After spending 4 days in Tokyo, we headed off to Hakone, a hot spring resort town one hour train ride away from Tokyo. We took the Shinkansen Hikari to Odawara where we purchased the Hakone Free Pass that allowed us to travel on all means of transportation within Hakone; bus, train, ropeway, cable car, mountain tram, and sightseeing boat (FYI, it is not free, despite the name :-P)
Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Hakone is the perfect place to view Mount Fuji from afar. Since Mount Fuji is only open for hiking in the summer, we had to content ourselves with a postcard picture of it from Hakone.
From Odawara, a short commuter train took us to Hakone Yumoto, where we began our Hakone adventure. After depositing our luggage to the Hakone Baggage Service desk, we took the mountain tram to Kawakundani and changed to a bus that took us to our first destination, Yunessun, a hot spring spa resort cum water amusement park surrounded by Hakone’s scenic greeneries and mountain view. We missed the bus stop that was supposed to drop us off right across the road from Yunessun. So we ended up alighting at the subsequent bus stop and having to walk downhill for 15 minutes in the opposite direction. The walk turned out to be rather exhilarating as the narrow and winding road created plenty of blind spots we had to keep stopping after a few minutes to look out for incoming traffic, especially with a 2-year-old in tow. If it had not been for this, we would have enjoyed such a walk thoroughly. It was a beautiful and cooling autumn day surrounded by a fantastic mountain view and colorful leaves.
Yunessun was very refreshing. We pool-hopped from one hot spring to another, experiencing high-salinity water where you effortlessly float, water containing fancy minerals, outdoor water slides with breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains, and not forgetting an outdoor bath area where you can freely bathe in milk, green tea, wine, and even coffee.
By the time we were ready to leave Yunessun, it was already 5pm. Consulting our Hakone transportation guide (provided when you purchased the Hakone Free Pass), we couldn’t find any bus that could take us to our inn (the last bus that we could have taken to reach our inn seemed to have left a while before). We decided to ask the locals manning the Yunessun ticket counters, but they also said there was no more bus going that direction. They advised us to take a taxi instead, which would have cost us a bomb considering this is a small resort town and I presumed the taxi wouldn’t be running on meters.
Nevertheless, we decided to walk to the nearest bus stop while brain-storming what our next move should be. We saw a purple-colored bus stopping by the bus stop across the road, stationary and seemed to be waiting. In between re-consulting our Hakone transportation guide trying to locate this particular bus and arguing if we should ask the driver where he was heading, one of our friends all of a sudden started to jog across the road and approached the driver. This was totally not a normal occurrence since my friend is not the type who would usually approach a stranger to ask for direction. After a few seconds, he seemed to be signaling to us to cross the road, indicating the bus was heading to the direction that we wanted. My brother, who speaks the most passable Japanese among us, talked to the driver and concluded that the bus was indeed going to pass by our inn and that it was due to leave at 6.30pm (it was around 6.10pm then).
What my brother didn’t immediately realize was that amidst the confusion and excitement of suddenly finding a bus when we had thought we would have to find other means of transport to reach our inn, he had heard the Japanese word wrongly. Or rather, he had heard it correctly, but it didn’t really register into his brain. The driver had mentioned juu pun, which means 10 minutes, as he was trying to explain that the bus was supposed to leave now, at 10 minutes past 6. My brother must have heard juu pun but somehow registered san juu pun instead (30 minutes).
Thinking that we still had 20 minutes till the bus’ departure time, we told the driver we were going to the konbini across the road to get some dinner bento. The driver, thinking that we wouldn’t be taking his bus, said sayonara and waved us goodbye as we were walking away. This caused us to raise our eyebrows and luckily my brother chose to walk back and talked to the driver again. Realizing his mistake, he quickly shouted at us who were already halfway across the road. We managed to board the bus and reach our inn safely. It was apparently the last bus of the day that could take us to that direction.
