Last but not least on my first trip to Japan is Hakone, a beautiful hot spring or ‘onsen’ region near Tokyo and Mt Fuji. Unfortunately, due to increased volcanic activity, this area was closed for some time last year and recently reopened to tourists, but parts of its are still closed. There is a sightseeing loop in Hakone which covers a number of transportation modes (train, cable car, boat, bus) and is a good way to enjoy the scenery. The highlight was the cable car ride which showcased panoramic views of the area. We were lucky that the weather was amazing when we were there, with clear blue skies such that we had a great view of Mt Fuji.
At the end of the cable car ride is Owakudani, which is also known as the Valley of Hell by locals. The namesake is thanks to volcanic activity in the area, with sulfurous fumes, bubbling pools and barren rocks. The first thing that hit us was the smell of rotten eggs. The funny thing was that you can buy ‘onsen’ eggs here, eggs which have been cooked in the hot spring water and shells are blackened by the sulfur. Rumour has it that eating these black eggs can increase ones lifespan. As they were sold in multiples of five and we just had lunch, we had to pass on this opportunity.
We spent a night in Hakone Ginyu, a luxurious ryokan which costs a fortune but was worth every penny. Hakone Ginyu is one of the many Japanese guest houses in Hakone which take advantage of the natural hot spring waters and offer a traditional onsen experience. Prior to the trip, we had our doubts about onsen – it’s just bathing in hot water right? We were also worried about having to soak in the same bath as strangers, completely naked. This was one of the reasons we chose Hakone Ginyu, as every room has a private hot spring bath.
Our concerns and doubts were quickly forgotten when we arrived. Hakone Ginyu is hands down the most beautiful hotel we’ve ever been to. The moment we arrived at the lobby, we were greeted with beautiful views of the mountains. In line with the Japanese style, the ryokan is covered in tatami mats, furnished and decorated with wood and water elements and had a very calming and zen effect. Service was excellent – we were assigned a personal waitress/serving staff who introduced us to the facilities and also served us meals (traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast) in our room.
During our less than 24 hour stay in Hakone Ginyu, we bathed nearly 10 times! I have never felt so clean or relaxed. The etiquette is to take a shower before soaking in the onsen, for hygiene issues. The high temperature of the hot spring water melted away the tension in our body and was more effective than any massages we’ve had. As the weather was cool, with crisp, fresh mountain air, we hopped in and out of the bath and in between, we just lounged about the balcony in our Japanese bathrobes and enjoying the calm and serenity.
Other than the bath on our balcony, there were also a couple of shared baths (same sex only) which had indoor and outdoor baths. As there is a private bath in every room, we hardly saw anyone in the shared baths. My favourite was a large outdoor bath which went right to the edge of the building and was basically an infinity pool. It’s hard to describe just how calming it felt soaking in the onsen while enjoying the view, breathing the fresh air and hearing only the sound of nature.
There is also a bar in Hakone Ginyu, where we had a couple of drinks. We made the mistake of going for yet another soak in the onsen after our drinks. The high temperature increased our blood circulation and the alcohol got into our system pretty quickly. So we emerged from the bath half drunk and collapsed onto the comfortable Japanese beds that had been set up for us. The next thing I knew, it was the morning after. We were very sad to leave Hakone Ginyu as it also marked the end of our two week trip. Needless to say, this experience made us addicted to onsen and we’ve been to a few other onsen ryokans since, but we have yet to find somewhere as unforgettable and beautiful as Hakone Ginyu.