All posts by wandingwarriorwitch

Hakone Trip 01: Of the Great Boiling Fields(Owakudani) and Black Eggs

Gas Mining
A view of Owakudani from above

BLUF:

An interesting visit that has more build-up than pay off. Surrounded by more interesting activities, Owakundani should not be the sole goal of any trip as it will leave the day unfulfilled. Taken as a quick stop between multiple other activities in the area, Owakundani is an excellent addition to any trip.

Total Cost: Between 2020 – 3590 yen.

Total Travel Time (From Odawara Train Station): 1 1/2 hours.

Special Equipment Required: None.

Special Items/Gifts: Owakudani Black Eggs(Kuro-Tamago), “Sulfur” Ice Cream, Various merchandise related to Black Eggs.

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Hakone/ Owakundai Overview

Settled along the great Lake Ashi, Mount Hakone is a one of the several volcanic mountains in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. A popular tourist spot, Mount Hakone is surrounded by several small cities and villages that dot the area. Within these villages and cities are a unique variety of attractions, from wonderful hot springs to multiple museums or art, history and even the very famous Hakone Open Air Museum, holding an upwards of  120 sculptures.

The area itself is a large tourist attraction because of Lake Ashi, which brings people for a variety of sights. Lake Ashi has the best view of Mount Fuji, contributing to most of the stunning views of the impressive mountain, and is a large attraction during the off-season for Fuji- the time when climbing is discouraged due to it’s hazardous conditions and that no active assistance can be received on the mountain.

The variety of attractions in the Hakone region is one of the reasons I’ve put down this entry as “Trip 01” as I intend to give the area a more through visit in the future – poor planning on my part caused me to spend 90% of the day traveling. These sites to visit at a later date include: The Open Air Museum, Lake Ashi and the Shinto Shrine located along the Lake.

Interestingly enough, the very popular Anime Series Neon Genesis Evangelion mentions Hakone being renamed Tokyo-3 prior to the show. This fact drew large crowds to the area during the relaunch of the series in 2010, which disrupted schools and many events in the area. The influences of the anime can still be seen in the area, where many shops sell special “Tokyo-3” lunches and meals.

Mount Hakone specifically is a large volcanic mountain located in the Ashigarashimo District of the Kanagawa Prefecture. The mountain erupted along time ago – I was unable to nail down a specific time frame as some informationals reported it to be anywhere between 3000 and 1000 years ago.

Black Eggs

Kuro-Tamago, The Life Extending Egg

Now, should you be reading this still, you may be pondering as to why you should visit Owakudani. Multiple times, I have mentioned that the area is full of activity and in my own BLUF I stated that it wasn’t really anything more than an addition to another trip; the reason why everyone should add this place to your trip is pictured above.

The Black Eggs or Kuro-Tamago are a unique item that can only be found in and around Hakone and Owakudani. According to tradition, these eggs are blessed by the fertility of the mountain with the ability to add 7 years onto one’s life. These chicken eggs, raised locally in the village, are hard boiled in the sulfuric vents in the area until their shells grows black.

Now, to address the elephant in the room: 7 years of life for one egg, then why not eat 20? According the myth of the eggs, one person in a lifetime can only eat 2 1/2 eggs in their current lifetime. if you were to eat 3 or more eggs, your greed would cause you to become violently ill and would expel the blessing from your body.

 

Egg Boiling Pit

Each of these eggs can be purchased in a multitude of locations. The primary spot to purchase the eggs is also the cheapest. Drawn from the pits directly and sold in a small building nearby, at the time of writing this review 5 eggs can be purchased for 500 yen at Owakudani itself. From there, these eggs are shipped down the mountain via a cable system, pushing several crates hundred crates out per hour. Simply 10 minutes away from the pits themselves, is a gift shop with various interesting egg-themed items. Here one can purchase a single egg for 250 yen or 5 eggs for 1000 yen.  At the start of the cable car up Mount Hakone is the city of Gara, which also sells the eggs at one for 500 yen.

My suggestion is to take the trip up to Hakone an purchase the eggs directly there. In addition to saving money, many of the people I conversed with told me the legend is suppose to only work if ingested on the mountain itself, the eggs loosing their gifts once removed from the source.

5 Egg BagIn addition to the Black Eggs are quiet a lock of interesting novelty items, which ranges from stuff eggs to various egg-based meals. Most shops sell various ice cream and shaved ice in addition to their meal selection. While unique and fun to look at, most of the items can be very expensive.

