Plan for the day
The plan for the day was to move around Lake Ashi and visit a few famous sights. They were
- Hakone Shrine
- Hakone Sekisho Checkpoint
- Hakone Imperial villa
- Hakone Detached Palace Garden
- Owakundai Great Boiling Valley
By about 4pm we planned to drive westward to Hamamatsu city where we would stay for a night. The purpose of staying at Hamamatsu was to shorten our travelling distance for the next day to our next koyo destination, Korankei Valley.
In the event that we completed all the five sightseeing destinations earlier than expected and reached Hamamatsu early like around 3pm, we would take a ride on the Kanzanji Ropeway that crossed the Kanzanji Lake. The Kanzanji Ropeway ride was an optional item planned to fill in slot of spare time in our itinerary.
From Lake Ashi to Korankei Gorge would be a three hours drive. To drive this long distance at the end of the day would be too tiring and beside this there was no suitable accommodation at Korankei Valley or the nearby towns. Likewise if we were to stay another night at Lake Ashi and to drive the long distance to Korankei Gorge, we would have tired ourselves out even before we could explore the gorge. So our best option was to spend a night at a big town like Hamamatsu where there were plenty of hotels. The distance from the Lake Ashi to Hamamatsu was about 160km and the expected driving duration about 2 hours.
The Prince Hakone
Lake Ashi also known as Lake Ashinoko is a crater lake that lies along the southwest wall of the caldera of Mount Hakone. It was formed after the last eruption some 3000 years ago.
Lake Ashi with Mount Fuji as its background is the symbol of Hakone, the name of this whole region. From our hotel balcony we could see the lake but we could not see Mount Fuji which had to be seen from another direction. Our hotel faced the west whereas Mount Fuji was on the north side of the lake. Anyway the morning mist that hung over the lake would have blocked out the view of Mount Fuji.
The lake looked huge, dark and mysterious and as the mist lifted we could see more and more of the hill on the opposite shore. The hill was covered with autumn colored foliage. From afar we could see shades of yellows and oranges on the lower slope of the hill. The shades of colors looked dull which I hoped was due to the misty environment and not that the foliage was way past its best autumn colors.
There were two ways to get to Hakone Shrine. One road led to the slope above the shrine while the other to the slope at the base of the shrine. We opted for the second road. We drove for about 3.5 km from The Prince Hakone Hotel to a large carpark near the base of Hakone Shrine. The carpark was very quiet and our car was the only vehicle in the carpark. . From the carpark we walked down slope and came to a stone tiled walking path that led into a forest full of tall cedar trees some of which were more 800 years old.
The forest was very quiet and with the morning sun rays streaming through the gaps between the leaves the forest felt serene and welcoming. We only had to walk a short distance on the stone path to come upon a stairs that crossed the stone path.
Standing at the mid-landing of the stairs we could see that up slope the steps went up and up till it was out of sight, we knew that the steps would end at the door front of Hakone shrine. As for the down slope end the stairs led to the waterfront finishing at a torii gate which was partially submerged in the water.
Torii gate is a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto Shrine. It symbolically marks the transition from the profane to the sacred. This torri gate was just one of the several torii gates of Hakone Shrine which could be found along the different routes that led to the shrine.
To see a torii gate built on the water made me believed that in the past some visitors to the Hakone Shrine must have travelled by boat from other parts of the Lake to this torii gate to ascend to Hakone shrine.
We walked down the steps to the waterfront. At the bottom of the stairs was a stone tiled ramp that led out into the water. From afar the torii gate had looked small but when I stood directly below it, I felt so tiny, so micro-size as I stared out at the huge mass of water in front of me.
I felt alive, fortunate and wonderful to be at this beautiful place. With the imperial red torii gate towering above my head and water ripples slapping against my shoes I felt so reluctant to leave this place. Eventually I still turned around and we walked up the stairs which would lead us to Hakone shrine. Looking up we could not see the shrine structure but an endless ascend of steps. It was a definitely a long way up, so we took our time as we did not want to tired ourselves. Along the steps we passed under two more torii gates and many huge tall cedar trees.
After about 20 minutes we reached an open space at the top of the stairs. In front was a gate structure which was a doorway into the shrine. It was still early in the morning about 10am and besides us there was nobody around, not even a monk. I enjoyed exploring the shrine, it gave me a very “at peace” feeling. Automatically my walking pace slowed as I moved from one corner to another.
