12 July, 2010

Wherefore Art Thou, Mt. Fuji?

Most tourists visit the Hakone area west of Tokyo in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the symmetrical cone of Japan's highest peak, Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, there is one big problem - Mt. Fuji is an exceptionally shy volcano who prefers to stay hidden behind the clouds, much like introverted people who have to be cajoled into attending parties. Thus, Mt. Fuji sightings can be a hit-and-miss affair. (If this were Disneyland, the skies would clear and the volcano would belch on the hour).

In fact, Hakone Area Map that came with my Hakone Free Pass (which entitles the bearer to round-trip train transport between Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and Hakone-Yumoto Station, as well as boarding privileges on an assortment of transport - cable cars, gondolas, buses, sightseeing ships - in Hakone) enumerates two Mt. Fuji viewpoints: the first one is from high up on the Hakone Ropeway, and the second from the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise on Lake Ashi (as pictured below).

I had the fortune of taking the two above-mentioned modes of transport in Hakone (arigato gozaimasu, Hakone Free Pass!), and not for a single moment did Mt. Fuji even peek from behind the curtain. The visit to Hakone wasn't a total loss though, since I had absolutely zero expectations (and hope) of a sighting in the first place, and there were lots of other cool stuff to do in Hakone.

Most memorable was taking the Hakone Tozan Cablecar, a short ten minute ride up the mountains, then switching to the Hakone Ropeway for the ride overlooking the Owakudani valley, formed by volcanic explosions a very long time ago. A stop at Owakudani was made to taste the special "black eggs" (hard boiled eggs dipped in steaming hot springs). The taste wasn't so special though, since they tasted just like normal hard boiled eggs.

We were careful not to get too close to the pools of hot springs spewing dangerous volcanic gases from below the surface, plus the putrid rotten-egg smell of sulfur became a bit overwhelming. Lots of student tour groups were around to enjoy this unique attraction though.

Another ride on the Hakone Ropeway brought us to Togendai-ko, the departure point for the pirate-ship sightseeing cruise on Lake Ashi that brings us to the town on the other side, Hakonemachi.

The cruise itself was quite uneventful; one can simply appreciate the scenery as the ship slowly makes its way across the lake, or go nuts frantically looking around and squinting at the sun for a hint of the majestic volcano showing its face. I opted for the former, and also diverted myself by observing other ship passengers posing for pictures with a costumed pirate making the rounds of the deck.

The morning's sightseeing on various modes of transport came to an close, with the last leg the Hakone Tozan bus back to Gora station, where postcards of bashful Mt. Fuji are available for purchase. Sometimes these picture-perfect images are a good (and only) substitute to seeing the real thing.

P.S. I also wrote an article about the Hakone Open Air Museum.

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