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Escape from Tokyo: A Trip to Hakone

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On our last weekend in Japan we abandoned Tokyo and headed for the hills of the Hakone National Park, in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Centered around a large crater lake, this is an area of hot springs, spas, traditional hotels, forests and mountains. It was the perfect antidote to the Big City Sickness with which we’d slowly but surely become infected.

Getting To Mount Fuji

In order to arrive at the Hakone region, we made use of every transportation method ever conceived by man, with the sole exception of Segway. We had made a reservation at a traditional ryokan hotel in the mountain town of Sengokuhara, and the day before leaving, I sat down to the considerable task of figuring out the directions:

1. Subway from Sumiyoshi Station
2. Bullet Train from Tokyo Station
3. Funicular Rail from Odawara Station
4. Mountain Railway from Hakone-Yumoto Station
5. Cable Car from Gora Station
6. Ropeway from Sounzan Station
7. Bus from Togendai

This sounds hopelessly complicated, but it was a lot more straightforward than I had feared. Though there are a large number of individual steps, the road to Hakone is firmly established, and we would step off one train, ropeway, or cable car, directly onto the next. From Odawara, the route climbs steadily into the hills, into increasingly beautiful nature, necessitating ever more extreme modes of transportation.

Getting there, as the saying goes, is half the fun. But in Hakone’s case, it might be more like 70%. At one point along the ropeway, as you’re cresting the hill before Owakudani Station, Mount Fuji suddenly appears, impossibly large on the horizon. Its profile is among the most famous in the world, and the view from our suspended car was unforgettable.

Getting To Mount Fuji

Midway along the ropeway is Owakudani, which is an area of geothermal activity. We disembarked to explore the hissing springs and “enjoy” the stench of sulfur. Owakudani is known for its hot spring hard-boiled eggs, whose shells have turned a beautiful color of purple-black, due to the mineral properties of the water. The area reminded us a lot of our time in Iceland, albeit with sixty thousand times the people. Not even in Hakone, it seems, can one rid oneself completely of Tokyo’s crowds.

Luckily, Japanese groups tend to stick tightly together, and if you can manage to peel yourself away, finding solitude isn’t impossible. Instead of rejoining the lines waiting for the ropeway, we walked from Owakudani to Ubako Station on a wooded path leading down the hill, and were the only ones doing so. Near the path’s end, we encountered a quiet spa with an adjoining temple, seemingly forgotten in the woods. There was nobody here, so we sat down in front of the main shrine and made a snack of our blackened sulfur eggs.

The ropeway then continues to Togendai Station at the northern shore of Lake Ashi, a large lake formed by volcanic explosions. A boat ride sounded tempting, but we decided to leave it for the next day. This had already been a long journey, and we were anxious to arrive the ryokan where we’d be staying the night…

Locations on our Map: Odawara Station | Owakudani Station | Quiet Temple/Spa in the Woods | Togendai Station (Lake Ashi)

Cheap Flights To Tokyo

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July 9, 2014 at 3:19 pm Comments (3)

Odaiba Island

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When Tokyo wants to relax, it comes to Odaiba, an artificial island which began as a set of defensive fortifications but has become the city’s premiere entertainment zone. With museums, arcades, parks and more shopping than a person could possibly need, a day spent in Odaiba will almost certainly be expensive, tiring and loads of fun.

Odaiba Island Tokyo

Odaiba originally came into being in the 1850s, after US Admiral Matthew Perry threatened to take Japan to war over its isolationism. Alarmed, the Shogun had land filled in, to create six small artificial islands on which to station guns. In fact, the word “Daiba” means “Battery,” and there’s a small park where you can see some of the original fortifications.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Odaiba found its modern calling: entertainment. In a concentrated effort to bring life to an almost forgotten corner of the city, Tokyo began to revitalize Odaiba. More land was filled in, the Rainbow Bridge was built in 1993 and the Yurikamome Elevated Monorail debuted a few years later. With improved access and relatively cheap land, shopping malls sprouted like weeds: Decks, Diver City, Aqua City, Venus Fort. The Tokyo Big Sight convention center opened in 1996. The Oedo Onsen Spa was built in 2003, encouraging overnight stays. Eventually, you could find insane arcades like Joypolis, museums like the Miraikan, and entertainment complexes like Palette Town, which features the Daikanransha Ferris Wheel, Toyota’s Mega Web, and the Zepp Tokyo Music Hall.

