It is entirely possible that embarking on the ‘Hakone Round Course’ may well have been one of the best decisions that I have made in my life thus far. This whole day trip was whimsical, beautiful, surprising and enthralling and I whole heartedly recommend it as a must-do for anyone visiting Japan.
But I can manage a slightly clearer picture than just that.. This ‘course’ is a circular trail which runs up to the base of Mt Fuji from Tokyo and back again. You purchase one single ticket which allows you to complete the whole loop via a selection of wonderful modes of transport – including, but not limited to: a train, a cable car, a gondola/rope way and a pirate ship! And along the way you are presented with absolutely STUNNING views of the majestic Mt Fuji and shimmering Lake Ashi as well as active volcanic sulphur mines, misty outdoor art museums, onsens (natural hot springs) and small mountain villages. All-in-all to complete the trip without stopping would take maybe 4 hours – but of course that would mean missing out on some darn beautiful scenic spots. And to do the reverse and attempt to see all that the course has to offer.. Well that would be outright impossible. There is so much to see and do along this trail, you definitely have to be selective. And personally, I thoroughly enjoy seeing things properly. Taking it slow. Finding peace in travel. So, for our trip we opted to make the most of just a small handful of the sights along the way – an outdoor art museum, an active volcanic lookout and the shore of Lake Ashi.
Here’s how our day went:
We woke early (in order to make the most of the day’s light), scoffed down some eggs and headed for the local train station. A Shinkansen delivered us to the Hakone ticket office in Odawara in less than an hour and before we knew it we were on our way out into the mountain wilderness.
First a little vintage train took us out of the city – pausing at a couple of cloudy valley lookouts along the way – and into the little village where we would find the Hakone-Machi Open Air Museum. We made a quick lunch stop here, for delicious fresh sushi, before entering the park – which was utterly, utterly magical.
Walking out through the entrance tunnel and into the park we were immediately within a cloud. And in every direction, stretching out across the grounds of the hilly mountain park were the misty figures of monuments and installations hiding within the fog.. it was an other-worldly kind of beautiful. A serene, magical, enchanted kind of beautiful. You could just tell that the park was made to take the best advantage of its altitude and the low hanging clouds that must so often fall there.
We meandered through thick scrub, alongside ponds full of giant Koi Carp, through flowering mazes, up into a stained glass tower and across gentle hills full of giants, floating spheres and other, stranger, less definable figures.
We also stumbled upon a Picasso museum in the midst of the mist, and viewed his work in a simple exhibition room which show cased an impressive collection of not only his paintings (notably his second and his last pieces) but also his pottery, glass work and sculptures. It was all just so peaceful and perfect. But as we were still only at the start of a long loop we soon had to move on.
So we slowly exited the park and re-boarded our little train. At the end of the line we transferred to cable car which gradually ascended into the surrounding mist until the end of the line was no longer visible in either direction.
And after a few minutes, seemingly out of no where, a gondola station appeared before us. And this is about where the magic stepped up 100 notches..
We now boarded the gondola and began our ascent further up into the mountains. Climbing right up into the clouds until there was nothing but blank grey all around us.
And we kept climbing. Through the cloud. And we came out on the other side – to beautiful blue skied views of Mount Fuji! Which, considering the mist that we had been wandering almost blindly through all day was completely unexpected – which made it all the more special.
And we continued climbing further yet, up over an active volcanic sulphur mine until we reached our destination atop Mount Hakone. Here we jumped out of our sky-carriage and took some time to walk around the mountain top – looking out at the billowing smoke of the active volcano we were atop in one direction and to the gentle slopes of Mount Fuji in the other. It was absolutely stunning – the heat and force and stink of the sulphur mines on one hand forming a perfect juxtaposition to the gentle, silent, cold peak of Fuji on the other.
And when it was time to get back into the gondola we descended down the opposite side of Mt Hakone from which we had come, through autumn colours, towards the shimmer of Lake Ashi in the near distance.
And as if our day hadn’t already been mystical and beautiful enough already, awaiting us on the other side of Mount Hakone.. were two elaborately painted pirate ships! – of which, one would carry us across Lake Ashi, presenting us with scenes of deep forest touching down on crystal waters all the way.. Seriously. This day was a dream. A crazy, beautiful child-like dream. With every detail done perfectly.
And it was at our final stop – on the shore of Lake Ashi that we watched the sun go down. We watched it break open into a brilliant sunset that reflected off the diamond waters with dramatic flare. We watched a burning orange sky turn to blood red. We watched the darkness grow around Mount Fuji. And then we boarded a bus back to the city in a state of docile peace.