Our flight leaves at 1pm, I aim to get to Narita before 11am, either the 8.46 or 9.31 direct train from Shinbashi. Leave some time to do a final luggage check and reserve time for unforeseen issues. That leaves us an hour and a bit in the morning.
The options was either Meiji-Jingu Outer Garden or Zoujouji, a temple with a view of Tokyo Tower not far from the hotel.
Meiji-Jingu Outer Garden is about 7 minutes from Shinbashi, accounting for walking time it’d be about 20 minutes each way. Doable but will be cutting it close even if we left at 7am.
Zoujouji is about 10 minutes walk, easier to control the timing. And since we had seen ginkgo leaves the day before I felt Zoujouji would be more interesting.
For breakfast, the egg was scrambled egg with sausage wieners, fish was salt grilled fish, plus roasted potato with bacon, salisbury steak.
We headed out about quarter past 7.
Super Hotel is already outside the commercial areas of Shinbashi. From here to Zoujouji was mostly residential areas.
Along the way we passed the Prince Hotel, it had a fancy looking cafe/restaurant/bakery looking place by the roadside away from the main hotel building. Wondered if it was targeted at the guests or nearby office workers. The large car park before the hotel was mostly empty except for one or two tour buses.
The main gate of Zouzouji was under renovation works. The two side doors were entirely boxed behind protective boards.
Zouzouji is one of the older temples in Tokyo, though not in its current location, it was moved twice during the Edo Era then much of it burned down during WW2.
As the family temple of the Tokugawa the temple saw periods of incredibly glory, with over 120 buildings at its peak. Even today the temple is a massive complex with several interconnected giant halls.
The family tomb of the Tokugawa is located here. To the north western end of the temple grounds lies 6 of the Tokugawa shoguns. We weren’t able to enter the tomb area, it’s closed off and only opens at 10 plus 500Y entrance fee.
Along the northern edge of the temple was a long row of child Jizos statues. They wore red little hats and capes and had windmills next to them. Dedicated for the safe growth of children and memorial of unborn babies.
Behind the temple hall rose the red and white of Tokyo tower. Replaced by the Skytree its original purpose may be have been, its faux Eiffel Tower silhouette remains the spirit and romance of Tokyo.
The hour went by strangely quickly, I had envisioned there being enough time to go to the bottom of Tokyo tower.
We walked back to the hotel in the same way. In the narrow streets we passed a Lawson that advertized that it baked its own bread each day.
True enough, the place has a mini bakery with two ovens. I imagine the dough is made centrally then delivered to each store, the staff only need to put the dough into the oven each morning. It’s a good step above regular packaged bread which I would have much enjoyed over cold rice balls if only these were more common place during my trips.
We got back to the hotel with plenty of time to do some last minute packing, brush up and get a last minute coffee. There is no need to check out at Super Hotel, when ready just grab the bags and walk out.
We hopped on the direct train from Shinbashi to Narita according to schedule. The train was a typical urban commuter with seats along the walls. Actually not much slower than the Skyliner express and much faster than the NEX, at less than half the price.
There weren’t too many people in the Sunday morning, we had no problem finding seats. The train surfaced after Skytree and I chanced a glimpse before it disappeared behind the high rises. The Tokyo cityscape slowly roll past, the hour slipped by.
Vanilla Air was based in Terminal 3, the low cost airline terminal without its own railway station, one has to either walk 500m from Terminal 2 or wait for the shuttle bus.
The walkway between the two terminal is painted like a sports ground runway, with several rest stops along the way with benches and vending. A lot of efforts went into making the walk interesting, changing lanes, colours, posters along the walls. The distance was barely felt, in a blink we were at the escalator leading up to the terminal.
Not yet 10.30, the counter should open at 10.50, 2 hours before the flight. We were maybe 4th or 5th in line.
Originally I had considered taking the later train, not wanting to get here before the counter opened. With more thoughts now this way worked better. We may need to wait a short while for the counter to open but we were ahead of the line, as soon as the counter opened, we could drop off our bag and be on our way, whether to lunch or shopping. Had we come later we would have had to wait in the queue for time unknown.
While we waited for the counter to open I realized I had not yet bought a Playstation point card. Since I play Japanese games and the store only accepted credit cards from Japan, using a point card was the only way to buy the games online or for the DLCs. Thankfully there’s a Lawson right next to the counters.
After checking in we went to find something for lunch.
Terminal 3 had only a limited selection of shops but no shortage of food. Before customs there is a large food court with about 8 shops with a carefully selection ranging from ramen, sushi, donburi to western burgers and cafe.
Coming early definitely worked out well, had we came later we would not have finished checking in till after 11.30, then we’d be in a hurry to eat lunch and get through customs. As it is we could easily peruse the available stalls, pick our choices and have lunch at a leisurely pace, enjoying the bustling activities all about from travellers of all walks. I went with the safe choice of the Nagasaki Champon noodle (same one in Hakata) while Y got a spicy ramen.