In the compound of the shrine stood a very interesting and beautiful basin. It was a water basin with nine dragon heads sprouting water into the basin. Based on a local legend it was not about nine dragons but one dragon with nine heads. Legend tells that a Shinto Buddist monk used his mystical power to banish a 9 headed dragon from Lake Ashi as the dragon was inflicting great damage to Hakone. After the exorcism the dragon became a guardian spirit protecting the area.
After Hakone Shrine we drove southward to Moto Hakone. Moto Hakone was an onsen town right beside Lake Ashi, it was located near the south end of the lake. In Moto Hakone there were several interesting places we intended to visit. We drove near to the vicinity of the Hakone Sekisho Checkpoint and found a carpark and was so happy to find that the carpark was free of charge.
Unlike the previous day where there were so many cars and people on the road at every places that we visited, today was a totally opposite scenario. The carpark was rather empty and we hardly see any tourists around.
We walked eastward along the main road and came to a small side tiled path that lead to the checkpoint, near the junction was a “Walking map” signboard. We could not really understand the map but based our limited language capability we knew that our several places of interest were within walking distance of each other. There were also several car parks along the stretch so we also had the option of driving near to our destinations.
Hakone Sekisho Checkpoint
This particular ancient checkpoint was opened in 1619. It was used to impose extremely tight controls on the passage of travelers, particularly women attempting to leave Edo (modern Tokyo).
The walking path leading to the checkpoint were lined with edo period buildings which were now serving as souvenir shops. There was a ticketing booth outside the checkpoint gate, we decided not to go in as we were not interested in viewing the museum in the checkpoint compound. We moved on eastward to the Hakone Detached Palace.
Hakone Detached Palace Garden
The garden was situated on a peninsula that juts into Lake Ashi, on it was the Hakone Detached Palace. For a while I thought that the only way to access the garden was through a side door within the checkpoint. But later we found that we could also access the palace garden from the main road after crossing a carpark. So there was no need to pay an entrance ticket into the Checkpoint to visit the garden.
The Hakone Detached Palace was used to serve as a summer palace for the Imperial family. The garden was huge but not very fantastic beautiful, so the beauty of this place must be its lake view. We moved around in the garden, constantly looking out into the lake, hoping to get a glimpse of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately the sky was too cloudy, the air too misty and we could not see Mt Fuji at all.
Taking a cruise on the Pirate Ship
From the Detached Palace, we walked back to Hakone Sekisho Checkpoint and carried on walking westward to a jetty. We were about to buy our ferry tickets to explore the lake when the ticketing staff told us, in not too many words that we could understand, that the boat from this jetty was meant for locals moving around various other jetties on the lake. The advise was to tour the lake on a tourist boat and we should go to the next jetty to buy the tickets.
We went back to our car and drove down to the next jetty which was less than 500 metres from the first jetty. Surprisingly we saw many people at this jetty waiting to take the tourist sightseeing ferry. This was the first time today we saw so many people. I went to the ticket counter to purchase our tickets. It must be our lucky day as there was a 1-day-promotion for combo tickets that comprised of a return ferry trip and a return ropeway trip for a price of ¥2850 per person. This worked out to about 30% cheaper.
We did not have to wait long to board the “pirate ship”.
The ferry route was from the south end of the lake to the northern end of the lake which took about 30 minutes. We spent the entire ferry journey on the upper deck of the pirate ship. When the pirate ship was midway into the journey we spotted the “in the water” Torii Gate of Hakone Shrine.
The torii gate looked so small when viewed from the ship, it was so unlike the gigantic structure that we saw earlier on in the morning when we were stood at its foot. Though small, it stood out distinctly in the lake against the backdrop of Mount Fuji. It acted like a beacon beckoning all its viewers to its site.
The ship docked at Togendai situated at the northern end of the lake. From afar we could already see the Togendai Station.
Togendai Station was linked to the pier, so it was very convenient to disembark and walked into the station that had souvenir shops and a restaurant on the ground floor and the cable car station on the upper floor. The cable cars were quite huge and could take 18 persons in one car. The cable systems was the type that go round and round without stopping and one car was about one minute from the next car.
The ropeway started at Togendai station, the next one was Ubako Station, then Owakundani Station and finally Sounzan Station. The stations were about 8 minutes apart. Our first destination was Owakundani Station where we planned to get off to explore Owakundani Great Boiling valley.
The view from the cable car was beautiful, we could see Mount Fuji and the lake. The only regrets was that the trees on the slope that we passed overhead were past its best autumn colors. I was sure that if I was at this same place one month ahead this whole valley and mountain would be bursting with brilliant red, yellow and orange color. Unfortunately being tourists, we did not have the luxury of being at the right place at the right time all the times.
