Editor’s note: Like Sam, I also went to Hakone, spending a relaxing day in the hot – and cold – pools of a traditional onsen. Unlike Sam, I didn’t get to see even a glimpse of Mt. Fuji through the clouds. Next time! In any event, to read more of Sam’s adventures, click here to visit his index page.
Growing up in Seattle, whenever there was a clear day (so not that often) I was treated to a spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains and the incredible Mt. Rainier of the Cascade Mountains. Standing at 14,417 feet, this majestic snowcapped volcano looms over the city, striking both fear and awe into its residents. Fast forward to adulthood, one of the reasons I moved to Utah was to once again be surrounded by beautiful snowy mountains. As a result, visiting famous mountain ranges and peaks is always a privilege in traveling, but there has been one mountain that I have wanted to see most of all: Mt. Fuji in Japan.
Mt. Fuji is similar in many ways to Mt. Rainier in that they are both stratovolcanoes and are among the most prominent peaks that tower over major cities. And though Mt. Fuji is a couple thousand feet shorter than Mt. Rainier at 12,388 feet, I am not sure if there is a mountain that has inspired more artists or people anywhere in the world. Internationally, this mountain – through art and film – has become an iconic symbol of the entire nation of Japan. It is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site but is a place of pilgrimage, and holy within certain branches of Buddhism and Shintoism. With this mountain being so iconic to Japan and so important to the culture of the Japanese people, when I went to the island nation, seeing Mt. Fuji was a hopeful highlight of my trip.
After research, one of the best places to view Mt. Fuji was the town of Hakone, located 35 miles east of the mountain. Hakone is only an hour south of Tokyo by train, making it an easy day trip from the world’s largest metropolitan area. Beyond gorgeous views of Mt. Fuji, Hakone is a worthwhile destination for any traveler to the Land of the Rising Sun. Though I did not have the chance to visit the Hakone Open Air Museum, it is an exciting destination for any lovers of sculpture art, and it features a permanent exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s paintings and pottery, in addition to many other world-renowned artists. However, the only reason that I did not get to go to the open-air museum was because my day was so jam-packed with the many other things to do in Hakone. With all the attractions and hiking in the area, it would be easy to spend several days in Hakone, but if you have one day to spend in there, here are the amazing highlights you must do.
Hakone is located in a highly volcanic area, and to see the incredible landscape, there are series of gondolas and cable cars from the Hakone Ropeway taking tourists in pods over the region. The area there is called Owakudani, which means the “Great Boiling Valley.” Steam pours out of the sulfuric vents below, and these cable cars are the best way to see (and smell them) because walking trails around the volcanic area are closed due to the danger. When you reach the visitor center, get out and walk around and admire the views of Owakudani and also get yourself a hardboiled egg. However, this hardboiled egg is no ordinary egg (even though it tastes likes one), because it has been hardboiled in the sulfur volcanic water pools in the valley. Though it is hard to believe, there are no artificial colors added, but the sulfur dyes the outer shell of the egg a shiny black that is similar to charcoal. Supposedly, eating one of these eggs is good luck and, according to Japanese legend, eating one of these eggs will add seven years to your life, a lucky number associated with the Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Japanese tradition.
While we walked around the visitor area and admired the sulfuric gasses showing the incredible geothermal power under the surface of Japan, I tried to mask my disappointment that the day was cloudy and that there was no sign of Mt. Fuji. As I made peace with the fact that there is always a chance that weather will not cooperate with your travel plans and that I was not going to see the natural highlight of Japan, the clouds suddenly parted and there, in all its glory was what the locals endearingly call Fuji-San, literally meaning “the Mountain of Fire.” In person, Mt. Fuji is truly breathtaking. To be able to continue to view Japan’s highest summit, we continued on the ropeway downwards to the lake that lay below, Lake Ashi. Like other bodies of water in Japan, Lake Ashi has a beautiful torii gate, a Shinto shrine, which is a symbol of Hakone. Many tourists enjoy traveling around this scenic lake, enjoying views of Mt. Fuji from the water, though after the tremendous ones I had from the gondola, I did not think it was necessary.
While in Hakone, it is fairly easy to get around with buses that go around a loop to different tourist sites; though it may be tacky, one of the must-dos in Hakone is Hakone Kowakien Yunessun. Throughout Japan, and especially in this region, there are onsens, geothermal hot spring warm baths, that are a must visit in Japan. Some of these places have their own resorts called ryokans (an article for a future date). The Hakone Kowakien Yunessun is essentially an onsen theme park that has different infusions of flavors into hot spring pools. One pool is coffee, while another is green tea, another cherry blossom and rose, while perhaps the most famous pools are red wine and the sake pool. There is also a pool full of little fish that will nibble away at the dead skin on the bottom of your feet. Outdoors there are more pools including ones with giant waterfalls that you can swim beneath. Though I am not generally one to go for tourist traps nor spend my limited time or money at an amusement park, swimming in a pool full of sake was a Japanese experience that I did not want to pass up. At the center, they have swimsuits to rent and whatever else you might need. An important thing to note about Japanese culture is that tattoos are considered by many to be unsightly, often associated with organized crime, and that some onsens outright refuse anyone who have tattoos, while others do not mind. At the Hakone Kowakien Yunessun, tattoos must be covered with bandages, or if they are large tattoos, you must wear a rash guard to cover up the ink.
I have many more articles to write about my time in Japan, and when visiting Tokyo, you will want to use the capital as a jumping off point for day trips. While there are many options to choose from, visiting Hakone will be one of the highlight days of your trip, and if you are lucky, you will catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, the very sight of which will be worth more than any souvenir. Will I ever go back to Japan? I am not sure, but knowing that I have an extra seven years thanks to that egg, the chances are good.
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