After that we went through customs. At one stage there was a tax claim station where they were supposed to inspect the tax free claimed items to ensure the travellers were bringing them with them. Instead there was only a basket with a sign and arrows. Y casually tossed the tax free claim slip into it.
Airside there was just one souvenir store selling pretty much everything. Electronics, especially rice cookers at 220V aimed at chinese. Traditional Japanese wares like chopsticks and textiles, Hello Kitties and of course all sorts of sweets. Y knew about a lot of the various sweets and chocolates, which ones were famous, which ones were talked about. I had already got enough sweets so didn’t buy any.
Since this was a low cost terminal there were no air bridges. Passengers had to walk down 3 flight of stairs to the ground level, across the tarmac to the air stairs through an expendable corridor that provided some shelter from the elements and served to keep passengers from wandering off.
It was a small single aisle 737, the flight was short and past lunchtime, I don’t think many people ordered meals during the flight.
We arrived at Taiwan late in the afternoon and after we passed customs, disbanded and waved each other farewell.
For once an easy start to the day. There’s no hurry today, everything revolved around places within Tokyo.
Breakfast had a makeover and all the dishes were different from yesterday. The egg became Japanese eggroll, the fish a traditional grilled fish, a broccoli vege and seafood stirfy, and ginger stir fried pork.
First stop today was Tsukiji… or outer Tsukiji anyway. Because poorly behaviours from tourists they’ve banned tourists from visiting the inner market before 10am. Most of the fish shops are closed at that point and not much point in visiting. What is it with modern tourists…
It’s one stop from Shiodome to Tsukiji. It’s also walkable if I wasn’t feeling lazy, about 1.2km.
The outer market had changed a lot since 6 years ago. More people, the shops sold more things catering to tourists, and a lot more sushi shops. Some shops are even tax free though I have no idea how that is meant to work.
We did a general loop through the outer market to the border of the inner market, to the Namiyoke Inari Shrine then back out through each of the outer market streets.
The line outside Sushi Dai extended from the alley to a long line on the side of the thoroughfare. To be a gourmet in Tokyo required zenful patience.
We passed a Yoshinoya. I did not realize at the time, only found out when we saw a memorial stone at the shrine, that the cheap gyudon chain originated right here at Tsukiji.
Should have gone in for a bowl if I had known.
At the crossing that lead to the inner market, a security guard escorted two tourists away from the inner market while holding up a sign saying no tourists allowed before 10. They’re treating the ban quite seriously.
Many fresh seafood shops offered service to cook them on the spot, the smell of grilled crab legs and oysters was salivating.
I checked out some of the knife shops, looking to see if they sold those special knives used to cut specific fish like tuna and eels. Looks to be all sushi and chopping knives though, perhaps the demand for fish cleaning knife is less and aren’t on display.
Next to Tsukiji is the Hongan-ji, quite different from the usual wooden temples found in Japan, is built of concrete in the architectural style from buddhism’s birthplace India. There was strangely an organ on the second level by the entranceway.
Hibiya line station is just outside Hongan-ji. A quick transfer at Ginza to the Marunouchi line gets us to Ikebukuro.
The Sunshine Aquarium is about 10 minutes walk from the station.
The aquarium is one of several within Tokyo. There’s something cultural about Japan and aquariums, it has to be one of the most common attractions in Japan. Perhaps it’s a combination of love for fish and cute things, and who doesn’t like a cuddly seal or penguins.
Sunshine Aquarium is situated on top of Sunshine City shopping complex. It recently renovated its penguin enclosure into something it calls flying penguin experience. The penguin tank consists of glass on both side so visitor can see out through the tank at the Tokyo skyline, with the interior forming a convex cave that visitors can stand underneath, when penguins swims in the tank it looks as though the penguins are flying through the air.
I had bought the tickets beforehand and skipped the ticket booth queue.
The aquarium has indoor and outdoor parts. The indoor aquarium exhibiting various habitats and the outdoor area where penguins and seals are.
We headed indoor first, there was still time till the penguin feeding.
For an urban aquarium with limited space, the place had a good variety of different fishes and other aquatic animals Though the enclosures tended on seemingly too small, Y pointed out.
I don’t think Y like aquariums too much, a miss on my part.
Just before we came the aquarium had an accident where the air bump to the largest tank was turned off and the tank lost most of its fishes. The tank thus was ironically spacious.
All else not being too bright, there’s still the penguins. The penguins here are cape penguins, much smaller and more resistance to heat than the more popular adele or emperor penguins, making them more suited for urban Tokyo.
Adorable adorable little penguins, so clever and so silly. Before proper feeding time the staff came out with small bucket of fish. The fishes were likely specially prepared, either with medicine or special supplements, since the staff went out of the way to ensure each penguin was fed one fish.
At feeding time one staff tossed fishes at the waiting penguins while she introduced the penguins, another staff at the front held up placards showing photos of what the first staff talked about, such as the photo of the coastal environment where the penguin came from. The little birds scampered and flapped each other to get at the fish. Those that had their fill wriggled down little holes back to their nest.
