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.