Mike: Megan gets a little overwhelmed in New York, so I thought she might get triggered in Tokyo, being surrounded by endless skyscrapers. When we booked our trip to Japan, I scheduled a night in the mountain town of Hakone as a brief respite from the city. Turned out that Megan was just fine in Tokyo, but we’re still glad we hit this charming resort spot.
Megan: After our six days in Tokyo, we jumped on the RomanceCar (the not-really-appropriate name for the very-ordinary train to Hakone) and left the city behind…
Mike: Whenever you tell anyone in Japanese tourism that you’re taking a trip to Hakone, they will recommend the Hakone Free Pass, which covers all transportation there and back. As we weren’t returning to Tokyo, it wasn’t a great deal — so we opted out. In retrospect, we should have bought it, as the convenience of having a single pass would have made up for the extra cost.
Megan: Our train ride from Tokyo to the Hakone was lovely — super-quick with free wifi. My friend Jenny advised us to grab a bento box to take on the train. But I was overwhelmed with choices and completely shut down when I tried to force myself to pick. Finally, moments before getting on the train, I noticed a really pretty box with leaf-covered sushi and so I quickly asked for that one. Thankfully Mike had already picked out a few onigiri for us to snack on, because my bento choice didn’t taste great.
Mike: We loved the food in Japan, but never really solved the bento box thing – which other people rave about. By the end of our trip, we decided that trains are just for snacks and we saved our real appetite for sit-down meals.
More importantly, on the train to Hakone, it was a clear day, so we got to see Mount Fuji without any cloud cover. This is a pretty big deal, as it’s obscured most of the time. Most folks on the train were really excited, taking pictures through the windows.
Megan: Upon arriving at the Hakone station, Mike and I wandered back and forth confused, unsure where to go next. Mike ended up flagging down a guy in a suit and asking him which train we needed to get on. Turns out, the guy was the conductor for our next train!
Mike: Taking trains to and around Hakone is fairly confusing — there are three stations with names that are variations of “Hakone” and another TEN smaller stations nearby. Understanding the geography is even challenging with a map because the most salient factor is the extreme shifts in elevation… but once we figured it out our route, the ride itself was scenic and charming.
Megan: Basically, the train chugs uphill through tunnels, quickly gaining elevation… and then stops and switches back a few times… climbing even higher.
Mike: Our travels for the day included two trains, three cabs, two busses, one shuttle van, two cable cars, and a funicular. It was a lot of hopping onto moving things hoping they’re heading the right direction.
Megan: We arrived at the cutest little station I’ve ever seen. I said it felt like Big Bear. Mike said it was reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. Both, I’m sure, are true. Mike found us a taxi and we headed to the Hyatt Regency…
The moment the hotel doors opened, it smelled like a campfire, and all I could think about was plopping myself in front of the their central fire pit and sipping cocktails under a blanket. But Mike had other ideas…
Mike: We had a couple hours to kill before the hotel’s THREE HOUR happy hour started, so I thought we’d go for a hike in the mountains.
Megan: My darling fiancé somehow convinced me to leave my purse behind, because “we’re only going on a quick hike.” So I stuffed my pockets with some cold weather gear and my phone, and we left the hotel. Only, in the meantime, after glancing through a tourist magazine, Mike flipped the script and decided we needed to take a more ambitious sight-seeing tour instead.
Mike: Our hotel was a little ways away from the cool sight-seeing stuff, which meant lots more forms of transportation!
Megan: Here’s my visual story about our travels…
Mike: Soon, we emerged on Mount Owakudani, one of the stops of the “Rope-way,” which is a cable car. (Confusingly, the word “cable car” is used for another method of transport in town).
Megan: I had no idea what was in store, but basically Owakudani’s an active volcanic mountain that’s constantly emitting tons of smoke and gas, which was REALLY cool to see. You could see little fissures on our way up the mountainside that made it look like tiny fires were lit all over the place. But those gaseous emissions were NOTHING compared to what we encountered at the top. Which also meant the smell of sulfur was INTENSE.
It was hard to breath at times. And it just stank of rotten eggs. Which, in kitschy Japanese style, was the theme of the place.
Apparently you buy and eat black hard boiled eggs there to extend your life by seven years. But putting a hard-boiled egg anywhere near my mouth was the last thing I wanted to do. I’d rather die seven years earlier.
Then, because SOMEONE told me not to bring my purse, I lost my ticket for the Ropeway, so we had to purchase another freaking ticket for my dumb-ass to continue our journey. At this point, it was getting late and we were pushing it time-wise. But we hopped on a Ropeway car with some disgruntled Aussies and glided our way down the mountain to a lovely lake.
Mike: I guess I should have let Megan bring her purse? But the lake was idyllic. We spent a lot of time looking at the clouds that had now covered Mount Fuji.
Megan: And snapping photos of cats and a large swan boat!
Megan: On the way back, we had a whole cable car to ourselves. In a country of jam-packed public transport, have our own car was like a vacation in a vacation. I held a solo dance party and leapt and jumped around the cable car.
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed free drinks and a cheese plate (with this amazing fluffy white cheese, we never figured out the name of) in front of the hotel’s giant fireplace. Which made Mike sleepy. He took a nap before we left for dinner.
We had a delicious set dinner at a nearby restaurant called Itoh Dining by Nobu. We were one of three couples dining in a glass-encased room, while snow lightly fell outside. It was pretty freaking romantic.
We drank sake cocktails and ate all kinds of yummy things, including a fish with a miso sauce that blew our minds, and a very good steak. We might have gotten really drunk and laughed at a man who reminded us of a crab when he walked.
We also laughed uproariously at our cab driver — a local guy who had lived in Fresno for a semester and gave us pocket warmers as a present.
Cab driver from Fresno: “Do you know what the hardest job in America is?”
Us: “No. What?”
Fresno: “Trump’s bodyguard.” [laugh] “He’s going to get shot.” [laughs] “So many times.” [laughs forever]
While our hotel room was incredible — super large, a wall of windows overlooking the gorgeous hills, and two big beds pushed together — we had the worst night of sleep of the trip. The heat was cranked up and we couldn’t figure out how to get the room cooler, so Mike had to crack open an window, and, as a result, the room reeked of sulfur.
Mike: I still don’t really understand what happened. The hotel and its surroundings don’t really smell like sulfur, but there it was, at 3am, stinking up our bedroom.
Megan: The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel. They had waffles! And they seated us in a pretty private area, where we got a lot of writing done before we left in a taxi for the train to Kyoto.
Our time in Hakone was short, but we’re glad we got the chance to check it out, because we’re not sure we’d ever get back there what with so much of the rest of the country to explore — including Kyoto!
To be continued in Kyoto…