Hakone Circuit

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April 4th 2018
Published: April 7th 2018
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One day, five trains and one hotel shuttle away from Tokyo, we arrive in the Hakone area, the home of Mt. Fuji and a mountain retreat for city folk.

The trains take us south through the suburbs of Tokyo toward Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. The last transfer is to Japan’s oldest mountain railway which chugs its way up a sharp grade, and often along a steep dropoff. The 3-car train makes a few stops beyond those at platforms. The conductor can be seen pulling a few brake levers in his cab, then out he steps and disappears walking toward the back of the train, while another guy comes up from the rear to take his place - we’ve just changed directions for a switchback. A couple times the conductor is carrying some brass gear to manually switch lines.

We see sprouting hydrangea all along the route, and often elsewhere too. They say the ride is at its most spectacular later in the summer when they are in full bloom.

As we are in springtime now though, from Tokyo through to Hakone the cherry blossoms are everywhere. Some solitary trees in the hillside forests or lining the track. Something about them has me clicking the camera hoping to capture that one shot. There are over 120 cultivars in Japan and the colours vary - from the most common cotton-ball white to bright pink and dark fusia. They are glorious. The similar display in Washington is as a result of a gift of cherry trees from the major of Tokyo back in 1912.

Once in Hakone, a well-known circuit is at our disposal. A pass allows tourists to use a combo of a ropeway (gondola), two cable cars, a lake cruise boat and buses to make a loop up a mountain, along the crest and down to boat across Lake Ashi and then a few local buses to connect back at Go. If you are really, really lucky, the elusive Mt. Fuji might make an appearance.

We were really, really lucky. The snowcapped dome appeared while we were on the ropeway, disembodied from the rest of her base which couldn’t be seen. An ephemeral floater. Joy inspiring, as our cablecar of eight broke into gasps of awe. To make it all the more incredible, less than an hour later the clouds erased the view and winds closed the route.

Mt. Fuji is both the highest point in Japan and also an active volcano. “Active volcano” defined as one that has erupted at least once in the last 10,000 years - Fuji last erupted in 1707. To the Japanese, Fuji is one of Three Holy Mountains - and is one of 25 sites UNESCO recognizes in this area.

Back at ground level, an ancient cedar avenue highlights amazing 400 year old trees - at our hotel, we are on the fourth floor and cedars are higher than our window.

On the circuit, we have a myriad of conversations with fellow travellers from all over. A British family with two teen daughters (who thought it was funny that I’ve been invited to a morning tea party to watch Harry and Meaghan’s wedding...for which I must wear a fascinator); a group of two couples from California, originally from Vietnam (who eagerly tried to give us their list of restaurant recommendations for other cities we’re going to - so I took pics of their pics of the restaurant signs but we have no idea how to ask for them or what cities they were in); a Parisian couple and the fellow who works for AirBnB in China. Our sore throats at day‘s end made us realize how much more talking we did than usual - a fun change of pace.

The bus portion of the circuit runs by an eclectic mix of seemingly unrelated world-class collections, likely within 20km of each other. Top among them is the Hakone Open Air Museum. From the train we had seen a few eye-catching sculptures moving in the wind the day we arrived. Started in 1969, this outdoor museum winds down a hillside, displaying over 120 sculptures (of their collection of over 1000) by modern and contemporary sculptures, including a fair amount by British artist Henry Moore. Remember the building with the ball in Tokyo? This museum is affiliated with the Fujisankei Communications Group, the same who own that building. I mention it because my favourite piece of whimsy was a suspended shiny metal sphere...reflecting your own distorted image back at you.

The Open Air Museum also has a Picasso Exhibition Hall, with an enormous collection of his works in all mediums (including glass, ceramic and textile). Wonderfully done.

A few miles down the road, a line of sparkly trees precede the sign for the Venetian Glass Museum. Featuring a series of Italian styled buildings and grounds with bridges, ponds, a water wheel....and trees with clear and coloured glass leaves, this museum has pieces of old Venetian household glassware inside their Italian villa replica, massive chandeliers, and outside a shimmery walkway draped with glass beads. Also appearing here, a Dale Chihuly tree and his signature blown glass balls in a boat (yup, we saw a few of these in the Chihuly museum in St. Pete’s). This surprise is run by a company that operates group of high end restaurants.

And finally, and perhaps the most unexpected, there is a museum dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s book The Little Prince. This one we saw only from the outside, but found its presence rather in keeping with the little prince himself. It was created as part of the worldwide celebration of the brith centennial of its author.

Mt. Fuji with so much more. This was a grand stop.

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