A Japanese friend and I hurriedly decided to hire a car and spend a night in nearby Hakone: an area just north of the Izu Peninsula, only about 80km (50 miles) from Tokyo. Hakone, along with the Izu Peninsula, is said to be Japan’s most popular tourist destination. Being the countryside it obviously has a lot of natural beauty, it is blessed with onsen (hot springs), as well as fine views of Mt Fuji. However, it owes its popularity as much, if not more, to being just an hour or two down the Tomei Expressway as to its natural endowments.
For all their vaunted devotion to nature, Japanese often seem curiously blind to it, or at least not so much charmed by it as by the idea of simply being away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Though, I’m not so sure even about that. In spite of the limited time we had, one thing my friend insisted on being included in the agenda was a visit to the massive Gotemba Premium Outlet not far from Hakone on the Tokyo side. The closer we got, the more crowded the country roads became with the massive convergence of vehicles on the Outlet. We parked in a huge parking building planted on the countryside and walked the 15 or so minutes to the Outlet.
It was not exactly a nightmare. It was simply a big suburban-style shopping center, built typically on the cheap, chock-a-block with clothing and accessory shops, and milling with thousands of people who’d rather sink back in the bourgeois humdrum of picking up a shirt at Gap for two-thirds the normal price than savor the rural sights and sounds of the countryside many of them so rarely get the chance to be out in. Odakyu runs a shuttle bus there and back to Tokyo. At least the rowdy, smelly, factory-like crush at interchanges on the expressway is understandable. But to go out of your way like that?
The hotel was pretty uninspiring, but we were lucky to get anything in the way of accommodation having left it till the day before our departure, so couldn’t be choosers. Had we planned properly I would have liked to have stayed in the Fujiya Hotel in Miyanoshita. We drove past it: a grand, elegant old place that has been in operation since 1878 and has hosted innumerable foreign dignitaries and celebrities. Near our hotel was the Pola Museum of Art, a gallery run by the Pola cosmetics company. Stylishly implanted into the surrounding scenery, it boasts some seriously great works of art, including Monet’s Waterlilies, lots of Renoir (Japanese women, especially, adore the Impressionists) and a special exhibition at the time of the so-called Shirakaba school of early twentieth century Japanese artists who were the vanguard of Western-style painting in Japan. Saneatsu Mushakoji (who also founded a socialist village) was the principal member, but of any of the members I was most attracted to the rich, vivid simplicity of Narashige Koide.
We also rode the Komagatake Ropeway, a ropeway that takes you through Hakone’s most thermally active area all the way to Ashi no Ko (Lake Ashi). We stopped off at the midway Komagatake ropeway station itself and walked up the short slope to where they boil eggs in the natural hot water. They sell the shiny blackened product for 500 yen for six, the eating of which is said to prolong life by seven years!
I had been to the Hakone Open-Air Museum before, and, not having much time, we didn’t go there this time. It’s far more worthy of a visit than the Gotemba Premium Outlet, featuring as it does the huge sculptures of the British sculptor Henry Moore, among others, and having its own dedicated Picasso Museum.
The map of Hakone is dotted with museums, halls and gardens that we would have liked to see but just didn’t have the time. In random order:
Owakudani Natural Science Museum
Hakone Teddy Bear Museum
Hakone Ashinoyu Flower Center
Wooden Handicraft Center (Hatajuku Yoriki Kaikan)
Hakone Old Highway Museum (Hakone Kyuukaidou Shiryoukan)
Narukawa Art Forum
Hakone Ashinoko Museum
Pearl-Shimokawa Memorial Hall commemorating the life of Yasaburo Shimonaka, the founder of Heibon-sha publishing company (accessible only by appointment)
Wild Grass Garden (Ashinoko Nogusa Kouen)
Hakone Check Point Exhibition (Hakone Sekisho Shiryoukan) relating to the toll gate established there in 1619
Hakone Detached Palace Garden (Onshi Hakone Kouen), the old resort palace of the Emperor Meiji
Recorve Hakone Art Museum
‘Hakone Glass Forest’: a Venetian glass museum
Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands
Hakone Mononofu no Sato Art Museum
Hakone 3-D Space Dinosaur World (Hakone 3-D Uchu-Kyouryuu Waarudo)
the interestingly named Mental Image Art Museum (Shinshouha no Kan)
Moa Museum of Art and its sister museum the
Hakone Museum of Art which specializes in Japanese ceramics through the ages
Sengokuhara Cultural Center
Hakone Begonia Garden
Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Natural History
Hakone Garden Museum
Hakone Folkcraft Hall (Hakone Kankou Bussankan)
Homma Museum of Art (which I really would have liked to go to)
Mori no Fureaikan: a small natural history museum on the shore of Lake Ashii.
Guide to Hakone
Guide to Tokyo
Amazon Store Japan
Onsen in Japan
Saturday, September 24, 2005