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.