Approximately 200,000 years ago, in what is now the southwestern corner of Kanagawa Prefecture, there was an explosion of catastrophic proportions. Some time later, about 50,000 years ago, there was another one. The result: a great volcanic complex of lava domes and calderas, all contained within an elegant ~15km-wide mountain rim just southeast of Mount Fuji.
Mount Hakone (箱根), as it came to be known, produced its most recent outburst around 1,000 BCE, which blew up the northwest flank of the central lava dome and created, eventually, the picturesque Lake Ashi (Ashinoko, 芦ノ湖). Though it has not exploded since, it remains a tectonically active area with frequent seismic swarms, fluorescent yellow deposits, and fumaroles which still belch out great columns of sulphurous gas; and the risks from earthquakes, landslides and toxic fumes have led to the zone's active management by the Kanagawa authorities.
Lake Ashi, with Mount Hakone's western rim behind it, as seen from the central lava dome.
Notwithstanding this volatility, the Hakone highlands' location made them the effective gateway to the Kanto plain and, from the 1600s onward, to Japan's burgeoning new capital of Edo (Tokyo). This raised Hakone's human significance, such that by the transformations of the Meiji era, its stunning natural beauty, prolific onsen (hot springs) and the looming profile of Mount Fuji were already popular with visitors seeking a quality getaway, foreign dignitaries included.
Since then, Hakone has developed into one of the greater Tokyo area's most popular tourist destinations, supported with dozens of ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), hotels, museums, shops, cultural heritage sites and examples of local folklore, and connected by a reliable transport network of trains, ropeways, cable cars, buses, and boat cruises across the length of Lake Ashi. The Hakone Free Pass, for about 5000 yen, gives you either two or three days worth of unlimited use of these transport options, as well as covering passage between Hakone and any stop on the Odakyu Odawara Line.
And yet, the human intrusion manages not to terminally disrupt Hakone's natural integrity. Most buildings and tourist facilities are concentrated into clusters – the entry point at Hakone-Yumoto, the lakeside town of Hakone-machi, or the crossroads and transport connections of Gora and Sengoku – or are otherwise dispersed along the mountain complex's long arteries, which snake through densely forested slopes, sheltering valleys and tranquil streams down deep ravines. Hakone offers much to those exhausted by the Kanto region's mass of humanity: hiking routes provide an escape into the clouds, and strolling through the sleepy hamlets may be a welcome contrast to the crammed containers of tourists chugging between them.
Hakone's popularity owes much to its volcanic underpinnings. A dozen or so natural hot springs now supply water to countless onsen facilities across the zone, including ryokan and public bath houses.
Onsen are a staple of Japanese culture, and this profusion less than 100km from Tokyo makes Hakone one of the most accessible such resorts. Most let you relax in volcanic water of special mineral compositions, typically advertised for a range of precise health benefits, while gazing out across lake and forest landscapes (or in the most expensive cases, at Mt. Fuji).
Unfortunately virtually all these public onsen have been gender-segregated since the Meiji Era, when the pursuit of politically impressing the Europeans made the separation of male and female spaces appear “modern”: contradicting the Japanese tradition of mixed bathing, and paradoxically becoming the convention for onsen to this day. However, for those wishing to enjoy onsen with their families or friends without having to split up, or for those simply discomforted by the alienness of segregation, many inns offer rooms with private onsen attached.
|Private outdoor onsen in the room of an inn.|
|A onsen foot-bath for public use at the Hakone Open-Air Museum.|
Elsewhere Hakone's explosive origins are on display more directly. Ōwakudani (大涌谷), around the crater formed in the eruption 3,000 years ago, remains a raw landscape of sulphurous splotches, steam-belching vents and bubbling rivers. As you ride the cable car across lush greenery, this splendid hellscape suddenly unfolds below as you cross the lip of its ridge: and with all its scaffolding, chimneys and work-huts looks something of a charming piece of Diablo transplanted into Japanese surroundings.
And of course, the Japanese tourist industry laps it straight up. Crowds pour off the cable cars to snap photos or marvel through binoculars, and a ten-minute walk along a trail leads to a cluster of pools and vents where eggs are cooked, blackened by the sulphur, and sold on the premise that each one consumed will extend your life by seven years. The plants here are hardy, and the vibrant rocks and colours make for breathtaking scenery; but be careful with what you are breathing.
From Ōwakudani, the cable car continues down to Tōgendai, on the northern shore of Lake Ashi. From there you can cruise across to Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone on a colourful Disney-style ship, and – on days less cloudy than those I was there – gain some of the best close-up views of Mt. Fuji in Japan.
For all these good times, there is a dose of repression and bloodiness in Hakone's history. Its strategic location on the Tōkaidō Road (東海道), the main highway between Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo Period (1603-1868), led the Tokugawa authorities to construct the Hakone Checkpoint (Hakone sekisho, 箱根関所) by the lake, in what is now Hakone-machi.
One of the most important of Edo's checkpoints, Hakone sekisho regulated traffic along the Tōkaidō to protect Edo from the designs of ambitious lords (daimyo), in particular preventing the entry of weapons. However, a great deal of this checkpoint's energy seems to have ended up directed at controlling and harassing female travellers. Politically this was rooted in the “alternate attendance” (sankin kotai) system, by which daimyo had to live for long periods both in Edo and in their own domains, and to leave their wives and children in Edo as hostages. The pressure was also economic, as daimyo had to pay to maintain both their residences (unlike members of parliament in today's Britain), and for the great processions they brought with them when travelling. This made it much harder for daimyo to start wars, controlling them through personal leverage and financial strain to secure Edo's power; though it also turned routes like the Tōkaidō into major economic corridors, as roads, inns and services sprung up to accommodate those processions.
