My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “December, 2020”

Mount Kintoki

The freedom afforded by having a Hakone Travel Pass meant it was easy to just hop on a local bus at Miyanoshita and head west within the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park to Sengokuhara. Early in the morning I was shocked to see some wild boar run across the road in front of the bus as we headed through the countryside. I had to walk along the road from the bus stop but it was a quiet Sunday morning and there was barely anybody else about. Reaching a trail head, I slipped on my hiking shoes and set about tackling one of the local mountains. I’m an avid hiker at home in New Zealand and had so far had some mixed success hiking in Japan, but it is a country full of stunning countryside so I set off up my third mountain since arriving and found a few other people lower down on the trail with me.

One of the slightly confusing things about mountains in Japan is that some of them have more than one name depending on where you look. My summit for the day was Mount Kintoki 1212m high (3976ft) but some places refer to it as Mount Ashigara. Either way, it turned out to be a popular hike and I regularly bumped into other people. The main signs on the trail were bilingual, although there were plenty of kanji-only signs that I have no idea what they were saying, but it was a very easy trail to follow with no risk of getting lost. In the lower forest the trail passes the Kintoki shrine, a rather sweet little shrine hidden among the trees. Once past there, the climb started almost immediately, snaking through the tall forest in relative quiet.

About 90m (295ft) of altitude gain led me to a road crossing, beyond which it was straight back into the forest. There was nothing to see but trees and undergrowth as another 40m (131ft) of altitude took me up to a flatter section. At one point a giant boulder appeared in the forest that appeared to be propped up by large sticks. I’m not sure if it was a joke or if people genuinely were worried that the boulder would roll. Either that, or it was a popular spot to pick up or dump walking sticks. Probably only the locals know the reason for that. I had more and more people pass me heading up or down, the higher up I got. Another 200m (656ft) of slogging through the forest on what was now yet another hot day eventually led me out of the trees and to a clearing where suddenly I had some views. Below me was a gorgeous green valley surrounded by gorgeous green mountains, and slowly sliding over their summit was a thick bank of cloud that kept Mt Fuji out of view. A little further was a junction at 1040m (3412ft) altitude leading either up to the summit or back down via another route. I turned left, excited to see the sign stated the summit was only 20minutes away.

As the track continued its climb, the view became more and more beautiful, the slopes of the mountain becoming more visible and the wispy cloud off to my side. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the summit, just 1.5hrs after setting off, the cloud had moved in and shrouded the summit plateau. I was surprised to find a couple of buildings at the summit, including a little tea house that sold snacks and tea. With a few different routes up to the summit, there was actually a lot of people up there, all looking like locals. I’d been out-hiked by several people that looked like they were beyond retirement age and in fact I regularly saw older Japanese people out hiking where I was and they were all fitter than me. I sincerely hope I’m still fit enough well past retirement to continue my hobbies in the same manner.


I enjoyed my dried squid (a 7Eleven special that was the perfect hiking snack in Japan) and mulled around for a bit hoping the cloud would lift and Mt Fuji would appear. Alas it just swirled in thicker, and despite discovering some stray cats to entertain me, it was time to head back down. It was an easy descent back to the junction, but this time I took the other track which was a rather more direct descent than the winding ascent through the forest had been. Another clearing showed how much the clouds were just swirling round the neighouring mountain tops and now none of the summits could be seen. Even behind me was shrouded. As I continued down, I could see another track heading off across another ridgeline. Had I had more time I would have loved to do a longer hike but I had quite some distance to travel that day so there just wasn’t the time to explore other trails.

It took just over an hour to descend and I found myself back in civilisation at the back of Sengokuhara. Cutting down to the main street I decided to follow the road that led towards Lake Ashi as far as the Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands. I love botanical gardens, and I had read that this was worth a walk around. I was sweating like crazy on arrival and despite the cloud, the sun exposure was tiring, but it was a really sweet garden to walk around. A series of paths led me round lily-pad covered ponds where dragonflies flitted about and reflections shimmered on the gently moving water. I spotted all sorts of insects and there were also some huge fish in some of the ponds.


