Autumn Japan Trip | 11 Days in Japan | Day 3-4 Hakone
We both woke up early on the morning of which we left Kawaguchiko to catch the 10:10am express bus that took us to the Gotemba Premium Outlet; from which we could catch a another bus that would take us to the Hakone Onsen district. The Gotemba Premium Outlet is a large outdoor shopping center hosting a range of high street and luxury brands, offering good quality merchandise at a discounted price. It is perfect for all my fellow shopaholics. Although I didn't choose to interchange at Gotemba because I wanted to shop, but it certainly could be an ideal option for those who are.
At first we thought this local bus that's we're going to take runs rapidly (at least according to its ordinary schedule). What we did not anticipate is that due to typhoon Hagibis that has heavily affected the Kantō region of Japan in late October, all the train service has been suspended and a lot of carriage ways were destroyed. As a result, the local bus service has been replaced by replacement bus services that runs on a sparse schedule. Although our plan was to spend couple of hours at the outlet shopping and have lunch, we decided not to stay as we were worried that if we do so we might miss the bus and hence miss our hotel check-in time. While we waited for the bus that had yet to come, we managed to find a decent bakery inside the outlet called Fauchon Paris, and we bought a cinnamon bun and a citrus glazed madeleine for later. we also enjoyed our packed lunch, which were 2 rice balls that we bought in the morning at the Lawson near our hotel while hanged around the bus terminal. One of the best thing about Japan is that their convenient store food are amazing (unlike those in London)! Their rice balls are so good and so easy to get, I would recommend anyone to get them even if it's only going to be a quick snack.
Eventually we hopped onto the local bus that took us to Gora, Hakone. Since the normal bus service was suspended, Gora was as far as the replacement bus service would take us to. Gora is one of the main transportation hub in the Hakone onsen area where a lot of local buses, highway buses, and trains stops or terminates at. Despite it being a transportation hub, without having the appropiate replacement bus schedule on hand and with all the trains suspended, we were a little confused about how we were supposed to reach our hotel. We looked around and found a tourist information center like booth just next to the closed train station. The staff there spent couple of minutes looking up the information he had, and suggested that we should take a cab instead of bus as we were carrying two large suitcases. We took his advice and found a taxi right next to the tourist information center. Cabs in Japan are known to be super expensive and we were quite nervous when we hopped onto it. The taxi driver told us it would cost about 1000 JYP to get us to the hotel, but it turns out to be only 830JYP which was so worth it. The hotel was located deep in the woods, and with all that luggages we had while not knowing the way, it wouldn't have been safe really for us to walk there from the bus station, even though it probably won't take us more than 30 minutes by foot.
Anyways, despite the little fuss it took us to get to our hotel, I was very happy with our stay at Mizunoto (水の音). This Onsen hotel made us feel at home and very welcoming since the moment we stepped into it. Like many other traditional onsen hotels, the interior is composed of warm wood toned furniture and dim lighting, decorated with couple of water fountains to create a quaint and serene atmosphere. The friendly and welcoming staff there aren't fluent in English but they can communicate with basic terms and phrases. Anyways, despite the fuss it took us to get there, I was very happy with our stay at Mizunoto (水の音). This Onsen hotel made us feel at home and very welcomed the moment we stepped into it. Like many other traditional Japanese onsen hotels, the interior of the building complex is composed of warm, wood toned furniture and dim lighting, decorated with couple of water fountains to create that quaint and serene atmosphere we all look for. The friendly and welcoming staff there aren't fluent in English, but they could communicate with basic terms and phrases so it shouldn't worry you too much if you planned to come here in the future.
Since our check-in time was at 3 pm and we've arrived early, the staff kindly asked us to leave our baggage behind, which will then be delivered directly to our room. In the meanwhile, we were welcomed to enjoy some quiet time at the balcony where complimentary tea and coffee were served at a self service manner. As tempting as that sounded, we kindly declined as we wanted to go for a walk in a nearby garden (which was know to have amazing autumn foliage) called the Kowakidani Horaien Garden.
This lovely garden is only minutes walk away from our hotel, and the timing of visit was spot on, with all the maple trees turning red. It would have been the perfect spot for a romantic autumn picnic. Some parts of the garden was still under maintenance while they try to repair the damage caused by the storm which was quite unfortunate. Some of the steps went loose and those stairs was quite a challenge to climb. Despite all that, it's still a beautiful garden and it was perfect for a relaxing afternoon walk in the area.
After our little adventure, we headed back to the hotel, found a nice spot on the balcony and enjoyed the cinnamon bun we bought earlier while overlooking the luscious forest. I honestly cannot think of a chiller way of enjoying a lovely and quiet afternoon like this one.