As such, checkpoints like that at Hakone were given the task of preventing those lords' wives and children from escaping Edo. Somehow, this appears to have developed into a regime by which women were forbidden from travelling without male accompaniment at all, and could only pass with a travel permit and detailed documents about their itinerary. The regulation of women's movement became the Hakone checkpoint's overriding concern, and thus, another shameful gender crime to add to humanity's sorry record thereof.
|Replica of a hitomi-onna, a strict female official with the role of inspecting (and by all appearances, harassing and intimidating) women.|
Hakone's high mountains made it difficult to pass by the checkpoint's notice. It was finally shut down in 1868, with the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and subsequently dismantled. Over a hundred years later, in 1999, the site was excavated and its old purposes and remnants confirmed; following which the checkpoint's structures were reconstructed and opened to the public. Just to the north, a museum exhibits an impressive collection of maps, models, and old documents relating to the checkpoint's history.
The Tōkaidō Road, meanwhile, has retained its status as the busiest transportation corridor in Japan connecting its foremost urban centres, and has accordingly sprouted expressways, the JR Tōkaidō Main Line railway, and of course, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen. With that last, the laborious, repressively restricted Tokyo-Osaka passage of Edo days has become a two-and-a-half-hour commute for half a million Japanese each day; but sections of the Old Tōkaidō remain, most notably a lakeside path just north of the Hakone checkpoint that runs between cedar trees over 350 years old.
In more recent times, Hakone has become a gathering point for heritages of quite different origin. Any tourist map of the zone is dotted with constellations of museums: as exotic as the Venetian Glass Museum, the POLA Museum of Art, and the Musée du Petit Prince de Saint Exupéry à Hakone. That last is an especially deep delve into one of the profoundest, and most touching, written works of the twentieth century – and into its author, with whose experiences the work is inseparably linked.
Another, the Hakone Open-Air Museum (箱根彫刻の森), consists in a great collection of sculptures and other artworks, by a global range of artists, displayed across its wide-open grounds in a valley not far below Gora. Most works can thus be experienced in a peaceful ambience of mountains and flowing water, though there is also an impressive indoor Picasso collection, and temporary exhibitions: at the time of this visit, 'Happy Animal Party', some colourful works by a Chinese artist.
|Several of the works are designed for small children to play on.|
Hakone's dense, wild mountains and majestic scenery also offer some excellent hiking experiences. There are at least three routes worth exploring.
a) Komagatake (駒ヶ岳): The Hakone volcanic system's central lava dome. By taking a bus or a boat to Hakone-en, on the east side of Lake Ashi, you can ride a ropeway up to this peak. It is a lovely grassy hilltop (on account of lava flows hardening, preventing trees from growing,) with a bright red shrine and grand views over the lake and its surroundings.
From there you have the opportunity of a two-to-three-hour ramble up and down bumpy, overgrown paths through dense forests, to reach Hakone's crowning peak of Kamiyama. The available paths give you a choice of whether to end up at the Sounzan cable car station or the sulphurous Ōwakudani, though the latter path may at times bear a risk of toxic fumes. Unfortunately the foliage is too overgrown for good views for most of this course.
It's also possible to do this hike in the other direction, rewarding yourself with Komagatake's splendidness at the end, but in that case be sure to make it in time for the final ropeway ride down at about 4:30pm.
|Lake Ashi, as seen from the Komagatake ropeway. With clearer skies, Mount Fuji looms behind the far mountains further right (north).|
|Into the woods.|
|The facilities at Ōwakudani, in the distance.|
b) Kintoki-yama (金時山): One of Hakone's most popular mountains for its relatively easy climb and superlative views of Mt. Fuji and the surrounding landscape. It is also the birthplace of its namesake, the legendary Japanese folk hero Kintarō (“Golden Boy”), who developed superhuman strength, fought demons, sumo-wrestled with bears, and made friends with the forest animals of the region, among other exploits. Accessible by bus from the hamlet of Sengoku, the path up the mountain traverses archetypal Japanese cedar forests, and passes a shrine to Kintaro as well as a massive boulder split down the middle, which the child supposedly cleaved in half with his axe. There are also a couple of resthouses at the top, selling hot meals, snacks, and souvenirs.
|The Kintoki-yama summit, too cloudy today for views.|
|Coming down a different route, east along the ridge.|
|This path in fact continues some way, towards Myojingadake (below).|
c) Myojingadake: The next peak east from Kintoki, and accessible by a long and rolling green ridge connecting the two. The trail is gentle most of the way, between towering fields of bamboo, and when not shrouded in cloud promises splendid views across the valley. In summer it also harbours great clusters of golden-rayed mountain lilies (yamayuri, 山百合) and hydrangeas.
|Or, if you go on a day like this, you'll spend most of the hike with cloud in your face and scarcely see a thing.|
Aside from all of the above, Hakone has its own calendar of local celebrations, and it may be worth investigating this ahead of a prospective visit to see if you can make any coincide. By way of example, the Kosui Festival at the end of July culminates with a splendid half-hour of fireworks over Lake Ashi, along with colourful floating lanters, best viewable from Moto-Hakone.
Special buses run from there to Hakone-Yumoto and Odawara afterwards, so you don't have to worry about getting stranded – it's quite possible to make it back to central Tokyo on the same night.