At the back of the wetlands was the mountain I’d driven over on the bus the day before and it was possible to walk through the wildflower meadow that was growing on the other side of the fence. Again I would have loved to have just wandered off into this large meadow but I didn’t want to spend much more of the day here when I had a lot of connections to make. As I circled back towards the visitor centre, I spotted some terrapins sunning themselves on some stones and then a large grey heron stalked about nearby in search of food.


Getting into the national park had been quite the transport hop and now I had the same to do in reverse. I walked up the road to the main street of Sengokuhara to catch the bus back to Miyanoshita. Picking up my backpack at the hostel I walked to the train station to get the Hakone rail back through the switchback to Hakone-Yumoto. An easy platform hop brought me to the main line to Odawara where I was to catch my first shinkansen to head south. I had a bit of time to kill at Odawara and looking at the map, the city’s castle looked like an achievable excursion. Rather than look for a luggage locker, I just carried my luggage with me, but it was so hot and the straps rubbed on my shoulders as I wound my way through the city streets. I had my pocket Wifi and Google Maps but it was well signposted, leading me to the moat and bridge that led into the grounds. It was a very popular spot, and whilst there is a fee to enter the castle itself, the grounds are free to enter.

I had no time to explore inside but it was a very Japanese-style castle, proudly standing on its built-up stone walls, the walls itself white but plain, and the roof more ornate in comparison. The path led right round the base of the castle before leading me down a back track to the main road back to the train station. As I walked the streets of Odawara I noticed cute decorated tiles at various intervals on route. They depicted little scenes that I’m not sure if they represented the city’s history or some other cultural aspect. As I neared the station I was approached by a woman who started conversing with me in English. I was in a bit of a hurry to catch my train and I wasn’t getting what she wanted. In some respects I think she just wanted to practice English, but at times she seemed to want to follow me or find out where I was heading, and then it sounded like she wanted to interview me. Japan is probably the safest I’ve ever felt travelling abroad but this was the one and only moment where I just wasn’t completely confident I wasn’t being set up for a scam.


Just like seeing Mt Fuji, I feel that riding a shinkansen is a right of passage in Japan. A couple came into the station as I waited for mine and I was blown away by the speed at which they shot into and out of the station. They just whizzed past in a blur as they took off. It’s well known than when heading south from Tokyo, you want to sit on the right side of the train to get a view of Mt Fuji. Stepping on board I was more just in need of a seat as the train was packed. I did actually get a seat on the right but didn’t have much of a view. Not that it mattered as the mountain was just as shrouded from this angle as it had been from the top of Mt Kintoki a few hours previously. It took just over an hour to reach Nagoya, another busy metropolis two thirds of the way towards Kyoto. My sole purpose for stopping here was to make it easier to reach another hiking trail the next day, so I’d booked a hotel close to the hotel to make the commute easier.


At least on the map it looked close, but with my backpack irritating my shoulders it felt like it took forever to get there. It seemed to be the sort of hotel that was set up for business travellers, and I found myself in a rather non-descript part of the city. I had planned on visiting Nagoya Castle but arrived too late in the day to get there. My back up plan was to go to an observation deck for a city view but as I walked away from the hotel and through the uninspiring city streets, I discovered that the place I was heading to was shut. A little peeved, I knew there was another observation deck nearer the station, so with aching feet I turned around and headed towards the city centre. Stopping for savoury pancakes on route, I found the JP centre and followed the signs up to the observation deck.

It was getting dark when I got there. The sunsets in Japan were quite early during my visit in October 2019 and as the colours of the sky faded to red and then peaches and blues, the city lights began to twinkle on. Like Tokyo, there was just an urban sprawl in all directions, but unlike Tokyo, there weren’t quite the same pretty buildings to break up the sea of skyscrapers, and I just didn’t get much of a love for Nagoya. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t make me feel like there would be any reason to return here on another occasion. I could see Nagoya castle though in the distance, standing tall within a park full of trees. Aside from the colour of the roof it looked identical to Odawara castle, its ornate roof adorning white walls atop a stone mound. Thanks to the clouds in the sky it was a spectacular sunset, the sky on fire with deep reds and yellows. Once full darkness had fallen and I’d got my fill of the city lights, I headed back down and back to my hotel.