A View From The Cable Car

Approaching Owakundai

Getting to Owakundai is interesting in itself because despite the multiple approaches and options on arrival to Hakone, each of them is rather simplistic.

Getting to the Hakone Region:

Before any avenues of approach can be taken, one must first arrive at Hakone itself. The easiest and quickest way to get to the region is to approach the area by train, as everything in Japan can be reached by train. One will be aiming to arrive firstly at Odawara station, conveniently located at the end of every Odawara line. From Tokyo, one can take the express and rapid express trains to Odawara in under an hour of travel. If one is traveling and hoping for a relaxed trip, I would advise to take the “romance car” trains. While more expressive, the express romance cars are reserved seating trains that will bring you from Tokyo to Odawara in an hour flat. Should you choose the cheaper route, as I did, you will find the train rapidly becoming full and crowded once you pass Ebina, one the regions main hubs.

Once you’ve arrive at Odawara, the transition is simple, walk down to platform 2 – located at the end of the station – and wait for the next Hakone/Gara train. The trains are very quick and will usually take no more than 8 minutes to take you from Odawara to Hakone.

FootStomp: At this time it is possible to leave the train all together and simple take one of the many buses or taxis to Hakone or even to Gara – the 2nd part of approaching Owakundai. However, I did not take these methods and from experience have found them to be more expensive and less scenic however they are more comfortable and a little faster.

Getting Gara:

Gara City is the end of the line for the Hakone/Gara staion and our second leg of the journey. The trains from Hakone Station come in both the community train variety and romance car variety. I would recommend taking the community car if you are prone to getting lost or distracted, as all statements in the community cars are repeated in English, while only a few are stated in the romance car.

FootStomp: If at any time you choose to disembark the Hakone/Gara line before arriving at Gara station, ensure you have an actual ticket instead of using your Pasmo card. During most of the stops, the train conductor will disembark to take the tickets and check those leaving the train and multiple stops along the way directly state that Pasmo is not accepted. At Gara station, Pasmo is accepted and your entire trip can be charged there.

Along the route to Gara are multiple stops, frequent backtracks and interesting sites. However, the scenery is beautiful, with sweeping views of waterfalls, forested areas, wild boars and valleys. The ride up to Gara can take at worst 1 1/2 hours.

There is an alternative approach to Gara in the form of the multiple tour buses located outside of Hakone station. I did not actively take these buses and cannot report on them, however I do believe that some of these buses will take you directly up the mountain to Owakundai if you desire.

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The Cable Car and You:

The last leg of the journey is the easiest and the most impressive. Two cable car systems, one a simple grounded pulley system and one an overhead hanging cable system, are the last leg of the journey. From Gara station, you must purchase a 270 yen ticket up to Sounzan Station. The cable car leading up to Sounzan station is located right next to exit point of the trains for Gara Station. This cable car ride takes about 15 minutes

FootStomp: The cable car ride to Sounzan can be easily skipped with a brisk 30 minute walk up a rather steep mountain. While I would not advise this course of action as it’s easy to get lost, it is doable by taking one of the streets up the mountain, which criss-cross under and over the cable car itself.

At Sounzan Station the cable cars lead to the hanging system, pictured above. Not being a fan of heights myself, I can inform you that these cars are very safe despite the aggressive swinging that the simplest of breezes will cause. This cable car journey is not optional at this point, as there is no other way from Sounzan up the mountain. The price of the ticket, 1575 yen for both ways, reflects this commitment to getting to Owakundai.

The ride gives some of the most beautiful views of the area and takes 15 minutes or less to reach the Owakundai station. From Owakundai station, one can travel onward via cable car to Lake Ashi – which I will cover in a later post.

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Summery:

An excellent addition to anyone’s travels, however it should not be the sole focus of one’s trip but for the experience it is well worth it. Go if you’re in the area but don’t go just for the sake of going.

 

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Mountain Oyama: Hiking and Shrines

A far off perspective of the mountain stolen from Google Images.
A far off perspective of the mountain stolen

BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) :

Mountain Oyama is an excellent introduction to hiking in Japan and to getting accustomed to the shrines. While not stroller friendly, almost any child of walking age can be brought to the secondary summit with little to no problem.