Looking back, our near miss seemed like a divine intervention. Our friend, who usually never has the initiative to ask for directions, was all of a sudden a different man that evening, as if prodded by some unknown power. The purple-colored bus that until now we still couldn’t locate nor identify inside the Hakone transportation guide and the fact that we were the only passengers throughout the entire trip from Yunessun to our inn. Once the driver dropped us off at our destination, we halfway expected the bus to disappear into thin air 😛 Little did we know then that this wouldn’t be the only near miss encounter that we experienced during our mere 2 days in Hakone.
We checked out of our inn early the next morning and set off after sending our luggage to Hakone Yumoto via the Hakone Baggage Service again. The day’s itinerary was to reach Gora by bus, followed by cable car to Sounzan, ropeway to Owakudani and Togendai, and boat across Lake Ashi to Moto Hakone or Hakone-machi where we would catch a bus back to Hakone Yumoto to pick up our luggage and board the train to our next destination, Kyoto.
Unfortunately, nature had a different opinion. Upon reaching Gora, there was an announcement informing us that the ropeway to Owakudani and Togendai was not in operation due to the strong wind up on the mountain. Nevertheless, we decided to proceed with the cable car ride to Sounzan. A lot of travelers were already congregating in Sounzan, trying to figure out what to do next. After sending my brother to ask around, we found out there would be a bus that could take us from Sounzan to Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone. By then, we were already resigned to the fact that we would have to leave Hakone without ever getting the chance to see the top of the mountain. We thought we would just spend the rest of the day hiking on the trail between Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone alongside Lake Ashi, and perhaps catch an earlier train to Kyoto.
Once again, someone up there disagreed with our plan. On the way to Hakone-machi, without our knowledge the bus apparently went up the mountain to pick up travelers who were stranded in Owakudani without any ropeway connection to Togendai nor Sounzan. Upon realizing that we were at Owakudani, we made a decision on the spot to alight and do some sightseeing.
The moment we set foot on Owakudani, we understood why the ropeway couldn’t possible operate. It was my first time experiencing wind that strong. We could hardly stand still without being blown away by the wind, let alone trying to walk against it. My eyes were so dry I couldn’t bear to open them whenever I stood outside for longer than a few minutes. The temperature became freezing cold, thanks to the torrential wind. Fortunately there was a souvenir shop where people can take shelter and warm up a little bit.
But if you could afford to brace yourself against the wind and go out, you would be rewarded by a beautiful mountaintop view. Owakudani is basically a volcanic valley surrounded by active sulphur vents. It is said that eating a hard-boiled egg cooked in the local hot springs, which turns black in color due to the sulphur, would increase longevity. All around you could see vents emitting sulphuric gas. That day happened to be a very bright and clear day despite the strong wind and our biggest reward was the clear view of majestic Mount Fuji.
Postcard picture of Mount Fuji – done, buying souvenirs – done, we started asking around what time the next bus to Hakone-machi would come. The officer manning the bus stop gave us an alarming answer. He said due to the strong wind, one of the buses had toppled over on the way here and he didn’t know if there was gonna be anymore buses. It seemed we had taken the bus schedule for granted when we decided on a whim to alight at Owakudani.
Not knowing what to do next, we simply wandered around, in and out of the souvenir shops, mindlessly taking pictures while the thoughts of bring trapped there until sunset or blowing our budget in a cab ride were alternating in our minds. After what seemed like an hour or more, a bus suddenly appeared. All five of us who happened to be at different locations at that time rushed towards the bus as the officer shouted “last bus to Gora” to the travelers. Divine intervention or not, we were once again saved by the miraculous ‘last bus’. By then we could hardly care where the bus would take us and what sights we had to miss. We were simply grateful for not having to be stranded there for an unknown duration.
The rest of the journey was hardly exciting compared to what we had experienced in the last 24 hours. Having exhausted all our energy fighting the wind, we gobbled down our late lunch in an instant. We took the bus from Gora to Hakone-machi where the three of us; my husband, my brother, and I, hiked the trail alongside Lake Ashi connecting Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone while our two friends and their 2-year-old son went sightseeing in the town instead.
We bid goodbye to Hakone shortly after sunset. All in all, our 2 days there had been a great adventure full of unexpected twists and turns, coupled with some divine intervention. Lesson learned: planning is good, but be prepared for when mother nature decides to take the center stage 🙂