I found an ice cream shop on route which was much appreciated and when I reached my hotel I found they had a free bar in the lobby. Or rather they’d just laid out a whole load of spirits and mixers and left you to it. Every other Japanese guest poured a reasonable drink, enjoyed it then left. I don’t think they’d anticipated a Scottish person’s interpretation of a free bar. By the time I was on my third bourbon and coke I started to wonder if they’d suss me out and kick me out, but nobody paid me any attention. It would have been tempting to keep going, but after yet another day on my feet and with another hiking day ahead, I decided to call it a night and head up to my room. I didn’t know it at the time, but the following day would end up being one of my favourite days in Japan.


Fuji Hakone Izu National Park

The Fuji Five Lakes region feels a World away from Tokyo, despite being within easy reach of Japan’s largest city. I’d already been to Kawaguchiko, a stunning lake with views of Fuji-san (Mt Fuji), and leaving Tokyo behind early in the morning, I had my sights set on another lake, the largest of the five, Lake Ashi. As a popular tourist destination, it is possible to get transport deals for the region and I highly recommend doing so if you plan to visit for 1-2 days. Whilst the location means it could make an extended day trip, I had booked accommodation in the region in order to enjoy it a bit more. It was still far from a leisurely trip though, as even with an overnighter, my commutes to and from nearby cities meant I still had to keep moving to pack it all on.

Heading out of Tokyo, I caught the train to Odawara where there was a seamless transfer to the Hakone Tozan line which took me to Hakone -Yumoto station which was nestled among rolling green hills on the edge of the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park. There I jumped platforms to the quaint little Hakone railway which took me deeper into the forested mountainside on a switch-back railway as it climbed higher and higher. After three switchbacks, we eventually came to my stop at Miyanoshita. With so much choice of accommodation, I had been driven both by price and ease of transit to stay at a hostel in the small village east of Gora. I headed a little down hill and along the deserted road to an old-fashioned hostel where I could dump my bags and head back to the station. The mountain train was relatively frequent, so it wasn’t too long a wait to catch one to go a few mores stops to Chokokunomori station.


It was swelteringly hot as I stepped onto the platform mid-morning, and I had a full day of sun exposure ahead of me. But it was worth it, as there was not a single thing I did that day that I would have wanted to have missed. A short walk from the station is the Hakone Open-Air Museum, an outdoor sculpture garden that was a delight to walk around. Nestled on the edge of a hillside, the location was stunning with rolling green hills surrounding the place and fascinating and beautiful sculptures at every turn within the extensive garden. There were lots of bronze figures, some abstract pieces and even some kinetic ones that moved and glistened in the sunlight. I took my time ensuring I covered as much of the walking tracks as possible. About halfway into the park, there was a large kids area and a pretty building that nestled beautifully into its surrounds.


At the far end, the path wound through some smaller sculptures and flower beds to come out at a large white building with the word Picasso emblazoned on its wall. A large sculpture typical of Picasso stood outside it and inside was a lovely air-conditioned art gallery that I perused through whilst cooling down. Back outside, the trail led up the hill to some pretty glass sculptures as well as a spot to have a foot bath in a stream. Nearby a large tower stood proudly, inside which was a spiral staircase leading up within stained-glass window walls to a raised viewpoint of the park and the greenery beyond. Neither the lake nor Mt Fuji could be seen but it was a stunning part of the country. As the trail circled back towards the main entrance building, I found myself among some very abstract pieces of art work and there was quite a crowd of people now as the morning had pushed on.


I walked deeper into Gora, the largest settlement in the area, cutting up into streets of houses to reach the entrance to Gora Park. A tiered garden, its centrepiece was a gorgeous fountain set within a gorgeous blue pond, framed by flower beds, hedges and park benches. A sign pointed me to a cafe and restaurant by its side and I took the opportunity to have lunch. Once refreshed, I circled back round the fountain and continued up the steps to the highest point in the park. Through rose gardens, rushes and under trees, I traversed the width of the park, heading down again to the fountain and on past a small shrine and under large spider webs guarded by large spiders to reach a conservatory housing hothouse plants. Eventually though I became aware of the hours pushing on and the time constraints that were ahead with the transport options so I left the park behind and continued through the back streets.