Total Cost: 1200Yen (12 Dollars) per Adult

Special Equipment Needed: Walking Stick or Stabilization Pole

 

A picture from the actual MTN Oyama Summit. The land stretches for forever.
A picture from the actual MTN Oyama Summit. The land stretches for forever.

 

 Mountain Oyama Overview

Shadowed by it’s larger brother, Mount Oyama is easy to miss. Sitting on the border of Isehara City, this 1,252 metres (4,108 ft) high mountain sits prominently in the Kanagawa prefecture of Japan.

The mountain itself is the seat of several Shinto and Buddhist shrines, ranging from small statues along the various trails to a large set of shrines and impressive statues at the middle summit of the mountain.  Many hikers climb MTN Oyama during the advent of spring, as I was told by several fellow climbers I spoke with, to pray for their crops at the shrine. According to several cultural sites and some of the pamphlets, the middle summit’s shrine is called Oyama-Dera while the true summit’s shrine is related to the rain gods and called Oyama-Aufri.

Now, to address the strangeness of an above mentioned phrase: middle summit.  MTN Oyama has what I would call two summits, the first being at the end of the more predominant trails. The true summit of the mountain sits another hour to hour and a half above the mountain and most travelers do not attempt – some of those that do regret their attempt later on.

The nice part of the Onna-Zama trail just before the middle Summit
The nice part of the Onna-Zama trail just before the middle Summit

Getting to and Climbing MTN Oyama

To get to MTN Oyama relatively easy as long as you can navigate the Japanese’s train system. The first objective is to get to Isehara City, which is a quick hour away by train from Tokyo with only two train changes.  One of the best ways to find your way around the train system is to use the app Hyperdia, unless you speak and read Japanese fluently in which case you do not need this blog’s assistance.

From the Isehara train station, simply exit the platform and head out of the station. Upon exiting you will normally see several taxis, I would advise taking them unless you can speak casual Japanese. Straight beyond the taxi’s area is a covered area with, most likely, several buses waiting. The platform to use is Platform 4, which is the closest platform. Normally there will also be a line for Mountain Oyama during the climbing seasons (Late March to Early September). The bus ride is simple and rather quick and will deposit you outside of the Koma-Sando Approach.

Being composed 362 stairs – handily stated on the stairs themselves – the Koma-Sando Approach is a very welcoming introduction to MTN Oyama. To both sides of the well kept stairs are multiple shops, selling goods that range from fish-cakes, tastey treats and polished woodcarvings.

FootStomp: It here that I break the flow of my writing to make one thing very clear, a walking stick or some form of hiking pole is necessary when descending MTN Oyama, especially is one intends to make it to the true summit.  Along the Koma-Sando Approach are multiple shops selling wonderful walking sticks – ranging from beautiful canes that cost 12k yen (120 Dollars) to simple wood poles costing 800 yen (8 dollars). Unless you are an frequent climber, do not pass up the opportunity to get this supply early.

The approach quickly splits at it’s summit into two trails and the cable car system.  The easier trail is the Otoko-Zama trail and the more aggressive trail is the Onna-Zama trail, the cable car is the best method for young childern or those who want to get to summit early.

Cable Car: The Cable Car is very cheap to use and quiet quick. Costing about 450 yen (4.50 dollars) for an adult on a round-trip, the car’s run about every 20 minutes to the middle summit from 0700-1900 daily. The cars can be rather cramped, so I would advise you to get there early or be prepared to either wait or cram in. The cars are also available to ride down from the mountain and can give rest to tired hikers that came down from the mountain.

Otoko-Zama Trail: More taken care of than it’s brother trail but more work than the Cable Car, the Otoko-Zama trail sits just with the Goldilocks Zone of just right. A simple and winding trail, the Otoko-Zama passes several smaller shrines until it hits it’s rather steep, stone stairs.  At 25 minutes climb, these stairs deposit the hiker at the middle summit with little trouble.

Onna-Zama Trail: Being the more adventurous trail, I took the Onna-Zama trail first because it looked less traveled by, as per the Robert Frost poem. The sites the Onna-Zama trail provides are wonderous, full body trees cover the ragged and rough trail or stone stairs and logs all the way to the middle summit. While less inhabited, the trail itself is rougher and a much harder walk, which can still be preformed by novice climbers with only some difficultly.

One of many Tori Gates that are seen in proximity of the middle summit.
One of many Tori Gates that are seen in proximity of the middle summit.