At the end of it the staff held up a penguin and brought it closer to the fence. Visitors weren’t allowed to touch the penguins, this was as close as people were allowed to the cute litte thing.
After the feeding we moved to the penguin swimming tank. The tank was quite large which allowed the penguins to pick up speed in the water. The curved glass tank design works very well, while it’s not quite flying penguins, it’s amazing to see the penguins swim past the shoulder or even over head.
Then we finished looking at the indoor areas, then searched for penguin goods in the souvenir shop. There was a disappointing lack of giant penguin plushies.
Lunch was where I messed up again. The original plan was to go to sushi train but my mind had gotten blanked out. The aquarium had not been as interesting as hoped, I was not sure whether going out of the way to the sushi train that likely had a queue was a good idea.
So I said to walk to the station and grab whatever we find okay along the way.
A restaurant was right across the main intersection leading to the station front district. It’s a oyakodon place, similar in concept to Yoshinoya. I looked the menu then looked at Y who didn’t have an opinion either way, so we ended up eating there.
The ticket machine really did not like 100Y coins. In the end I fed it a 1000Y note for it to grant me food.
While we ate I thought about where to go in the afternoon. There were a number of options. The original plan were Rikugien or Koishikawa-Korakuen, the two autumn leaves garden in Tokyo. Though Y was not that eager, having seen the autumn leaves in Hakone yesterday.
I went through the alternatives. Ginza, Meiji Jingu/Omotesando/Takeshita. Not too big on those shopping destinations. Maybe Ameyoko.
Then it occured to me. How about ginkgo leaves, not the same as red autumn leaves and they should be almost at their peak at Tokyo Uni which is also on the way back Shinbashi.
Y agreed. But before we got to the station we were sidetracked when passing a Matsumoto Kiyoshi pharmacy store. They had several items on sale which Y was interested and we spent some time there looking. Apparently to be eligible for tax free required minimum 5000Y before tax, good to know.
We took the Marunouchi line to Hongo-sanchome. From there it’s about 300m walk to Tokyo Uni. At the Hongo-Sanchome intersection there was a Doutor and I went into a long story about how my fondness for the cafe developed.
I had actually been to Tokyo Uni before, on my first trip to Tokyo. Only back then I did not even realize this was Tokyo Uni, I was merely looking for a way to get to my hotel. That first trip was a harsh lesson.
The main thoroughfare of Tokyo Uni from the main gate to the auditorium is lined with giant ginkgo trees against a backdrop of brick gothic brick buildings. Shimmering leaves crowned the tall trees standing tall over gilded carpet, golden flakes snowed in the air. Poetic, painted.
People stood beneath the trees taking photos. Some sat before canvas stands capturing the moment with their brushes. Others slowly walked in marvel.
When the ginkgo trees at Tokyo Uni were planted in the early 1900s, ginkgo were not typically used as street landscape trees. In a way the ginkgo avenue here became a prototype and gave birth to the ginkgo tree lined streets that became the symbol of Tokyo.
We took a break at Doutor before getting back on the train to Shiodome back to Super Hotel. There was no direct train between Ikebukuro and Shinbashi/Shiodome, by coming to Tokyo Uni the transfer was done away.
I think it was maybe 4.30 by the time we got back to the hotel. A little break before the night’s schedule starting with dinner at 5.30.
Dinner was at Gyu-katsu Motomura near Shinbashi station. A fried steak grill place.
The steak is slightly fried first with batter with the inside still raw, then the customer can grill the steak to the desired degree at the table.
Because of various photos I had actually thought the steaks were meant to be eaten as is, till Y explained to me what the steak actually is. Apparently a similar place opened near Y’s home recently. There’s something about food which I’m just no good at researching.
We got there at about 5.40 and just managed to not get in by a matter of seconds. The group just steps ahead of us took the last table. We waited maybe 15 minutes for a table to be made available.
The place was a little dive hidden in a basement off the main street, about seats for 20 people only.
They were well prepared for foreigners and had menus in english, chinese and korean. We were given a menu and asked to decide while we waited and have to order and pay before sitting down. Not that there was much to decide, there was only standard set, standard set with extra side and set with extra meat.
Okay Y did get an extra beer.
The server sat us down and our order was brought over with extreme efficiency. There’s rice, miso soup, two kind of sauce, plate of beef cutlets with shredded cabbage salad and mash potato, and a hot plate over open flame iron plate grill.
The beef was very nice, the deep fried outside giving a slightly crunchy texture and the inside soft and succulent. I tried grilling several pieces at once to different degree to see how to best cook them but it hardly mattered, the meat was always very soft unless it’s obviously charred and overcooked.
The evening was Caretta followed by Tokyo Midtown.
The illumination theme at Caretta this year was Beauty and the Beast. The main component was similar to the Winter Forest in 2011, though with a lot more light and a much worse song and choreography.