One of the things I’d most looked forward to doing in the region was taking the Hakone Ropeway over the nearby volcanic zone and having a wander round bubbling mud pools. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit in October 2019, an increase in volcanic activity had closed the middle section of the ropeway and a bus replacement service round the mountain was operating. Heading away from Gora Park, it wasn’t far to reach one of the lower stations on the Hakone Cableway. After some time, the cable car pulled up the slope and proceeded to take me up the incline to the top station where normally the ropeway would leave from, but instead we all got parceled onto waiting buses. There was nothing to see apart from trees as we drove the windy round around the slope of the mountain. Thankfully the lower section of the ropeway was functioning and we pulled in there to join the very large queue to board.

As the queue headed up a flight of stairs to the loading platform I could finally see Fuji-san with its necklace of cloud poking up above the treeline. I was able to secure a seat on the right side of the ropeway car and as we set off down the mountainside towards the lake I could watch the mountain taunt me as the cloud threatened to hide the summit. It finally disappeared out of sight again by the time the car reached the lake. I was eager to get on board the 2pm ferry that trails across the length of the lake but the queues were massive and I wasn’t sure until the last minute whether I would make it. This region doesn’t do halves when it comes to the transport as having already been on a normal train, a switchback train, a cable car and a ropeway, I was about to board what could best be described as a pirate ship. A large frigate was moored up at the pier complete with large masts and pirates. It was a novelty in its self, and I nestled into the stern of the vessel to watch the World go by as we sailed.


Sailing the length of Lake Ashi was sublime. Although the ship itself was busy, it felt remote with only a handful of boats on the water and forested hillsides framing the water’s edge. At the far end of the lake there are two stops, one at the southern end which it visits first and the other to the south-east which the ship reaches last. As we approached the first stop, I noticed the summit of Fuji-san come back into view and as we berthed at the pier, the waterfront was abuzz with activity from people paddling near the shore, and others enjoying a stroll. We paused long enough to let people pile off and others pile on and then we were on our way to the second stop, passing one of the region’s most photographed structures, the Hakone Jinjya Heiwa-no-Torii. Nestled close to the trees but just sitting out in the water, there were people in swan-shaped paddle boats sitting close by to admire it from the water. As we got closer to the second stop, the torii gate and Fuji-san lined up perfectly for a postcard-perfect view.


There was as much activity as the first pier and I was quick to get off and head round to the shrine where the torii gate was. But upon reaching it I was astounded by the queue of people snaking up the stairs through the forest that were waiting to have their photograph taken standing by the torii. It was a Saturday, so I’d probably picked one of the worst days to be in the national park but I’d definitely been naive about the crowds here. With nobody to take my photograph anyway as I was travelling alone, I first climbed the steps up to the shrine itself to take a nosy at the brilliant red building. The queue was just as long when I returned to it and I passed everyone to reach the shoreline, finding a spot off to the side that I could grab a quick photo of the large vermillion torii inbetween the many people that wandered into shot for their posed photograph.


Leaving the crowd behind I meandered back round the foreshore, stopping in a cute little cafe to have a chilled snack while contemplating my next move. The last boat left the 1st stop at 4.30pm and I decided that I would walk round the lake to catch it from there, rather than wait for it to come to me. I started off at a leisurely pace, stopping to take photos of the lake and Fuji-san until I suddenly realised I was at great risk of missing the last sailing. I had to leg it through the streets to make it on time, jumping aboard with little time to spare. The sun was still on this part of the lake but the western shore was already in shadow as the sun had dropped low. It lended a nice tint to the hillside as we set sail past the shrine once more to pick up the last of the passengers, and as we ploughed the long length of Lake Ashi we gradually fell into shadow. Back at the ropeway it was just a matter of retracing my steps to the cableway, this time taking it all the way to the bottom at Gora train station where I could hop on the train back to Miyanoshita for a quiet night in in the traditional-style hostel, ready for an early rise and another day of exploration.

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