Japan: peeping inside a volcanic crater


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Ropeway Sounzan to Owakudani hakone japan

The ropeway from Sounzan to Owakudani

The beginnings of autumn.

The beginnings of autumn.

The climb up the side of Mount Kami to Owakudani in a cable car is steep and green, beginning to turn shades of red in October as autumn approaches. The sight as you hit the summit is unexpected and memorable.  If I’d known Owakudani means ‘the valley of hell’ I might have been more prepared.   Suddenly the green disappears and you feel like you are dangling on a wire above the surface of the moon. Clouds of smoke billow from the ground, with not a stick of vegetation in sight. The ground is stained with trails of yellow sulphur and terracing is supporting the ground to prevent landslides.

This crater was formed after an eruption 3000 years ago.   To this day, the crater continues to spout out fumarolic gases and hot vapour.  The area is also still prone to landslides with the last major one in 1910.

I didn’t know until I looked up a kids’ site about volcanoes that volcanoes are named after Vulcan, a roman god of fire.  You learn all the best stuff on kids’ sites.

Owakudani crater ropeway view

Dangling over the mouth of the crater.

Owakudani crater hakone japan

A barren, vaporous landscape.

Hakone volcano crater Japan

Terracing work and boreholes attempt to hold back further landslides.

Hakone volcanic crater Japan ropeway

Looking back over the crater at the cable car pathway.

When the cable car door opens on arriving at the station it’s like opening the lid of a long forgotten egg sandwich lunchbox. You are reminded on signs not to spend too long wandering around because of the fumes. I wasn’t planning to argue.  Outside the crater there’s some great hiking however, and I wish wish wish I’d taken my hiking boots.

Hakone volcanic crater Japan

Don’t hang around near the crater.

Black eggs hakone volcano Japan

Collected cooked black eggs from the volcanic pools.

Owakudani volcanic crater hakone Japan

Steamy thermal pools.

Owakudani volcanic crater hakone Japan

Looking back towards the cable car station.

This man is fishing for our breakfast.  Eggs are cooked in the hot volcanic water, turning their shells black.  The story goes that you live an extra seven years if you eat these eggs.  I was hoping  it was cumulative.  My friend Lin and I shared 5.

Black eggs hakone volcano Japan

Eating black eggs for breakfast.

After breakfast we headed down the other side of the mountain to Lake Ashi.  There is a boat across the lake and we had our fingers crossed that we would see Mount Fuji in the distance.  But it was too cloudy.  This bit of the round trip back to Hakone-Yumoto seemed a little bit touristy.  We had avoided the crowds at the volcano by getting the first cable car of the day up there.  By the time we got to the lakeside it was pretty busy.   Almost a bit Disneyland.  But the views were beautiful nonetheless.

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Lake Ashi hakone Japan

The boats across the lake operate pretty much non stop.

Lake Ashi in Hakone.

Lake Ashi in Hakone.

Once back in Hakone-Yumoto, Lin and I spent the afternoon at an onsen.  There’s a separate post about that.  It was heaven.  And then we caught the train back to Tokyo at night.  It’s a great circular 2 day trip out of Tokyo.   If the weather is on your side, you get stunning views of Mount Fuji, and the reasonably priced 2-day travel pass (under £30) covers everything – trains, cable cars, the boat across Lake Ashi and buses.

So how do you go about organising it?

I left my case at Shinjuku station in central Tokyo in a luggage locker (300¥ -£1.70 – per 24 hours for a hand luggage sized case) at about 2pm.  You will be glad not to have to carry luggage because it’s on and off a lot of transport.  This was a Monday; weekdays are quieter than weekends. I had planned to set off early in the morning but there was a typhoon which only passed at midday, so lots of train lines were closed all morning. This was typhoon number 18 of the year – apparently one of the wettest so far – 24 hours of non-stop heavy rain. But not sideways so it was ok.

Luggage lockers Shinjuku

Luggage lockers at Shinjuku station.

There’s a choice of train out from Shinjuku to Odawara. You can get the “Romance Car” – which is a normal style train and has a supplement, or the standard subway style train. I got the subway train at about 2.30pm and I arrived in Odawara an hour and a half later.

There’s an easy switch to the next train to Hakone. It left a few minutes later and the signs were easy to follow. We were there in 20 minutes. The next, smaller train to Gora was waiting 50 metres up the platform. All of the connections coordinate, but you receive a full timetable when you book your ticket in case you want to stop off at any of these places en route. Even on a quiet day this train is quite busy so I was glad I’d left all my luggage behind bar a day bag.

Gora tozan train red Hakone Japan

Little red Tozan (mountain climbing) train to Gora.

Tozan Hakone train Gora Japan

Climbing up the mountain – try and sit at the back or the front.

This little red train climbs quite steeply up the mountain and through tunnels. It’s good to have a seat right at the back or the front to see how steeply it climbs. The train actually doubles back a few kilometres later to link onto a higher track, so the back becomes the front. Then it doubles back to get higher and you’re at the back again. And then the front! It’s like zigzagging up the mountain.

And it was just so nice to see so much green after Tokyo.

We arrived in Gora a little before 5.30pm. The sky was going red and the lights were coming on.  Fora is good overnight stop because it means you are right at the cable car station to make your way up the volcano before the crowds early next morning.

My room was a 3 minute walk away. I booked it on Agoda the week before, for £16. It was a rollmat in a female (6 max) room in a new guest house in Gora. It was literally brand new, the first great reviews sold it to me (this can be an expensive area to stay), and it was really friendly and English spoken.  The details are below.

There’s a piano and a guitar if you fancy, and the bar and seating area is really friendly.

Hakone tent Gora japan

Entrance to Hakone Tent, Gora, a great stop off.

Hakone tent Japan

Female room with matting floor and roll out mattresses.

Hakone tent bed

Bed made.

ACCOMMODATION: Hakone Tent, http://hakonetent.com

There’s wifi in the main seating area. Food and drinks are reasonably priced – I had clam pasta for 800¥ (under £6). There’s no breakfast – I took something with me – but coffee and tea is provided in the spanking new kitchen. Also handy to know is that you can hire a towel for the onsen for 100¥.

When you come out of the train station ticket barrier, you turn (within the station) to your right towards the toilet signs. On the street look right and there’s a little underpass. Go through it. Don’t take the very first wide road up the hill; walk on a little, maybe 30 metres, and there’s a narrower steep lane up to your left. The guest house is another 50 or so metres up the hill on your right. Only 3 or 4 minutes from the station in total, but the directions on Agoda are a little confusing. I’ve given them new ones 🙂

TRANSPORT: The Hakone Free Pass

Despite the name, it’s just under £30 (5140¥) for 2 days. You can get a 3 day one too. I bought mine at Shinjuku station (the Odakyu Sightseeing Service centre). Google for more info. It closes at 6 but when I arrived at 6.01 from the other side of Tokyo, they took pity on such a dejected face and sold me a ticket. If you happen to have transport closure due to a typhoon or whatever, you can get a refund.
By Jen

Prices are valid as at October 2014.

Footnote: I arrived in Japan the day after the terrible volcanic eruption at Mount Ontake.  A terrible loss of life.  My thoughts are with the families of those involved.

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