We just missed the performance so headed upstairs to the observation deck first. From level 46 the observation deck looked down at tsukiji and Tokyo bay.
After the Caretta illumination performance, then headed to Roppongi from Shiodome.
I’m not sure whether it’s just this year, but the illuminations did not seem as good as before. Whether Caretta or the Midtown one.
I was expecting the kind of crushing crowd I met in 2011 but Midtown only had a small crowd. The display this year was also quite disappointing, forgoing the birth of planet theme for a shorter, much simpler swirling galaxy.
We ended up returning to the hotel early and had a late night snack party together in the breakfast area, with the black egg we bought yesterday and the unpasteurized sake the day before.
This morning was to see one of the toughest challenges. Getting from Shinbashi to Hakone-Yumoto in just an hour.
To backtrack a little.
A day trip to Hakone was quite pressed for time, more so that it was imperative that we arrive at Moto-Hakone by the lakeside before at least 10 am if we wished to have a chance at seeing Mount Fuji.
Mount Fuji is also called the shy mountain because its peak is often shrouded by clouds. The best time to have a clear view of it is during the early morning or evening when the temperature is cool, during the day clouds often form and like a hat obscure it from view. Studying the live cameras over several days it appears clouds most often start to form after 10am.
There’s also a bottleneck crossing Lake Ashinoko from Motohakone on the south side to Togendai in the north, with one boat every 40-50 minutes, catching just one boat earlier can make a huge difference in the schedule down the road. This means getting to Hakone as early as possible. Even half an hour can make a lot of difference.
The earliest train from Shinjuku is an Odakyu express departing at 7am and takes an hour and 40 minutes, arriving at Hakone-Yumoto at 8:40.
If one then first take the mountain railway to Kowakudani (since it may be dark by the time we descent, taking the railway in the morning ensures we get to enjoy the sights), then transfer onward to the bus, one should reach Moto-Hakone at 9:45.
7am is quite early especially for a station as large as Shinjuku. Assuming one’s hotel is at Shinjuku, accounting for walking time and navigating the station, this means leaving the hotel at latest around 6:30~6:40. Earlier if one did not stay at Shinjuku.
The next express out of Shinjuku is 7:27 and arrives at Hakone-Yumoto at 9:01, which gets to Moto-Hakone at 10.
This was a source of headache when choosing where to stay. 7am train is really early and there’s a risk of oversleeping it. If it’s the next train then arrival in Hakone will be a bit late.
Until I found an alternative. Before that though it’s worth looking into why departing from Odakyu is considered the default.
Transport around Hakone is dominated by the Odakyu group. Odakyu is one of the major private railways in the Kanto region, its main line connects Shinjuku to Kamakura and Odawara, Hakone. In addition, the group also owns the Hakone Mountain Railway, Hakone Cable Car, Hakone Ropeway, Hakone Sightseeing Cruise and most of the local bus in Hakone region.
The Hakone Pass issued by Odakyu allowed tourists unlimited access to all transports in the Hakone region for just 4000Y, and for another 1140Y also included a single regular return ticket from Shinjuku.
A small trap with the pass is that the return ticket is only valid for non-express trains which required transfers and takes about 2 hours. To take the express trains one has to purchase another 890Y to get an express ticket, 890×2 (1780) for return. All up this means 2920 extra or about 1460 each way.
Going to Hakone effective means having to get a Hakone pass, the natural outcome is to also get the return from Shinjuku as one single simple solution. Since most people chooses this way, various guides and blogs also discusses only this way when concerning how to get to Hakone.
But while Odakyu is the only choice within the Hakone region, it is not the only choice getting from and to Hakone from Tokyo. There is also JR East whose local train (there are no expresses) takes about 70~80 minutes between Tokyo and Odawara, and the shinkansen which can cover that distance in just 35 minutes. From Odawara one can use the basic Hakone pass up to Hakone-Yumoto (another 20 minutes) and onward.
The JR East train costs 1490 one way, which is actually comparable to Odakyu.
The shinkansen on other hand while being extremely fast, costs 3220 each way.
The JR East train can be an alternative but did not solve my problem of getting to Hakone early enough.
The shinkansen was too expensive, until I found that JR Central sold a special outing ticket called Shinkansen Odekake-Kippu, where one can purchase returns to Odawara for 2 people travelling together for just 4630 per person, or effectively 2315 each way. It’s still >800Y more each way compared to Odakyu but brings it into the bounds of reasonable trade-off worth considering.
Once I discovered this possibility I started charting out possible timetables. Catching the shinkansen from Shinagawa was the best choice since compared to Tokyo station it would shave ~10 minutes off again from the time one has to leave the hotel in the morning. That left any stations close to Shinagawa (there are very few hotels around Shinagawa), such as Shinbashi.
I charted out every train for each segment of the transfers. Shinbashi>Shinagawa, Shingawaga>Odawara, Odawara>Hakone-Yumoto, Hakone-Yumoto>Kowakudani, Kowakudani>Moto-Hakone. From the table a precise transfer could be worked out. Based on the station layouts it was very tight but definitely doable.