Through sheer force of will, Odaiba had become an attractive destination and today people flock here in hordes, especially on the weekends. We joined leisure-seeking Tokyoites on a sunny Saturday, arriving via the Yurikamome line from Shimbashi Station. The monorail is all above-ground and offers superb views as it completes a large 360° loop before crossing the Rainbow Bridge to reach Odaiba.

We exited at Odaiba-kaihinkōen Station and walked to the beach. I wouldn’t want to swim in Tokyo Bay, but the murky, discolored water doesn’t seem to bother the Japanese, who were wind-surfing, splashing around and building sand castles. Leaving the beach, we got lunch at Decks, a shopping mall in which we found a throwback arcade. We played old-time pachinko and challenged each other to the original Super Mario Brothers from 1985. (I could still remember every jump, and knew exactly which blocks to hit, so I expected to prevail. But apparently Jürgen had also owned a Nintendo, and ended up winning easily.)

Odaiba Island Tokyo

Continuing our walk down the shore, we encountered a familiar old friend whom I hadn’t expected to meet in Japan. Staring at us from the waters of Tokyo Bay was the Statue of Liberty — not as large as the one in New York Harbor, but otherwise identical. She came to Japan in 1998 as part of the country’s “French Year” initiative, and was popular enough to earn a permanent spot on Odaiba.

From the statue, we ventured into the Fuji TV Headquarters, recognizable by the massive globe suspended far above the ground, in the middle of the building. Inside the headquarters, you can see the studios and visit a variety of shops and exhibitions dedicated to the programs of Fuji TV. We paid extra to ascend into the metal ball, which is 23 meters in diameter and features an observation deck. Unfortunately, the view wasn’t the best, and you’re forced to contend with a never-ending barrage of blaring advertisements and promotions for the channel’s newest hits.

Our plan had been to tour all of Odaiba in one day, but the sun was already starting to sink before we finished with Fuji TV. We walked quickly through Aqua City, another shopping mall next to Decks, and then collapsed into chairs at a no-nonsense beach bar selling cold cans of beer to watch the city across the bay light up under the darkening sky. It was a crazy afternoon, and we’d barely even seen a fraction of everything Odaiba has to offer. It seemed a safe bet we’d be returning, and in fact we did, the very next day.

Locations on our Map: Decks | Statue of Liberty | Aqua City | Our Favorite Beach Bar

Weird Snacks From Japan

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June 10, 2014 at 2:17 pm Comments (8)

Tokyo Station and Marunouchi

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When Tokyo Station opened in 1914, it served four trains. But just like the city itself, the station has grown a little. Today, the sprawling station in the middle of the city serves an almost incomprehensible 3000 trains, every single day.

Tokyo Station

The classic, red-brick western facade of Tokyo Station was designed by architect Tatsuno Kingo to evoke Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. Although it was boldly European and cutting-edge when constructed, today it looks positively quaint among the skyscrapers that surround it. But if it’s “modern” you’re looking for, just walk around to the sleek, steel-and-glass, eastern half of the station, built to accommodate Japan’s famous Shinkansen bullet trains.

Across from the station’s classic facade, is the neighborhood of Marunouchi. Meaning “Between the Moats,” Marunouchi literally occupies the area which lies between the two artificial moats that once protected the Imperial Palace. In the days of the Shogun, this was home to the more trusted and important lords, but with the rise of the Meiji Empire, the space was given over to business interests. Today, it’s one skyscraper after the other, each with its own shopping complex and set of restaurants.

During our time in Tokyo, we toured most of these skyscrapers, usually on the hunt for lunch. Each has a wide variety of restaurants, which almost always offer some sort of lunchtime special. Our favorite was the Kitte Building, which opened in 2013. Here, you can find a number of excellent places to eat (don’t pass up the okonomiyaki at Restaurant Nana), a dazzling line-up of shops can suck up hours of time, and the sixth-floor garden provides one of the best views of Tokyo Station.

Locations on our Map: Tokyo Station West Entrance | Kitte Building

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March 25, 2014 at 9:19 am Comments (4)
Escape from Tokyo: A Trip to Hakone On our last weekend in Japan we abandoned Tokyo and headed for the hills of the Hakone National Park, in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Centered around a large crater lake, this is an area of hot springs, spas, traditional hotels, forests and mountains. It was the perfect antidote to the Big City Sickness with which we'd slowly but surely become infected.
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