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 hakone

ni-ju-ni gatsu 22 (dec)
My contract ended on a Friday and I had to leave my apartment that day, but my flight didn't leave Japan until the following Monday evening. The school kindly arranged for my bigger bags to be sent and stored at the airport. A liason person inspected my apartment and advised me to "have a good fright." So I had the time and mobility to take a closer look at Mt. Fuji or, as the locals call it, Fuji-san, at the hot springs town of Hakone.

The town sprawled along the hillsides with a strange assortment of modes of transportation that shuttled visitors to points of interest. From my little onsen ryokan (Japanese style inn with hot springs), I started with a bus, then rode a cable car which climbed the hill to the ropeway terminal. A gondola spanned a deep valley and dropped its passengers at Owakudani, where a dramatic view of Fuji-san first appeared, through thin drifting clouds. Over twice the size of any neighboring peak, the volcanic mountain loomed over the landscape majestically with its snowy head. A nature trail curled around smoking, bubbling pits of sulfur. A worker submerged baskets of eggs into a boiling pond, to be sold in a bag of five. Disappointed to be told that I couldn't buy just one, I was surprised to feel a tap on my shoulder. A Japanese man that had just purchased five offered me one, proudly introducing me to the family's youngest member who attended an American school in Yokohama.

From there, the ropeway dropped to Lake Ashi. I crossed the lake on a kitschy looking pirate ship to a shore of shops and restaurants. The Cedar Avenue trail, among huge, 350 year old trees that line the waters edge, united two towns along the lake. Fuji-san again came into view over the lake, strong and clear in the afternoon sun. A red torii, or gate, seemed to rise from the lake at Hakone-jinja shrine, surrounded by forest. After a relaxing walk through the shrine grounds, I waited by the lakeshore for the setting sun to splash its colors on the peak. Fuji-san was not to be seen again for the rest of the weekend - clouds moved in that night.

Museums abound at Hakone; I sampled just a few. I strolled around the Open Air museum, an outdoor sculpture park including Japanese and international works, and then took a break in a natural hot springs footbath for the weary walker. The Crafthouse in Gora park offered wannabe craft artists a chance to throw a pot or blow glass. An interesting museum commemorated the historic Checkpoint from Edo times, a security stop on the ancient highway. I ended each day at Hakone with a soak in the small, private, outdoor hot bath at the ryokan, steaming in the chilly night air.

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