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Hot Springs and Natural Beauty Born of a Volcano


An open-air spa at Sengokuhara, one of the "17 hot springs of Hakone," with a view of Mt. Fuji. (Photo: Hotel Green Plaza Hakone)

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Hakone has been a famous sightseeing area for centuries, visited at least once by almost everyone who lives in the Tokyo area. Located at the southwestern point of Kanagawa Prefecture, neighboring Tokyo, Hakone is a vast caldera that was formed by a volcano. It is visited by some twenty million tourists every year, or over 50,000 per day, from both Japan and abroad, and its relatively short distance from Tokyo of about 100 kilometers facilitates this.

What attracts so many people to Hakone is its hot springs. Gushing up from underground all over the area, the "17 hot springs of Hakone" as they have come to be called were discovered in the year 738 a.d., according to legend, and have flourished as hot spring resort towns since around the 17th century. Hakone was also well known as a rough area for traveling since the road from the seaside town of Odawara continued up a steep climb of more than 800 meters above sea level and was a section on the main Tokaido Road that connected Edo, or modern day Tokyo, with Kyoto in the Edo era (1603-1867).

Magnificent Scenery Created Out of Volcanic Activity

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Hakone Tozan Railway provides convenient access to Hakone, operating on some of the steepest slopes in Japan.
In Owakudani Valley, hot vapor continues to spout from the ground after a volcanic eruption 3,000 years ago.
Kurotamago, or "black eggs," an Owakudani Valley specialty
A spectacular view of Mount Fuji seen from Lake Ashinoko
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Skewered or deep-fried wakasagi smelt caught in Lake Ashinoko make for a delicious meal.
Lined with cedar trees, the old Tokaido Road offers a glimpse of the Edo era.

From Tokyo, travel takes about one and a half hours by train to Hakone Yumoto—the gateway to Hakone. From there, visitors can enter the mountains by transferring to the Hakone Tozan Railway, which effortlessly climbs the steep mountain slopes. The train arrives at the terminal station in Gora, a village dotted with luxurious Japanese inns. There, travelers can transfer to a cable car and then a gondola lift, from which they can, while feeling the ground suddenly disappear beneath them, view the majestic scenery of the Owakudani Valley that opens up before them—a particularly impressive site among all of Hakone's abundant natural settings. Formed from a volcanic crater that erupted about 3,000 years ago, the valley is dotted with vents that continue to spout steam from the ground to this day. Local venders boil eggs using the underground heat, which turns the eggshells black, and they sell these kuro tamago [black eggs] as an Owakudani Valley [Great Boiling Valley] specialty.

Continuing on the gondola lift from the Owakudani Valley, passengers arrive at Lake Ashinoko, a lake of about 19 kilometers in circumference that was created by a volcanic eruption. Sightseeing ships sailing from stop to stop offer passengers an excellent way to see the lake in all its beauty. At restaurants on the lakeshore, visitors are welcome to enjoy the subtle flavors of deep-fried wakasagi smelt caught in the lake. On the lake's southern shore, the village of Moto-Hakone provides a popular spot from which Mount Fuji, Lake Ashinoko, and the red torii gate of Hakone Shrine can all be photographed together. In the vicinity of Moto-Hakone, visitors can get a feeling for Hakone's history by walking along what remains of the ancient Tokaido Road—a lovely pathway lined with cedar trees—and visiting the fully restored checkpoint building.


Crafted with parquet design, this "secret box" cannot be opened unless a certain sequence is followed. (Cooperation: Mitsuya)

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Traditional Handicrafts That Are Popular Even AbroadWith over 200 years of history, Hakone parquetry is a style of wooden mosaic work made with various types and colors of wood shaped into geometrical patterns. Unique to Hakone, these elaborate handicrafts are a favorite with tourists from abroad, who take them home as Japanese souvenirs and gifts. It is said that traditional Hakone parquetry employs over 100 types of patterns, which craftsmen make by assembling together thin pieces of wood that they have shaved off of planks using a large plane. The designs are attached to the surface of furniture and other objects. A wide variety of tree species and colors are used to create the complex designs, which are surprisingly vivid when considering that only the natural colors of wood are used. Popular items made with Hakone parquetry include plates, bowls and tableware, as well as "secret boxes," which cannot be opened unless their pieces are moved in a certain sequence.

An Area Rich in Seafood

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Above left: Hakone offers a wealth of fresh seafood, perfect for skillfully made sushi. (Cooperation: Yamahiko-zushi)
Below left: Kamabako fish cake is a specialty in Odawara, a city next to Hakone.
Right: Many local restaurants serve tofu and soba noodles made using Hakone's crystal-clear water. (Cooperation: Hakone Akatsuki-an)

Although Hakone is a mountainous area, it is well situated for gaining an abundant supply of seafood, as the seaports of Odawara and Numazu are just about 40 minutes by car from the shore of Lake Ashinoko, and Hakone Yumoto is only around 10 minutes by car to Odawara's port. Consequently, visitors have many opportunities to enjoy sushi and other dishes made from the fresh seafood caught in Sagami Bay off of Odawara Port and Suruga Bay off of Numazu Port. Indeed, sushi made with kinmedai, the splendid alfonsino caught in large numbers in both of these bays, along with other kinds of seafood seldom seen in other areas of Japan, can be eaten in Hakone. Odawara also offers a specialty product called kamaboko, a fish cake that is steamed or fried. The dish is so popular that a kamaboko theme park has been established in the area between Odawara and Hakone.

Hakone's wealth of crystal-clear water is used to make tofu, soba noodles, and other dishes served in the many restaurants in the area. With so many eateries famous for both soba and tofu, Hakone offers visitors the pleasure of exploring a wide variety of restaurants to choose from.

Although situated just on the outskirts of Tokyo, Hakone is still home to the great outdoors. So why not leave your everyday routine behind and relax leisurely in the hot springs and expansive wilderness of Hakone. (February 2012)

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