with a belly full of what felt like gone off egg I caught another ropeway to Sounzan. From Souzan you can jump on a pretty fancy cable car which heads straight down the side of the rather steep hill until it hits Gora. From Gora I took the local train 1 stop to The Hakone Open Air Museum. This is Japan's first open-air museum, opened in 1969 in Hakone. It has collections of artworks made by Picasso (which are housed in his very own building), Henry Moore, Churyo Sato and others, featuring over a thousand sculptures and works of art. It was a really impressive space with some pretty random stuff. It was crazy to see it within this amazing space between the mountains.
 One of my favourites was actually a hot spring foot-bath which was pretty relaxing and made me think about potentially trying out the private onsens on sight at the guest house. There were some pretty cool structures for kids to enjoy, the most interesting being Woods of Net (picture below). But the best piece was this staircase surrounded by a circular staind glass window. It was breathtaking.

After a few hours exploring here I took the bus back to Senkyoro-mae as it was nearly 5pm and I had been warned that everything closes at around 8pm, so if I wanted dinner I was going to have to get my skates on. I'd been recommended to try out a place called Irorichaya, which was a 5-minute walk and was a local specialist in Akita cuisine. The place was truly amazing and looked the part. Sat in their amongst the locals it really felt that I was deep in the mountains at some fancy Japanese local restaurant ... it still feels like a dream!


I went for 'Big deep-fried shrimps and sashimi' with the usual sides that come as standard. And boy they weren't lying, these shrimp were huge! It was all delicious and tasted so fresh. I'd definitely recommend if you're ever in the area.


After a pretty rewarding day I went back to the guest house and spent an hour in their onsen. This onsen gets it's hot spring water direct from the Owakundani Volcano (which they are rather proud about). Following that relaxing session after a hard days excursion I tried out the Yukata they provide you with and ended up showing the kids staying here some moves!

And that's a wrap on today's activities. I'm up early again to tick off what's on tomorrows agenda. Until then it's Sayonora from me! :)

But before I go I'd like to say a massive thank you to InsideJapan for their rcommendations, knowledge and help with todays journey. Without your insight today wouldn't have been possible. 
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