The Pirates of Ashinoko

Continued from Road Trip (Railroad That Is) AND Putting On Airs

When we left off, K and Pandabonium were on the way back to the Fujiya hotel for dinner and a rest after a long day...

Fujiya French cuisine

We weren't actually going to have dinner at the hotel. They are famous for their French cuisine, but the dinners there cost ¥15000 per person (US$131.00) - oh, you want wine with that? A bottle of wine will run you anywhere from ¥4000 to ¥10000 ($35 to $87).

Fujiya Japanese dinner

They also have a Japanese restaurant which is quite beautiful and naturally offers exceptional food, but the prices likewise will slim down even a hefty wallet.

"Putting on airs" is fun, but actually paying for it isn't. Not quite what we had in mind anyway, so we walked around the little town of Miyanoshita to find more simple and affordable fare.

We wanted to try a tempura restaurant, but for some reason it was closed, so we settled for Italian. Our expectations for Italian food has been forever jaded by our favorite local restaurant - Wordsworth. The food this night was OK, but the seasonings and flavorings were too strong in each of our pasta dishes. We couldn't complain too much as the tab was a small fraction of the prices at the hotel.

During dinner we heard rumblings of thunder and on the way back to the hotel I happened to glance up a the sky just as a bolt of cloud-to-cloud lightning flashed over the entire length of the valley. Whoa.

K turned the TV on to get a weather report. We had read of cloudy weather being predicted for our trip, but tried to brush it off and hope the cold front would blow on by and leave us clear skies for viewing Fuji-san. For our first day, it had been nice, but we wouldn't be in a location to see the mountain until our second day. The gathering storm clouds seemed ominous, and the weather report was bad news. The cold front had run smack into a warm front coming up from the south creating a stationary front right over Hakone! As can happen under those conditions, the cold air acted like a wedge under the warm air, lifting it up and creating thunderstorms. It was unclear whether the ropeways (aerial trams) and lake boats we planned to take the next day would even be operating. It began to rain.

In the morning we borrowed a couple of umbrellas from the hotel and took a stroll through their beautiful and extensive Japanese gardens.

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There are two sure ways to offend the rain gods. One is to wash your car. The other is to go on a trip without an umbrella. So when we visited the local convenience store to pick up a quick breakfast of rice balls and yogurt, we also picked up a couple of collapsible umbrellas in hopes the gods would be appeased. They were not so quick to forgive and the rain turned into a deluge as we trudged back to the hotel.

I was feeling the need for a coffee fix. We decided to enjoy a cup of espresso in the hotel - ¥700 a shot ($6.10). Ah well, it came with a lovely view of the garden. By then it was getting to be 9 o'clock and K, worried about weather, felt anxious to get going. We checked out and headed for the station. Now that we carried our own umbrellas the rain stopped. And of course, as you might guess, we never needed an umbrella again for the remainder of the trip.

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There is also a really good clickable map of Hakone HERE)

We caught the Hakone-Tozan train and took it to the last stop at Gora. There we put the suitcase in a locker, but I made the mistake of not doing the same with the backpack. That decision would weigh upon me (heh, heh) the rest of the day. At Gora (still using our free passes) we boarded the Sounzan cable car, which took us to, well, Sounzan, where we transfered to the Hakone Ropeway.

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Sounzan Cable Car

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As the ropeway rose up the mountainside it offered a beautiful view of the valley behind us. Along this route one can see Fuji-san when the weather cooperates. Not today. Nearing the highest point, we entered IFR conditions, and the world turned white around us. The cars passing going the other direction were eerily empty and I told K that the "Crawling Eye" (aka "The Trollenberg Terror") must be waiting to eat us at the next station. She wasn't buying it. Not even pretending to. Sigh. (She doesn't believe in the Kitaura lake monster either.)

The next station was at the top of the ridge and we stayed on the same tram as it was moved to the next set of cables. The clouds broke at the ridge and we could see a bit more, but not the elusive Fuji-san.

At the next station we changed to a different set of trams entirely. Close to the station was a resort next to some sulfur fumaroles - not sure why one would want to spend their vacation smelling sulfur, but in Japan mineral spas all lie about promote the curative properties of the unique mix of elements in their waters. I'm sure they must claim really extraordinary things to sell sulfur mineral water baths.

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We were soon dangling over a scene from Dante's Inferno. Indeed, this area used to be called Oojigoku ("hell") until a visit by Emperor Meiji. It was not good to have the Emperor visit a place called hell, so they changed the name to Oowakudani ("Grand Hell") just before his visit. Happily the odor of sulfide only briefly entered the tram.

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A few minutes later we heard drums. As it grew louder we also heard shouts then band music. We were moving past a large gymnasium building where high school bands were rehearsing in some kind of music camp. What a great location for such an experience for the kids.

Lake Ashi (Ashinoko) was coming into view, one of its many cruise boats sailing along in the distance. The lake was formed in the caldera of Hakone some 400 thousand years ago. It isn't big - about 20 km (12.4 miles) in circumference, but quite beautiful because of the surrounding mountains with lush forests, and it is full of fish such as pond smelt, trout, and black bass.