We didn't wait long before the staff came and lead us to our room. Although the room was located in a corner that's right next to the reception lobby, we didn't have any problem with noise or annoyance throughout our stay. We have been quite happy with it in fact. The room was very spacious and comfortable. It came with great amenities including a variety of snacks, a coffee brewing kit, teas, toothbrushes, and all standard hotel toiletries. The loo was separated from the actual bathroom which was located at the balcony. I can't even tell you how much I appreciate this design, because honestly, I had no intention stepping into the freezing balcony in the middle of the night just because I had to pee. The shower and bath tub are both located on the balcony in a semi-outdoor area. It was super cold out there indeed but thankfully the water heated up rapidly and it wasn't too much of a pain to take our showers there. As for the bathtub we didn't get to use it at all, as there were 3 private outdoor onsen baths on the public bath floor that we could use, and they were so much better. It's more spacious and it's build upon the woods. There is no better ways to enjoy a bath than to bathe within the autumn foliage.
After chilling a bit in our room and taking a nice hot bath in the private onsen, we turned up at the restaurant for dinner at 5pm sharp, as requested. The kaiseki banquet style dinner started with an appetizer platter, followed by assorted sashimi, a steamed kabu raddish and salmon dish, grilled meat, seafood and vegetables, then a hashiyasume (palate-cleansing dish) of sanma (pacific saury), a rice dish with tai-fish, Japanese pickles, miso soup and finally finished with some lovely dessert. Each of every dishes were super delicious on the palette, and they were so pleasant to the eye. In addition to the amazing food, our dinner course also came with a 60-minute all your can drink menu. Bae tried out a few of their different options but I chose to stick to some good old Japanese sake. After the satisfying dinner, we went back to our room and relaxed for a little bit before heading to the onsen bath again, because why not? Onsen hotels are about good food, good baths and good time after all. The temperature dropped quite a bit after sunset, and that satisfaction of jumping into a tub of hot water while having a nice chat on a cold autumn night was one of a kind.
Did you know taking a hot bath could burn as many calories as a 30-min walk? That was a perfect excuse for us to enjoy the complimentary late night ramen served in the hotel! This hotel offers a wide range of food and snacks at different times everyday. The late night ramen was one of them. All we had to do was to go to the restaurant and find an unoccupied table after ordering at the reception. There was only one item on the menu really so all we needed to tell the receptionist was how many bowls of noodles we wanted. Since it's meant to be a late night snack, the bowl of noodle is half of its usual size, but we pretty much could order as many bowl as we want. There were also complimentary alcohol-free beers, barley tea and iced water available at the self served drinks corner. After the bowl of warm ramen noodle we did consider visiting the bath, again, but eventually the idea was abandoned, as we were so full from all the food we ate, and we were so tired from our long journey. So we went to bed quite early that night and prepared to get up early the following morning as we had a full day of schedule planned.
On the next morning, we had the biggest breakfast we ever had in our lives. The Japanese style 'breakfast' served in this hotel looked more like a lunch than breakfast to us to be honest. It was so much food, especially after the big dinner we had on the night before! There were grilled fish and mentaigo (fish roe) which we could warm up with the grill on the table; steamed egg; tororo (grated yam) which is best enjoyed with steamed rice; tamagoyaki (Japanese style egg omelette), pickles, salad, some stewed dishes (stewed fish and stewed dried raddish); negitoro (minced sashimi tuna belly mixed with spring onions); kinpira gobo; and a warm dish of chicken, fish cake and pumpkin served in warm broth. White steamed rice and miso soup are served unlimitedly, although I doubt anyone would ask for a refill after having all that food!
After breakfast, we obtained a map from the concierge, showing us all the bus routes and schedules. But honestly we needed a walk so badly after that huge breakfast we had. So instead of taking the bus, we walked to the Gora station instead. From there, we took a bus which took us to the famous susuki grass field. The Sengokuhara Susuki Grass Fields (仙石原すすき草原) is a must-go for those visiting Hakone during autumn and winter. The best part about it is that it's completely free. Under normal circumstances visiting the grass field would be fairly painless as the hill is not steep, and the path are quite well maintained. Unfortunately due to the typhoon, the highway was destroyed and it made walking there slightly challenging. But it was totally worth it as the view was simply stunning. This is the perfect spot for taking all those scenic Instagram shots.