Owakudani Great Boiling valley
We alighted at Owakudani station and walked out to a huge car park just outside the station. Many other tourists came up by cars or tour buses, so the carpark was full of vehicles. Owakudani was a volcanic crater valley with active sulphur vents and hot springs. This crater was created during the last eruption of Mount Hakone some 3000 years ago.
A huge black egg in the center of the carpark caught my attention. The “black” eggs known as Kuro Tamago were a local specialty sold at the many stores and restaurants around the Owakudani station. These eggs were boiled in the hot springs of Owakudani and turned black by the sulphur gases in the water.
It was said that consuming the eggs would increase one’s longevity. Eating one would add seven years to one’s life. On the flip side, the myth also said that eating 3 or more in one life time would cause one to be violently ill.
I went into a several stores trying to purchase two black eggs unfortunately the eggs were sold in pack of five for ¥500. We just wanted one egg for each of us, there was no way we were going to eat two and a half each! I was looking around to see if there was anyone else who would like to buy just a couple of eggs so that we could share a pack. But everyone in the queue were grabbing a few packs of eggs at a time. Wow…I wondered if they had heard about the myth.
In the end we had no choice but to buy a pack of five. The eggs we rather small, they were chicken eggs. We cracked two hard boiled eggs and found that only their shells were blackened the egg whites were still absolutely white. The “black eggs” tasted like normal hard boiled eggs, no weird sulphur taste at all!
After eating two we threw the remaining three into my backpack. I highly doubt we would consume the rest, it was a matter of procrastinating their disposal into the dustbin. I would like to give it to someone else but it was too much of a hassle to explain in Japanese why we were giving them away. How was I going to explain about the myth of falling ‘violently ill’?
With our stomachs half-filled it was time to do a bit of leg work. We walked along a trail that was packed with people. The steps lead up slope just beside a “hot spring” stream. The environment was both cold and hot. Cold because the weather was cold and hot because of the steam that was constantly rising out of the hot spring water.
Shortly we came to the black egg “production area”. There was this “non stop” production of black eggs. Crates and crates of white eggs were carted in, lowered into the water and raised after a short dip. I was amazed that the eggs did not have to stay long in the water. Just about five minutes and when taken out they were totally blackened.
The “longevity” myth had certainty created a huge demand for these “black” eggs and the packaging of five eggs for each purchase was a great sale strategy. ¥500 for five eggs was expensive considering that I could get hard boiled eggs at half the cost back home. But as a tourist coming from a long distance, taking out ¥500 for the eggs was still affordable. I always found that my travelling enjoyment heightened when I indulged in the local cultures and myths.
Somewhere along the walking trail that looped round the boiling valley we got to see Mount Fuji which I believed was the nearest view we had of the mountain since the beginning of this trip.
Back onto the cable car going down to Lake Ashi Lake we had another top down view of Owakudani. This view was definitely the advantage of coming up to the Great Boiling Valley by cable car versus car. We could see many construction activities going on in the valley. The valley was terraced and concrete barriers were put up to stablize the place after massive land slides in the past. We understood that these preventive measures had been under way for many decades.
The drive from MotoHakone to our hotel in Hamamatsu would need about two hours for 160 km. So we figured that by the time we reached our hotel around 6pm the sky would have darkened. Our optional item “Kanzanji Ropeway” ride that was planned in the event that we arrived at Hamamatsu early was discarded. Today was a long day of exploration so it would be nice to check into our hotel for a good rest and not to venture out for dinner.
We had noticed that the Japanese highways were dotted with many service areas (SA) and according to our friend, who we met two days ago, she said that these service areas had restaurants, toilet facilities and convenient stores.
After driving for about an hour on the highway we drove into a highway SA in search of a meal. I was expecting only fast food eateries and was pleasantly surprised when we found proper cooked food restaurant. Our dinner was a ramen and a pork tonkatsu rice for a total of ¥1440, not too expensive. Water and green tea were free and coincidentally they were our most favourite beverages!
After filling my stomach with nice and warm food, I felt revitalise, contented and happy. There was no rush to get to our hotel so we surfed the web to connect with our family and friends back home and posted several photos for all to see.
Night at Hamamatsu
I had booked a Twin Room at APA Hotel Hamamatsu Eki Minami for ¥6,200, it came with ensuite bathroom and no meal. Car parking was available at ¥800 per night. I booked this hotel because the price looked good and since we only intended to stay a night and leave early the next morning we did not need any fanciful hotel.
I had chosen to stay a Hamamatsu because it was a big city with many hotels and a good midpoint between Lake Ashi and Korankei Gorge our next major Koyo destination