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Friday, Nov. 5, 2004

HOT-SPRING HEAVEN

Hitting high spots in Hakone


Staff writer

Autumn is probably the best season for travel, with the weather turning cooler but not too cold, and leaves imbuing the landscape with a rich kaleidoscope of color. Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture is one of the best places to admire the autumn hues. And there is still time to enjoy the late autumn colors in this small hot-spring resort while relaxing in an open-air bath.

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The ropeway ride will take you up to the top of Mount Komagatake where there are spectacular views of Mount Fuji, Lake Ashi and the Fuji-Hakone-Izu national Park.

Hakone, located about 90 km west of Tokyo, is a famous onsen (hot spring) resort area set in a beautiful mountain region in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. The resort is known for its modern tourist facilities as well as its historical and cultural riches. And the area, with Lake Ashi near its center, offers spectacular views of Mount Fuji.

Since Hakone is easily accessible from Tokyo by train or car and transport within the resort is efficient, visitors will find it easy to reach and then get around the area.

The Odakyu Line's superexpress, called the "Romance-Car," takes 1 1/2 hours from Shinjuku to the end of the line, Hakone-Yumoto. From there, the quaint little Hakone Tozan Railway climbs steeply up Mount Sounzan to Gora. The switchback line crosses the gorge, passes through many tunnels and runs past a number of charming onsen.

From Gora, a cable car continues the journey up Mount Sounzan to Sounzan Onsen. From the onsen, a ropeway takes travelers over the Owakudani valley to the Togendai district beside Lake Ashi. The views of Mount Fuji from the gondola and the clouds of steam rising from the valley are truly magnificent.

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A mountain railway climbs uphill from Hakone-Yumoto to Gora, allowing passengers to enjoy breathtaking views of the gorge below in all its autumn finery.

Pleasure boats on Lake Ashi offer breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. One of the most noted maple-viewing spots in Hakone is along the east shore of Lake Ashi. The flame-tinted leaves of the maple and other deciduous trees are best viewed from the boats on the lake. A regular boat service links the districts that line the lake's shore -- Togendai and Kojiri to the north and Moto-Hakone and Hakone-Machi to the south. Small pleasure boats and yachts may be hired at the ferry stations of Moto-Hakone, Hakone-Machi and Kojiri.

This mountainous region, formed by volcanic activity some 400,000 years ago, first gained popularity as a hot-spring resort during the Edo Period (1603-1867). At that time, only feudal lords or wealthy merchants could afford to stay in the onsen town, but the eventual development of road and rail systems and the discovery of even more natural hot springs allowed ordinary people to visit and made it one of the most popular resort destinations in Japan.

The mountainous area has an abundance of natural hot springs -- currently 17 hot-spring spots are registered in Hakone, including the Hakone-Yumoto, Miyanoshita, Gora and Owakudani onsen. Each has its own unique characteristics, and the medicinal values of the springs' waters are believed to be rich and varied.

Hakone-Yumoto is the main gateway to the Hakone onsen district. Yumoto Onsen, the oldest and largest in the area, originates at the intersections of the Sukumo and Hayakawa rivers, two outlets of Lake Ashi. High-quality inns line a picturesque gorge that traverses the peaceful area. The thermal hot springs are said to be beneficial for nervous ailments, rheumatism, chronic diseases of the digestive organs, etc.

Miyanoshita, about 20 minutes from Hakone-Yumoto by the Hakone Tozan Railway, is the most thriving onsen area in Hakone, boasting many excellent hotels and inns. One of them is Fujiya Hotel, Japan's first Western-style luxury hotel, which has attracted many foreign travelers since opening in 1878. Because the onsen is very popular with foreigners, many signs are written in English and many interesting antique and souvenir shops can be found in the area. The medicinal value of its hot springs are famed for treating chronic diseases of the digestive organs, nervous ailments, rheumatism and gout.

Next stop from Miyanoshita on the Hakone Tozan line is Kowakudani, which literally means "lesser boiling valley." It is another popular onsen town featuring bubbling, sulfurous hot springs. Steam that spurts violently out of hissing vents is diverted to heat nearby baths and saunas. The hot-spring water is believed to be efficacious against nervous disorders, anemia and skin diseases.

Gora Onsen is on the Tozan Tetsudo mountain railway and it's spring comes up from Mount Sounzan, a center of volcanic activity. The saline, sulfurous water is believed to have therapeutic value for the treatment of rheumatism, paralysis and skin diseases. Mount Myojo, close to the onsen, is the site for the Daimonji Festival, which features a huge bonfire built on the mountainside in the shape of the kanji character meaning "great" or "big." From here, a cable car climbs to the peak of Mount Sounzan.

Owakudani, which literally means "large boiling valley," is about 13 minutes from Mount Sounzan by a ropeway and lies in the ancient crater of Mount Kamiyama. The heady fragrance of sulfur engulfs the entire gorge and clouds of steam escape from crevasses as hot water bubbles up. There is a trail that leads among the bubbling and boiling hot springs as well as a tourist facility that sells, among other souvenirs, eggs that have been boiled in one of the hot springs. The chemicals in the water turn the color of the eggshells to black. If you eat one of those eggs, it is said that you can live five years longer. And on clear days there is a marvelous view of Mount Fuji.

Sengokuhara Onsen, 15 minutes by bus from Miyanoshita, is a quiet hot-spring resort hidden away in deep forest. The Sengokuhara Plateau, spreading outward to the west, is overgrown with clusters of marsh plants. It also boasts excellent golf courses. To the south, the plain tails off into Lake Ashi.

Near the lake, there are three different onsen spots. Yunohanasawa Onsen is located at the highest point among Hakone's 17 hot-spring spots, commanding a view as far as Enoshima Island and Miura Peninsula. Ashinoyu Onsen was a popular center for academics and artists in the Edo Period and Ashinoko Onsen, one of the most recent discoveries in Hakone, is conveniently located for visits to historic spots such as Hakone Shrine or Old Hakone Checkpoint, which was established in the Edo Period as a safeguard against rebellious feudal lords.

Because of its accessibility, Hakone has become one of the most popular destinations for day-trippers. Even for those who don't have time to stay overnight, there are many onsen facilities that accommodate short-stay visitors.

For those arriving unprepared, bathhouses usually provide everything needed, from towels and soap to shampoo and toothbrushes.

Whether you stay overnight or just make a day trip, Hakone's onsen will provide a memorable experience, serving as an oasis for the mind and body.



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