I normally only write about very remote locations. Places that are difficult to find and even more difficult to reach. Places no one has heard about. Places that keep me up at night while I plan how to get there. Hakone does not meet any of the criteria. It is a well-known town in Japan, easy to reach from Tokyo, and I did not even have to plan any of it. My friend Sumika, one of the best trip organisers I have ever met, planned the whole thing. I just had to show up. But it was such a lovely weekend, I cannot help but want to share it.
I leave Tokyo mid-morning, from Shinjuku station. After some confusion at the ticket counter (you need to buy both a train ticket and a regional pass ticket, the Hakone Free Pass), I get on the appropriately named ‘Romance car’. Sumika is joining me later on the day, so for now I just relax and enjoy the sights. I have a big stash of dorayaki (Japanese pancake filled with red bean), and I spend the ride devouring my dorayakis and looking at the pretty green landscape. It is called ‘Romance car’ for a reason. Despite being late in Autumn, there are still many yellow and red and brown leaves, and the train takes a very scenic route, crossing plains and fields and forests. We have actually chosen Hakone as it is known as a great destination to view the change in season, as its forests are covered in Autumn colours.
Once in Hakone-Yumoto, I have to take a bus. The last typhoon impacted the train line, and while they repair it, there are replacement buses. We go up the mountain, surrounded by a dense, ochre and green, forest. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I can feel my body relaxing. It’s like the bus just crossed an invisible frontier, and I am in a safe bubble. All my worries are very far away and not worth thinking about. This is the effect that Hakone has on me for the whole weekend. Pure peace and relaxation.
After the bus, comes a cable car, and then finally the stop to my hotel. We are staying at Laforet Club Hakone Gora Yunosumika. It’s a traditional hotel, a ryokan. We have chosen a traditional room, and as soon as I enter it, my shoulders relax even more. It is very bright, spacious, and peaceful. I normally don’t describe hotel rooms, but this one makes an impression. It is very simple yet so cozy and welcoming. One room for the sleeping mats, one room for a small table and low chairs. Views of the mountain and the forest. I make pu-er tea (mandarin orange pu-er from Yixing Xuan, my favourite teahouse in Singapore) and sit down admiring the view while I wait for my friend. The luxury of doing nothing.
Once Sumika arrives, we go for a walk and up the mountain with the cable car. At its highest, there a view point. Unfortunately, it’s closed, also due to the impact of the typhoon. Nevertheless, we enjoy the forest bathing, a traditional Japanese practice. The fact that we are always walking on pavement makes it feel a bit less authentic, but we are surrounded by so much dense vegetation, as far as the eye can see, that you genuinely feel embraced by nature.
Back in the hotel we have tea and a treat Sumika has brought for us, mochis, one of my favourite things in the world (together with dorayakis). Mochis are a traditional Japanese cake made of glutinous rice paste, with a sweet filling. Both the paste and filling vary, I prefer the ones with matcha rice paste and red bean filling. One of my favourite facts about mochis is that in traditional East Asian culture, they are made by a rabbit who lives in the moon. He works hard, pounding the rice paste in his mortar. When outside Japan, I buy mochis from Minamoto Kitchoan. They have shops in Singapore, Hong Kong, London and New York, among other locations, and sell the most delicious wagashi (Japanese sweets).
We then put on our yukatas (bathrobes) and go to the onsen (hot springs). We relax in the outside pool of hot water, surrounded by nature, and we have the whole place to ourselves. After that, it’s time for a really nice dinner, a seasonal menu of several courses, all designed by the chef. It’s delicious, and we pair it with cold sake.