Middle Summit Shrines: The trails and cable car all meet at the middle summit, which is a site to see. You’ll know instantly that you’ve reached the middle summit by the Tori gates, which are very much the gateways to holier sites of Japan.

Upon reaching the middle summit, there are several shops and a small restaurant to reward you for making it this far, for a decent price ranging from 100-1k yen in general price.

FootStomp: Before the set of stairs leading to the shrines, after the restaurant, is a small stone basin. This is a very important ritual of cleansing in Japan and can normally be seen near most shrines. The traditional way to do it is to take the small bowl that rests over the basin and to fill it with water. Clean your hand and face then dry them with a cloth. This is an act of respect before approaching these shrines.

An impressive statue that can be found at the middle summit
An impressive statue that can be found at the middle summit

The shrines are beautiful and full of several statues playing respect to a multitude of pantheons, which could be contained in a whole new post. I would recommend at least paying tribute to the center shrine by giving some of your coin yen, but I wouldn’t press you.

Under the central shrine is also a small fountain from which you can draw blessed water into an empty water bottle, which they sell at the entrance for 500 yen (5 dollars).

Out of the way and subdued, this entrance is easy to miss.
Out of the way and subdued, this entrance is easy to miss.

True Summit, An Unfortunate Climb

The climb to the true summit can be very deceiving. Upon reaching the middle summit, I thought I had reached the top in less than an hour and felt rather proud. Then I saw an odd sign off to the left corner central shrine, which read “Time To Summit 90 MIN”. This is not a lie, from the left of central shrine is the actual MTN Oyama climb.

To address several things, you will see some slightly insane things going up this climb. I watched someone ditch the trail to rock climb down the side of it instead and I saw at least 5 men running down, easily sprinting at 8.5mph, this trail. Do not, as I did, assume that these strange events mean this trail is simple, it is not.

The Summit Trail is not well kept and was clearly made over time by people traveling to the summit, as opposed to the neat and composed stairs of the previous trails.  The trail itself is very beautiful, with huge towering trees and sweeping views that only the best cameras can capture.

The trail itself can take about 60-90 minutes to climb to the top with multiple mini-summits that break up the straight climb to the small shrine at the top. The Summit’s Shrine is simple but endearing with a small restaurant selling near it. The view is well worth the pain of the climb.

Upon reaching the climb, the realization of what you’ve done becomes crystal clear, you now have to traverse that rather dangerous trail back down.  Going up this trail is not terribly hard as there are plenty of things to grab to hoist yourself up, this is not true going down. Without a walking stick, it is very easy to slip, slide and fall on this trail. Even with a stick, the trail is just uneven and compose of loose rocks in places. During the descent down I fell multiple times or had to half-jog down, using my momentum to keep me stable.

Onna-Zama trail's entrance, the path less taken.
Onna-Zama trail’s entrance, the path less taken.

Details:

Cost for travelling expenses from Tokyo to MTN Oyama and back

1,200 Yen (12.00 Dollars)

Time Spent Traveling

3 hours

Time from Bus Station to Summit

2 hours 30 minutes

Distance walked

7 miles.

Conditional Information

Seasonal Information:I climbed MTN Oyama at the start of Cherry Blossum Season, the start of spring. Most of the mountain was dry with a decent breeze blowing through the trees. However, the Summit Trail was mostly washed out and some parts had been clearly flooded, covered in mud and ice still. These parts were so dangerous that most of the seasoned climbers, or those not climbing the mountain for the first time at least, climbed around it rather than deal with it.

Night Climbs: Along Otoko-Zama trail were multiple electric lanterns – stone traditional lanterns retro fitted with light bulbs- and none along Onna-Zama. I would, however, advise against night climbs or even climbs near sunset until you are more familiar with the mountain. It is very easy to loose the trails if one isn’t careful and I see little way for rescue teams to easily access the mountain.

Family Fun: As an introduction to climbing or to the Shrines of Japan, you could do worse than MTN Oyama. It has several methods to reach the middle summit and the culture of the people working on the mountain seems to very accepting of children. However, be prepared for very few bathrooms – and yes, going the natural way is seen as very disrespectful to the gods of the mountain.

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Summery:

As an experience, MTN Oyama was very exciting and a blast to just jump into. A few small for-warnings could have saved me some scrapes and bruises but, overall, the trip was very exciting. I would high recommend climbing this mountain, especially if you have your eyes set on Mount Fuji, as this is in a way considered a decent precursor to it’s larger brother.