7:15 Shinbashi departure, 10 minutes transfer at Shinagawa, 5 minutes at Odawara, arrive at Hakone-Yumoto at 8:21. Then 3 minutes to walk up the platform onto the mountain railway (once this transfer is made the trip is safe), with arrival at Moto-Hakone at 9:25. The transfers are too tight to show up on transfer apps like Jorudan or Ekitan, have to be worked out manually.
Compared to Shinjuku departure on the 7am Odakyu express, we can leave at least 15 minutes later (more since Shinbashi station is small, only need to account for time from the hotel) but will end up at the lakeside actually 20 minutes earlier.
Now back to the trip.
The day began with Super Hotel’s breakfast. Breakfast here started at 6.30, I went down right on the minute. We had agreed to meet in the lobby at 7, until then it’s up to each when to have breakfast and anything else to do.
One thing I love about Super Hotel is that their breakfast is always familiar but never the same. The food is very consistent no matter which location, one knows exactly what to expect yet won’t know what one might get.
There’s a few things that are certain. Selection of coffee from the machine, organic salad with range of Super Hotel’s signature sauces, yoghurt, fruit, bread, rice and sides that go with it such as nato, pickles, miso soup.
There will be a fish dish. The fish may not be the same nor may it be cooked the same way. I don’t know whether it’s company policy but I have yet to have one without fish.
There will be an egg dish. The egg also may not be cooked the same way but there will be eggs.
Then there will be a meat dish. Plus one or two other dishes that varied.
Many branches tend to also have a “local” dish, a dish unique to that Super Hotel or Super Hotels in that region. It could be curry, miso topping…etc. The specialty of this Super Hotel was Fukagawa-Meshi, a clam rice stew.
許多分店還有一道地方特色菜，那家Super Hotel或那地區Super Hotel才有的菜色。可能是咖哩，味增醬之類。這家的是深川飯，一種貝類煮粥。
Super Hotel’s breakfast leaned on traditional Japanese breakfast, this requires comparatively more effort. Other business hotel usually provided just scrambled eggs, weiners and maybe hashbrown or potato, items that can be much easily prepared. It’s one reason why I chose Super Hotel since Y is not used to western style bread or sandwiches.
Super Hotel的早餐偏傳統日式。準備上比較費事。其他商務旅館通常是提供炒蛋，熱狗，然後薯餅或馬鈴薯，這種比較好弄的菜色。選Super Hotel的原因之一，Y比較不習慣西式的麵包或三明治。
The transfer went smoother than planned. At Shinagawa we had to wait for the Nozomi currently on the platform to clear out first before the Kodama showed up. I had already checked the best car number for transfer and we boarded car number 7.
The tightest transfer was Odawara, with just 5 minutes to go up the platform, exit the Shinkansen gate, up the main concourse then through the Odakyu gate and down to the platform and board the train. It’s my first time to Odawara, though I had checked the station layout on youtube things could look different on arrival.
We made it with about a minute to go. Had no need to run. But would not have made it if I had not purchased ticket beforehand.
On the train from Odawara to Hakone-Yumoto we met a pair of Chinese old couple who came from the States. They seemed to have bought the Hakone mountain railway+bus pass at a whim and had not yet looked at what to see and do at Hakone. So they asked us what was our plan and whether we had any suggestions.
I outlined our plan of taking the railway up to Kowakudani and transferring to the bus, doing a clockwise loop around the area. They seemed to like the idea and followed us up till Moto-Hakone.
Once we got on the mountain train at Hakone-Yumoto we no longer had to worry about transfers and the sightseeing begins.
The Hakone Mountain railway is the Japan’s oldest mountain railway and the steepest railway in Japan without a rack rail. In less than 10km it climbs from Hakone-Yumoto at 108m to Gora at 556m.
The leaves close to Hakone-Yumoto was still green, which I took to be a good sign that there were bound to be red leaves along the way up.
Along the tracks there are 3 turnbacks to navigate the steepest inclines.The turnbacks also doubled as a passing stop for trains coming the other direction, there was plenty of time to take in the view as we waited for the descending train or for the poor driver to run to the other end to drive the train in the other direction.
The train winded through narrow tunnels and bridges over steep valleys. Only in the old days could a railway be built through terrain as difficult as this only for access to tourist destination.
Two stops from Gora we got off at Kowakudani. This was the station where the railway and the bus route headed for Moto-Hakone diverged.
Originally the bus was not due for another 12 minutes and Y had begun to wander off when a H route bus turned around the corner. Is the bus early or the previous one late? No matter, I hurriedly called Y back.
Since the bus came early we now had time to go to Onshihakone park instead of just Moto-Hakone. Onshihakone was about 500m further down the Lake Ashinoko south bank and used to be the Emperial family’s vacation palace. It’s a small peninsula jutting out into the lake and from its higher elevation offered a fantastic view of Mount Fuji and Lake Ashinoko.
