Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hakone: Fuji-San and More (Part 1)

This is going to be a bloody long post. Just trying to select the choice photos from our day trip to Hakone took me half an hour. :P So rather than kill myself writing, I shall be splitting my Hakone adventures into 2 posts.

Now, what is the ABSOLUTE must see, must visit thing in Japan? No, no, no, NOT Disneyland!! Mount Fuji, dear readers. It is one of those "1,000 places to see before you die" kind of attraction. Besides being Japan's tallest mountain/dormant volcano at 3776 metres, it is also perfectly cone-shaped and gorgeous, hence its images adorn a thousand guide books. There are many ways to see the sacred Fuji-San. On a clear day, you can see it from Tokyo, like I did from my hotel room at Shinagawa Prince (see earlier post). If you want to get up close and personal, and you are the adventurous sort, you can of course climb the mountain directly. Otherwise, if you are unadventurous and unwieldly, like yours truly, then you can make a day trip to Fuji Five Lakes at Yamanashi Prefecture (2 hours away from Tokyo) OR like us, go to Hakone, which is a part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and only 1 and a half hours train ride from Tokyo.

Besides Mount Fuji, there are a lot of things to be enjoyed around Hakone. In fact, if you have the time, it is recommended that you stay overnight at Hakone at one of its famous hot spring (onsen) resorts. To my eternal regret, we did not do that due to time constraints. There is also the beautiful and sparkling Lake Ashinoko (or Ashi) where Fuji-San looms over like a benign guardian; the Hakone Checkpoint Museum harking back to the Edo Period; Owakudani Valley where sulpheric hot springs bubble, among many others.

To ensure we get to see the maximum number of things within a day, I decided to sign up for the 1-Day Hakone Panorama Course offered by Odakyu's Q Tours. Costing 9,000 yen (SGD150) per person on a self guided tour (we were given an instruction-cum-guide book in English) to complete a set course around Hakone, covering train rides to-and-from Hakone (from Shinjuku) and all types of transportation within Hakone, entrance fee to Hakone Checkpoint Museum, set lunches, and a boat ride on Lake Ashi. This is basically what we did:
I booked the tour online prior to our departure to Tokyo, and we were instructed to be at the Odakyu office at Shinjuku at least half an hour before for briefing. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we got lost and barely made it on the train, which leaves at 9.00 am, with minutes to spare. Thankfully, the guide books given to us were very clear, and we could still navigate ourselves through all the sights on the course. Whew!

Odakyu calls the Hakone train a "RomanceCar". Up till today, I am still not too sure what is so romantic about it, but the train was fairly comfortable (more so than our longer ride to Nikko!). And we made it Hakone safely and in good time. The "Romance-Car" arriving at the Hakone-Yumoto train station below:

 Did you see anything romantic about it??

Upon arrival at the train station, our adventure began. Our first transportation mode was the good old bus, which brought us to Motohakone-ko, the start of Lake Ashi, and of course, Mount Fuji. The vista was astonishing. Tourists were snapping photos like there was no tomorrow. It was a spectacular way to start our day.

Lake Ashi, Mount Fuij and a little red Tori (gate).

Almost everywhere we went for the rest of the day, Fuji-San was never far from our sight. In winter, the morning was so wonderfully clear and crisp, making it great for picture-taking. As the day went by, you could see a little cloud forming over the peak of Mount Fuji, like he was wearing a cap, which progressed into a "hat" later in the afternoon. But the famed mountain never lost its majesty nor its ability to awe us into silence. Besides Mount Fuji, the surrounding sights were also marvellous. It was almost like heaven on earth, God the creator of all these natural wonders.

If I could paint this, I would...

Although this was a major tourist site, it was strangely peaceful, for which I was grateful. Finally, after a long while, we made our way on foot to the next stop, the "Cedar Avenue", a long path lined by the largest, tallest and most awesome cedar trees. I felt like I had dropped into a romantic scene of "Winter Sonata" and told Samurai T as such, who, boar that he was, laughed hysterically and thus destroyed my fantasy. :( But with sunlight trickling in through these enormous trees, this place undoubtedly ranks in my list of Top 10 Most Romantic Places in the World.

Not romantic meh?

Our next stop was Samurai T's favourite place - the Hakone Checkpoint (stupid historian). This was an important checkpoint along the famed Tokaido highway between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) during the Tokugawa period. (See I also know my history!) What it is now is a reconstruction of the old checkpoint with some historical relics from the old days. Whether you are into history or not, this place makes for an interesting visit.

A top down view of the Hakone Checkpoint from the fort

A display at Hakone Checkpoint

After an interesting learning trip, we broke for lunch at a place called Noah's Ark!! It is located at Hakone-machi, a small town with a number of interesting shops, and naturally, I went mad shopping before Samurai T pulled me into the restaurant to eat. (P.S There is also a large souvenir shop next to the restaurant.) Since we were on a "package tour", I wasn't expecting much for lunch but it turned out to be absolutely fabulous. We were given a choice of a Tonkatsu or Teriyaki Beef set, and we got one of each. And they were delicious!! Since we were starving after all that walking, everything was deposited into our stomachs in record time. ;)

Noah's Ark - fab architecture

My yummy Tonkatsu set

His most fragrant and tender teriyaki beef

After lunch we would proceed on an interesting boat ride on Lake Ashi. Onto the next post!

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