The last time, our intrepid explorers visited Lake Ashi 芦ノ湖 and Hakone Shrine 箱根神社…
And now we continued our day exploring Hakone by heading to see more of the Hakone Geopark!
Hakone 箱根 is in Kanagawa prefecture 神奈川県, and is only a short drive from Tokyo, but it seems like worlds away. The quaint town has a Spirited Away / 千と千尋の神隠し feel to it, and there is a great deal of natural beauty. After spending a windy morning by the shores of Lake Ashi and then entering the safety of the dense forest at Hakone Shrine, I wanted to head to see some more geologic features. I love geology, so even though the wind made it hard to be outdoors for any length of time, the next stop was Owakudani 大涌谷 to see some volcanic activity. A great deal of the Hakone area is listed as a UNESCO geopark, with the primary emphasis on the volcanic activity. My fiance was not complaining, but I knew that he’d rather be warm inside a game center than traipsing around looking at rocks in the wind. Leaving the haven of the Hakone Shrine, we drove on to Owakudani.
Owakudani literally means “great boiling valley.” It was once called “hell valley” but there is another more famous Jigokudani 地獄谷 so it was changed to Owakudani. This valley has continuous volcanic activity including sulfurous fumes, hot springs, and boiling rivers. This volcanically active zone formed its present configuration during the last eruption of Mt. Hakone 3000 years ago.
The sulfur in the discharge of gasses being vented at the surface gives the entire area the odor of rotten eggs. This fragrance comes in waves as the wind blows the gasses around. The especially strong winds gave tourists the pleasure of the rotten egg fragrance quite often on the day I visited. The clouds being blown by the wind blocked any awesome views of Mt. Fuji, unfortunately.
The area features short hiking paths that are paved, with either stairs or ramps that you climb on your way to the volcanic vents. It’s not really handicap or stroller accessible because of the intermittent stairs. In the US, handicap accessibility is very important, even in places like Yellowstone National Park, so it’s something that I notice when there is not that kind of concern in Japan.
Owakudani is a high feature in the valley, and driving there is a continuous upward climb. Hakone has a lot of winding mountain roads, lush forests, and it is cooler than the nearby Tokyo in the summer months. It is indeed a valley, and when you climb up to the vent area you get a spectacular view of the compound and the valley. There is a ropeway that offers connections between Owakudani and the shore of Lake Ashi, as well as other stations, but my fiance hates heights and the wind was particularly nasty, so we opted out. The ropeway costs ￥800~￥2,000, depending on which station you want to go to and whether you want one-way or round-trip.
You can also purchase famous black eggs (kurotamago 黒たまご) boiled in the sulfurous hot springs, which are said to extend your life by 7 years if you eat one egg. If you eat two eggs, your life will be prolonged by 14 years. If you eat more than 2 1/2 eggs, the benefits are no longer relevant and your life cannot be extended indefinitely, so it’s not recommended to eat more than that. I was worried the eggs would taste, well, rotten, but do not fear. Despite the black shell, the egg inside is fully cooked and completely edible. There is a slightly strange taste to the egg, but nothing overwhelming. Typically eggs are eaten at the time of purchase, so there is the wafting of the rotten egg smell to contend with, but all that hiking around in the strong wind made us hungry and the eggs were a nice treat. There are also several other black-themed foods, including a black manju or sticky rice bun filled with sweet bean paste.
*Volcanic Hazards! As a side note, Owakudani is currently closed (as of May 6, 2015) to tourists due to increased seismic (that’s earthquakes) and volcanic activity (from the vents). This suggests that there may be a volcanic eruption soon, which is most likely to include ash that will be able to travel for several kilometers. Thus, Owakudani has been evacuated for safety. Let’s hope that any eruption will cause minimal damage! This is the hazard of living near volcanoes, and is a part of life for those living on an island that was primarily formed from volcanic activity.
Hakone Venetian Glass Forest Art Museum/箱根ガラスの森美術館
Our last stop of the day was the Hakone Venetian Glas Forest Art Museum. The Venetian Glass Forest is one of several museums in the Hakone area. The theme is Italian art, so the exhibits consist of glassware, crystals, and art inspired by Rome/Venice. It’s hard to decide from a travel guide with a few photos and descriptions of each museum, so I just picked the museum with the prettiest photos in the まっぷる (Mapple) I used for this trip. I really enjoyed the museum’s art pieces, which were gifted by a wealthy glass collector.
Admission is only ￥1,500 per adult, ￥1,100 for university/high school students and ￥600 for elementary school students. I got a discount through the Hotel Kajikaso as well. There are also temporary exhibitions and performers, so there are a lot of things to do. I couldn’t even visit the entire museum since we had already been hiking all over Owakudani.
After being outside in the cold wind for most of the day, the indoor and sheltered outdoor Glass Forest were a welcome change! While we were there, a Mongolian musician named Senja セーンジャー was there for a limited engagement and we stopped to listen to a short concert. His Japanese was impeccable, and his music was based on traditional Mongolian stories about horses (very important to Mongolian life) and melodies. He was also handsome, which made the obachans (older women) in the crowd even happier.
After the long day of sightseeing, we went back to our ryokan, Hotel Kajikaso, in Hakone, and prepared for our dinner course. We took one last onsen trip to the hotel’s main baths to watch the sunset, and then scheduled our morning meal with the attendant who helped us with all our meals during our stay. We were planning an early start on our trip back to Tokyo.
Have you been to Hakone’s geopark? Have you tried the onsen or the black eggs? What other places in Kanagawa prefecture have you been to? Let me know in the comments!