The poor weather over the last few days had cleared up, in the distance Mount Fuji loomed over the pristine lake. I had been very worried about whether we would be able to see Mount Fuji today and was very relieved.
Thanks the the early bus we were by the lakeside at 9:15.
The main structure in the palace grounds is a western style hall. There used to be an Japanese style Hall adjoining the western Hall but after destruction in multiple earthquakes had been reduced to a small wooden building.
From the 2nd floor balcony of the Hall one had a clear view of the lake and the far shores. A pirate cruise ship leaving Moto-Hakone glided into view before turning north toward Togendai.
There was another small viewing platform in the park where high magnification binoculars were installed. Through it we could see the smallest valley on Mount Fuji, the snowy slopes glistening in the sun.
Between Onshihakone and Moto-Hakone is a length of forest path which used to be the old Tokaido postal road. The ancient road is lined with 400 years old giant cedar trees. Hakone had long been a vital town due to its status as a major checkpoint controlling travellers heading in and out of Kanto.
The old checkpoint that had been reconstructed is at Hakonemachi, not far in fact from Onshihakone, unfortunately it was one of the many placed that had to be left out due to the tight schedule.
Cedar Avenue was actually less exciting than it sounded, being a stone throw away next to the main road with cars constantly whizzing by definitely took away its atmosphere.
We got back to Moto-Hakone and continued along the waterfront to Hakone shrine. The Hakone shrine used to be on the summit of Komagatake, related to mountain worship. It was later moved down to the foot of the mountain. The shrine is best know by its torii the stood in the lake at the bottom of the stairs.
The tourists were out in force now, plenty of traffic going to and from the shrine.
I had taken some measures to avoid the two main bottlenecks in Hakone. The cruise ship and the ropeway. The cruise ship departed to a fixed timetable and if there were more people than allowed it was a 40min wait for the next one. The ropeway similarly had limited capacity. It’s said that sometimes traffic gets so backed up it could take an hour just to get on the ropeway.
Coming on a weekday avoided the most heavy traffic, and doing the Hakone circle in a clockwise direction (official recommendation is anti-clockwise) means we go against traffic and can manage time more effectively in the afternoon since we would already be past the bottlenecks. I’m actually not sure why the recommendation is anti-clockwise since Mount Fuji is best viewed in the morning.
We had to hurry for a bit on the way back to catch the 10:50 cruise ship. At first I was a little worried as there were already quite a few packed on the pier. I needed not worried, the ship was maybe 1 /2 full, based on the licensing plaque the boat had a capacity of over 500 people, not sure if they would actually pack that many people onto it in peak season, the boat already a little crowded today.
The boat had 2 levels plus an open top deck and also partitioned into front and back. The front was the first class section which required an extra 500Y one way. From the photos it didn’t look like it was much of an improvement other than the front view. In peak season it may be a way to get away from the crowd in the back.
The journey from Moto-Hakone on the south bank to Togendai on the north takes about 30 minutes. From the boat one could see all the sights around the lake, like Hakone shrine, the ropeway climbing up Komagatake and various hotels and resorts dotted along the banks.
By now the clouds had gathered on Mount Fuji and its peak had disappeared. Fortunate that we had come early. The autumn leaves had passed for the forests on either side of the lake, only a smattering of lingering red left amongst the brown barren woods.
On the open lake the wind blasted across the decks. I gripped onto the camera tightly for fear of it being blown overboard. Y had already retreated below to safety and warmth. Despite my struggles I too had to go downstairs.
Togendai is the western terminus of the Hakone ropeway. The ropeway goes from Togendai up to Owakudani, active geothermal area at the top of the crater.
The ropeway had one of the largest gondolas I’ve seen, able to seat 18 passengers at maximum. Since it’s not a particularly busy day the staff chose to fill each with only 10-11 people.
The ropeway had a steep and exciting climb, rising quickly up into the air and gave great views of the lake. The ropeway also offered a majestic view of Mount Fuji on good days, today the mountain was shrouded and all we could see is the wide rolling foothills beneath the sea of clouds, which is also very impressive in its own ways.
We reached Owakudani and was immediately greeted by the cold and sulfuric air.
Owakudani was still under level 2 alert, meaning the area was experiencing more volcanic activity than usual and the geopark trails around Owakudani was off limits to tourists. A year ago the ropeway was even closed due to too much noxious gas spewing out the crater.
Since it was nearing 12 we decided to have lunch. Food options in Hakone is fairly limited. Outside of cafe and eateries there were only 2 good places to eat around Gora and those usually had lines outside, so anywhere was as good as any. Having lunch here allowed the most flexibility overall, there was no need to backtrack and no pressure to eat quickly to get to the next spot.
The eatery attached to Owakudani ropeway station has a very simple menu, probably due to its hard to access location. Curry rice or chips and fried chickens. The price is on the expensive side like most places in Hakone. It’s still before proper lunchtime, we were able to pick a window seat overlooking the crater energetically spewing steam, a view worth the extra price (probably).