The weather was rather warm and sunny for a autumn day. I surprisingly found myself sweating after our walk at the susuki grass field. But of course, the universe always have something prepared for us. We were lucky enough to find a small cafe by the corner near the grass field, which specialized in yomogi (Japanese mugwort) desserts. The yomogi soft serve ice cream was delicious and was just what I needed in a warm sunny day like this one. We took a short break and enjoyed the sweet, cooling cone of delicacy before heading to the Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands (箱根湿生花園). This botanical garden is the home to a variety of flowers, ferns, trees and more. There is a preservation area in the garden where visitors can find a vast susuki grass field. Not as big as the one we have visited earlier in the day, but it still was a considerable sized field with wooden panels to walk on which made our lives so much easier.
We spent couple of hours in the botanical garden, taking all the lovely photos and finally digested all the food we had in the morning. We then went to the Hakone Venetian Glass Museum (箱根ガラスの森), not far south from the garden. I was amazed by how well the Japanese managed to blend man made, glass art pieces into the nature. The glass corridor is the museum's most iconic landmark. and walking through it is a magical experience. The glass shimmers and reflects sunlight in a way that's so beautiful, it's beyond description. The museum has their own permanent collection as well as seasonal exhibitions. A wide range of exhibits could be found here, from ancient pieces to futuristic items. I wouldn't have imagined how such sophisticated artificial objects could be incorporated into the nature in such seamless way, as if they were meant to be there since the start of time. Every single blossom in the rose garden was made out of coloured glass. They were so well made that one wouldn't be able to tell unless then inspect it up close. Hidden deep inside the museum is the momiji path, built into the woods. We've visited at the perfect timing as the leaves have began to turned red and the weather that day was just perfect for it.
As much as we enjoyed our time at the museum, we had to leave as we needed to catch the ship that brought us to the world famous Hakone Shrine. The ship that took us across Lake Ashi was operated by the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise, built to mimic a pirate ship. Glimmering under the bright afternoon sun, this glorious golden ship is impossible to miss. The sightseeing cruise is one of the quickest ways to get tourist across the lake, dropping them off at a pier that's only steps away from the Hakone Shrine.
This shrine is most famous for its torii-gate-on-the-water. According to legend, there was a vicious nine-headed dragon who resided in the Lake Ashi, causing storm and constantly brought natural disasters. A monk came by and he pitied the poor villagers who're suffering because of it. He tamed the dragon, and the people of Hakone has worshiped the dragon as a patron god of the lake since then. Until this very day, there are still annual ceremony held on the 31st July each year. During the ceremony, offerings are placed on a boat and the boat is then pushed into the lake through the on-the-water torii gate. If the boat sinks into the lake, it means the dragon god has accepted the offerings. Conversely, if the offering floats back to the surface of the lake, it means the dragon god did not accept the offering and natural disasters are foreseen to happen. The most recent incident happened in 1923. During then, the offering did not sink into the lake, and few months after that, the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake occurred, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. This was also one of the most important story that made this shrine of the best known ones in Japan.
For all the spiritual practitioners out there, I also recommend visiting the wishing well (成就水盤) inside the shrine, where the 'dragon-god-water' flows. The natural spring water flows out of this well is believed to have superior cleansing and purifying properties. Some drink from it as a kind of self cleansing, while some, like myself, uses it to cleanse and recharge crystals.
We were very lucky to have captured the beautiful torii during golden hour, and managed to catch a bus back to our hotel before the sun sets completely. Hakone is not a big city and it could be intimidating walking in the mountain when it gets dark. By the time we got back to the onsen hotel, we still have got couple of hours before dinner. We were so grateful that the hotel serves light snacks before dinner time as we needed it so badly because we practically skipped lunch. Dinner was served at 8, which gave us just enough time to have a quick shower and to enjoyed a hot bath in the private outdoor onsen (again!), which was an event much appreciated after a long day of walking in a breezy autumn day.
The dinner was just as delicious and well designed as the previous night. It started with an appetizer platter, followed by a warm soup and a sashimi course, then a grilled dish of salmon, chestnut, shrimp and veggies,. For the main course we both went for the beef sukiyaki which is a Japanese style soy-based hot pot dish. A palate cleansing dish was then served before the assorted tempura course. As per any other Japanese kaiseki dinner, rice, miso soup and pickles were served, before the meal ended with a dessert. As much as we loved their food, we were so full at this point that we didn't manage to get another of their late night ramen, and we pretty much called it a day.
Early on the following morning we enjoyed another of their delicious breakfast. The best thing about onsen hotels is that they almost always have an alternative menu for those who're staying with them for more than one night, so we did not have to eat the same food for two consecutive days. We were also very lucky this morning as we were allocated to the table by the windows, and we enjoyed the gorgeous view while we indulged the amazing food at the same time.
After breakfast, we checked out from the hotel and headed straight back to Tokyo by train. To see what happened in Tokyo, and to check out all the places we've visited (with lots of beautiful pictures), come back for my next travel blog post and you would find out!