The following day, after another abundant meal at the hotel (breakfast is a tasty Japanese buffet), we start our journey back to Tokyo with a long detour. First we visit the Gora Park, a series of bucolic gardens on the hill, overlooking the grandiosity of the valley. There is a very special place in the park, a traditional tea house. The Hakuun-do Tea House maintains the traditional structure of old tea houses. It’s very simple and peaceful, made of wood and blending in with the forest. We wander around the rooms, which contain little more than tatamis and minimal decoration. It was designed according to the principles of wabi-sabi (simple, imperfect beauty), and it even has an onsen built inside the rocks of the mountain. The caretaker serves us matcha tea and Sumika, who took tea ceremony lessons for years, shows me the right way to drink tea. First we eat the mochi, made according to the season, and then we drink the tea, which will also be slightly different based on the season (thicker, lighter etc). There is a specific way in which we need to grab the cup, turn it 180 degrees to the right, and then drink. After finishing it, we turn it again, so when we leave it on the ground, a specific part of the cup, where the design / decoration is, is facing us. I had been drinking matcha for years but I was not aware of the process. It is delicate, precious and also very relaxing. (I buy my matcha at Fukujuen in Takashimaya, Singapore, or the Japan Centre and Matchaeologist in London).
We take the cable car, now heading to the mountain top, Owakudani, crossing rivers of sulfur and rugged mountains. The change in landscape is incredibly abrupt. We arrive to a view point full of local tourists, and there is yet another traditional activity, eating kuro-tamago (black eggs) – eggs boiled in the sulphurous heat, which turns their shell to charcoal black. We sit down and slowly eat the eggs with some salt, looking at Mount Fuji. They say that eating one egg adds 7 years to your life, so we have to add 21 years to the already long life expectancy of Japanese and Spanish women, coincidentally the longest living humans in the planet.
We descend with the ropeway to the other side of the mountain, the town of Togendai, where we take a ferry to cross Lake Ashinoko. It is a placid ride where we have the opportunity to see red shrines on the shores of the lake. At every moment of the journey there is beauty around us, from sulphur valleys, forests with orange leaves, green forests, the lake.. and we take time to quietly enjoy each part of the journey. This is one of my favourite things about travelling with Sumika, she always takes time to quietly soak in and enjoy her surroundings. I try to learn from her, and just appreciate what is in front of me at the present moment.
Once in Moto-Hakone, I get to enjoy yet another advantage of travelling with a local – we go to one of the restaurants that only has a menu in Japanese, and try the udon noodles that this area is famous for. After feeling cold in the past hours, this is the perfect food to recover. For desert, we buy onsen-manju, steamed buns filled with red bean paste, which are a specialty of hot spring areas.
We then board a bus to Hakone-Yumoto where we will be taking the train back to Tokyo. I have to add, that despite the journey seeming quite complicated and full of different forms of transport (like my never-ending Indonesian trips), it doesn’t feel tiring at all. Every stop on the way is an opportunity to see something beautiful or eat, so it feels more like a tour. In Hakone-Yumoto station we save extra time so we can buy mochis, as the town is very famous for the seasonal ones. There are so many different types that I get overwhelmed, so I end of sticking to what I already know, matcha and red bean. While we eat our mochis on our way back, I reflect that this has been one of the best weekends of the year, full of beauty and moments of peace, and I feel very privileged that I got to enjoy it thanks to my friend.
Arranging the trip:
- Hotel: We booked it through Booking.com
- Trains and buses: We bought the tickets directly at the station, I recommend buying the train return ticket in advance (the time can be changed at the Hakone station)
- Books to read (not particularly related to Hakone, but my favourite Japanese books)
- The bells of old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese time, Anna Sherman
- After dark, Haruki Murakami
- Blind willow, sleeping woman, Haruki Murakami
- Films to watch (not particularly related to Hakone, but my favourite Japanese films)
- Departures, Yôjirô Takita
- Shoplifters, Hirokazu Koreeda
- Tokyo family, Yôji Yamada
- Every day a good day, Tatsushi Omori
- A long goodbye, Ryota Nakano
- Sweet bean, Naomi Kawase
- Spirited away, Hayao Miyazaki
- Women travellers
- Japan is incredibly safe and easy for women travellers. People are used to seeing women travelling alone, and everyone respects your space
- November is the best time to see the Autumn leaves, but Spring would be also a great time to visit