The crater is also where ryokan and hotels in the area make their onsen water.
Many of onsens in the Gora and Senseki area actually gets their onsen water via manufacturing. By directing water over/into the crater’s steam vents minerals are dissolve in the water, the infused water is then piped down to the ryokans. Whether these qualify as natural onsen is up for each. Just something nice to know.
Personally this makes it possible to control the mineral concentration which leave me a little wary.
Beitou onsen in Taiwan also uses the same method to produce onsen water.
When we left the restaurant there was at least 6-7 groups waiting, having wrote their name on a list and have to wait for the staff to call them.
A specialty unique to Owakudani is the black eggs. They’re regular hard boiled onsen eggs but the egg shell reacts to the volcanic water and turns into a charcoal black. It’s said that eating one of the black egg will add seven years to your life.
They’re sold in bags and 5 and I am very glad Y is around since there’s no way I am going to eat 5 eggs by myself (we ended up eating it over 2 days).
When the trails were open one could walk up to the original black egg shop and one can watch how they dip the eggs go into the water white and come out black. For now though just have to buy them at the store next to Owakudani station.
I secretly hoped the clouds on Mount Fuji might move off during lunch time, alas no such luck.
Time to continue onward on the ropeway toward Sounzan. The station was packed with people. The line heading to Togendai/Lake Ashinoko had completely filled that side of the station, across the walkway and was spilling into the main station foyer.
Goodness, thankfully we’re going the other way.
The ropeway to Souzan flew directly over the crater. For safety reasons they gave out medicinal towels to cover one’s mouth and nose incase people felt overwhelmed by the smell.
At Souzan there were even more people waiting to get on the ropeway toward Owakudani. I think people start to move toward Ashinoko after lunch to leave enough time to visit Hakone shrine.
Between Souzan and Gora is one of the core areas of Hakone. There are many hotels and ryoukans, and the bus routes connects out from here to nearby parks and museums.
Despite just 1.2km as the crow flies between the two locations, there is an elevation difference of over 200m, requiring cable towed cars to climb the steep slope. Yet another reason to travel clockwise. It is possible to walk downhill in the direction of Gora, while going uphill from Gora is going to work up a sweat even in the cold winter.
The cable car is single tracked with a passing track in the middle. The towing cables runs down the middle of the track and I was very intrigued by how at the passing tracks the cables are directed down the respective sides without getting entangled.
On either side of the track lined autumn leaves in full bloom of red and orange.
The main attraction for the afternoon was Hakone Museum of Art.
Hakone Museum of Art ironically was not most known by its collection but by its impeccably maintained moss garden. In autumn the red leaves in the moss garden is one of the most poster perfect scene of Hakone.
The entrance was just across the road from Koen-Kami station. I had already bought the tickets electronically so we headed straight in.
The museum grounds consists of roughly 4 parts in a loop. Going anti-clockwise, the museum building overlooks the entire garden, followed by the rock garden, the tea house, and the moss garden.
The moss garden was the main reason for scheduling the trip at this date and I had watched the online photos intently for the past few weeks, checking the progress of the autumn leaves. For a while it looked as though we might miss the autumn leaves, even when they proved much more resilient I worried they might be half barren.
My eyes widened at the sight of the fiery tree tops. In rolling green seas winded stone paths like shallow reefs. Fallen maple leaves laid quietly on the soft carpet in tranquil sleep. The burning canopy contrasted with the green moss below formed a beautiful dreamlike landscape.
There was a constant stream of other admirers lost in the beautiful world like us. Just enough to not feel alone, not too many to be intruded.
Since this place is ostensibly an art museum, one should definitely still check out its collections regardless of how mesmerized one is by its garden.
There are 4 exhibition spaces, each about the size of a small auditorium room. The collection is quite varied, being the personal collection of the museum founder Okada Kimochi. Okada was the founder of a new Japanese religion in the early 20th century.
On display were many ukiyo-e, traditional paintings. Part of the ukiyoe featured scenes of the tokaido which Hakone as mentioned before was an important checkpoint on it.
Upstairs were the ceramic exhibitions displaying buddhist statues and bowls, plates, jars, including flame jars from the Jomon period.
There was still light, though the sun had fallen behind the peak and we were in the shadows. Our next stop was the nearby Gora park, free entry with the Hakone pass. I got a little confused with the map, despite there being an entrance on the topside right next to the art museum we ended up going down to the bottom main entrance.
The park was a western style garden best known by the giant fountain at its centre.
It was hard to get a good judge of the gardens in the fading light. Other than the gardens, there was a restaurant/cafe overlooking the fountain and several craft houses where one could participate in glass blowing, dried flower arrangement, glass etching.
The craft activities takes from 30 min to an hour and a few thousand yen, though some have to be delivered to the hotel a few days later due to the need to either put it through the kiln or additional processing.
