Mt. Fuji is the sacred symbol of Japan. It can only be climbed for a few short weeks in July each year, but tourists flock to one of the many hillside towns year-round for a glimpse of the elusive snow-topped mountain through the clouds.
We activated our Japan Rail (JR) passes to take the Shinkansen bullet train to Odawara. The JR pass gives you a big saving on cross-country train travel, but can only be bought outside Japan, so it’s something you need to arrange in the UK. Passes are available for 7, 10 or 14 days travel. We went for the 7 day pass at £154. A single bullet train ride can cost upwards of this (remember, Japan is expensive!) so you can easily recoup your costs if you want to visit a few cities in one trip.
The bullet trains were as efficient and clean as you’d expect. Everyone followed the lines on the platform to queue in an orderly way and the train left exactly on time.
The seats cleverly spin around, so if you’re travelling as a large group you can all sit together. We were travelling at a maximum speed of 320 km/h – I barely had time to finish my bento box before we arrived at our destination. National Rail, take note.
At Odawara, we transferred to a local bus to make the journey to Hakone. We were at the front of the queue and were waiting for the driver to arrive – we didn’t realise that you can just get on the bus in Japan, collect a ticket which gives you the number of the stop you got on at, and pay at the end. Our confusion held up the queue for a while until someone explained in the world’s most common language – sign – that we could get on the bus. Helpfully, a screen at the front of the bus updates after each stop to tell you how much your journey will be. Once we’d worked this out, we were like pros.
The small bus climbed its way up the mountain, past Hakone town and on to our hotel, Mount View Hakone. We caught our first glimpse of Mt. Fuji through the clouds as the bus snaked past waterfalls and traditional ryokans clinging to the mountainside.
Hakone is pure relaxation – there is nothing to do except relax and sit in an onsen (hot spring), which suited us just fine after the hectic-ness of Tokyo.
The hotel was a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn). The room had tatami flooring and tables and chairs at floor level.
Green tea and Japanese biscuits had been set out for our arrival, along with yukata (a casual, cotton kimono) and slippers to wear.
You have to remove your shoes and wear slippers on the tatami floor – there are different slippers to change into for the bathroom.
All the hotel showers were located in the communal onsens, which was quite an experience for the unitiated British (us).
Luckily, the hotel provided some very helpful etiquette and instructions for how to bathe in an onsen.
The next morning, we were treated to a fabulously presented traditional Japanese breakfast: green tea, crab bisque, sweet peas, Japanese omelette, smoked sausage, smoked salmon, cold noodles, rice, seaweed, potato salad, potato and carrots, sautéed pak choi, yoghurt, and fresh fruit. Quite a random feast!
Although it was a bit of a grey day, we took the bus to Lake Ashi and had a boat tour of the lakeside villages and Mt. Fuji.
Hakone Shrine’s Torii Gate stands in the lake and is a beautiful sight.
We treated ourselves to another French patisserie before we had to leave the peacefulness behind and make out way back to the Shinkansen for our next train to Kyoto.