The garden is better visited in spring and summer when flowers are in bloom.
Time starts to slip in the twilight. It was still about 3:30pm but was starting to feel like 5 or 6pm. We wandered down to Gora station.
There was a tofu shop behind the station that was somewhat well known. I mulled over whether it’s worth the trouble going there. Y wasn’t that interested either so we only looked about the station front then lined up to head down to Hakone-Yumoto.
I had known that the trip down would be problematic. Normally the bus trip would be 20min faster than the mountain train but during the autumn leaves season the road gets backed up all the way from Odawara to Kowakudani. I however did not expect the train to be also so packed that we were not able to get on the first train and had to wait another 15min for the next one.
Travelling in Hakone during peak season requires a lot of patience and lead times in the schedule, potentially queues everywhere.
The street of Hakone-Yumoto was a little disappointing. The main issue was that the busy road was filled with cars and the sidewalks was too narrow for the number of people and became difficult to walk or to see the shops ahead. The street was not very long, maybe just a hundred metres, more of a shopping street than an onsen street, much less souvenir shops than would have thought. Part of it may be that Hakone isn’t known for any local specialties so the shops are more croquette shops, sweet shops, cake shops…etc.
We tried to look for a place to eat but did not find anyplace too appetizing. There are eateries in the backstreets, though I was not keen on possibly wasting effort looking. I think both of us were getting a little tired.
The original dinner plan was Curry Cocoro, that only opened at 5:30pm, still some time to go. The alternative was to head back and see what we can get at Odawara or even back in Tokyo at Shinagawa.
We ended up eating at Odawara station while waiting for the next shinkansen train.
Inside the shopping arcade at Odawara station there’s a small foodcourt specializing in noodles. There’s ramen, udon, sobas. We ended up getting yakisoba.
The portions was quite large, the taste a touch too salty though that was probably expected in Japan, otherwise quite happy with. (I regret not researching more, the same tofu tonkatsu shop in Gora has a branch here, so should have gone to that instead)
We whizzed back to Shinagawa in less than 30min. Along the way we decided since it was still early, we’d go to Shibuya to see the Blue Cave illumination there.
And.. right into Yamanote line during the evening peak hour. Should have seen that coming and planned accordingly.
The carriage was packed tighter than sardine. People gripped the top of the doorframe to give themselves leverage to push onto the train. Just when one thought the train could possibly fit no more, somehow another five people would skillfully push themselves in.
At the intermediate stations I have no idea how people squeezed themselves off the trains. The train had to pause for extended periods while the station attendants asked for people to stop trying to get on and wait for the next train.
Thankfully we were getting off at Shibuya which was not too many stops away and plenty of people would be getting off that we only needed to go with the flow.
It was an experience, though one me and Y both agreed best to never have again.
The Blue Cave was at Yoyogi park, where the trees along the main walk were strung up with blue christmas lights, and the pavement was covered with reflective boards to create a scene of mirrored lights.
The streets between the station to the park was also decorated with blue lights, creating a guideway through the busy shopping district.
The Blue Cave area was filled with people basking in the luminescence. A little hard for the reflection to be seen in its full elegance.
At the end of the Blue Cave was a food event called Oedo Japanese Feast, some 30 stores selling all kind of nightmarket foods like grills oysters, crabs, steaks, skewers..etc. Despite being sponsored by the Japanese Sake association there was no stalls selling sake in sight.
Time to head back to Shinbashi. Shibuya is connected to Shinbashi directly via the Ginza line, it also won’t be as crowded as the Yamanote line. The Ginza line station at Shibuya was under re-construction and we were led into climbing up 3 storey tall flight of stairs to reach the platforms. Tokyo stations is known to be terrible with accessibility but this was the first time I’ve thought things to be ridiculous. The least they could have done was show a map pointing to the elevator or escalators.
Still not very late, I suggested we go to Don Quijote nearby. I had alway heard a lot about the discount variety store but never did go to one, in part because of my habit of going to rural areas and also because I’m not big on shopping and saw no need to go to one specifically.
The store, turned out to be nothing like what I had seen before.
It sold everything, from the expected sweets and cookies to some downright bizarre items like second hand Burberry bags.
Cosmetics, small electronics to appliances like rice cookers and the ever in demand hairdryers, strange toys, stationary, cameras.
While Y went to do some pricing research on alcohols, I lost myself in a strange world of exotic cookies, 10 different flavors of kit kat (sake kit kat??) and the unseen flavors of white pepsi and cherry coke.
Couldn’t tell whether things here are good bargains or not like it’s said on the net, it’s very fun to just see what craziness gets concocted.
I ended up getting two cans of strange flavoured cokes (they were terrible), a bottle of juice cocktail (this one is okay) and a pack of mochi sweets to bring to work (surprisingly good).
All in all a very filled and exciting day. Could have spent a little longer at Gora, maybe even allocated some time to do some handicrafts. Got to saw Mount Fuji and the autumn leaves, very happy with that.