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The "free pass" is good on the boats too. The four boats are replicas of pirate boats. “Vasa” is (loosely) modeled after the ship Vasa built by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in the first half of the 17th century. “Royal” is modeled on the 17th-century French warship Soleil Royal. The “Victoria” is modeled on a British warship from the 17th century, HMS Sovereign of the Seas, and “Frontier,” is a replica Mississippi river boat. The boats each have a few life size statues of pirates on board. Like I've said - one big Disneyland. "Yo-ho yo-ho a pirate's life for me." Avast! Belay that bellowing, ye scurvy dogs, and get aloft.

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Vasa - not exactly an inspiring name since the original ship was top heavy and overturned and sank within one nautical mile of the start of her maiden voyage.

We had lunch at a nice cafeteria overlooking the lake. I had fried lake smelt, which was pretty tasty. We then boarded the Vasa to cruise to the other (south) end of the lake. By this time, some clouds were drifting down to within a few meters of the lake's surface, and we realized that the chances of seeing Fuji-san this trip were between slim and none.

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Arrr... there she be, the Royal, listing to starboard and taking on water says I.

The trip to the other end of the lake takes 30 minutes or so. Along the way, one can enjoy the view of the west side of the lake with its wooded mountain slopes, and the east side, dotted with lakeside resorts and a ropeway that ascends Mt. Komagatake. There are two stops at the south end - Hakone and Motohakone. We got off at Hakone and walked to the Hakone Checkpoint Exhibition.

During the Edo period (1603 to 1868), the Shogunate ran the country though about 300 Daimyo (regional feudal rulers) with the Shogun in Edo (now Tokyo). To keep the Daimyo in line, their families were required to live in Edo. The Daimyo themselves would spend one year in Edo and the next in their local province. Traveling to or from Edo required biometric national i.d. cards authorizing documents, and checkpoints were set up and manned by soldiers and bureaucrats to check the papers of travelers and imprison and punish anyone who ran afoul of the travel restrictions. The Hakone Checkpoint was important in its day due to its location along the Tokaido - the main road between Kyoto and Edo.
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Lighting a fire in the kitchen.

Originally built in 1619, today there is a complete reconstruction of the checkpoint buildings on the site. Completed earlier this year, it features period furnishings and life-sized clay figures of bureaucrats, soldiers and even horses, so one can see how they lived and went about their jobs.

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Old style rain gear hanging in the kitchen entry.

They had some rather nasty looking specialized weapons for torture and punishment of "evil doers". I won't detail how they dealt with people caught trying to travel without permission. Suffice it to say, it wasn't with kindness or mercy. It was rather gruesome. (Alberto Gonzales would have felt right at home.)

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Hakone Checkpoint from Above

Travelers were stopped at gates at each end of the checkpoint. The road between was flanked by the offices on one side and the soldier's barracks on the other.
From a hilltop where a lookout post stands, (up a lot of long tall stone steps with that bloody backpack on) one gets a beautiful view of the, huff, puff, area.

A little further on there is a museum with original artifacts (such as some of the tools used for their "enhanced interrogation" of prisoners) and actual travel documents of the period. Travel papers for women looked different from those of a Samurai which in turn were different from those for a monk. As we emerged from the museum, some people were talking excitedly and pointing in the direction of Mt. Fuji. Could it be? Peeking out from behind a veil of clouds, the reclusive mountain was at last visible to us - at least a part of it!

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The mountain at the end of the lake is Mt. Marudake (I think). The top of Fuji-san is visible just to the right of Marudake's peak.

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Fuji-san played peek-a-boo with us, and disappeared anytime we tried to put one of us in the picture.

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We made it back to the dock just in time to board the next pirate ship - the Victoria this time, which would make the short trip to Motohakone and then back up to the north end of the lake. Most people do a circle route of Hakone and board a bus at the south end of the lake which takes them back to where they started the day, but K wanted every chance she could get to see Mt. Fuji.

K was unaware of the Motohakone stop and was convinced I had gotten us on the wrong boat and that we would have to wait a long time for another. She was ready to make me walk the plank or "kiss the gunner's daughter" and take 20 lashes from the cat o' nine tails, but lucky for me, I had been correct, and the boat only stopped at Motohakone long enough to disgorge a large tour group (of lily-livered land lubbers), and we were on our way again on a much less crowded boat. Raise the Jolly Roger!

From the bay of Motohakone, one gets a nice view of the torii of Hakone shrine. If you look closely in the picture below (much easier in the enlarged version), you can see Fuji-san sitting on the treetops above the torii.

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Behind the shrine, Mt. Komagatake rises to an elevation of 1357 meters (4,452 feet). A ropeway can take you from the lake to its summit, where another shrine was established about 2,400 years ago. The site offers spectacular views in every direction. Another reason to return to Hakone.

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We got a few more glimpses of Mr. Fuji while cruising back north. Considering how bad the weather had been in the morning, I think we were lucky. I've read many a blog post or travel article in which the writer never got to see anything of the mountain.

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We retraced our route. While the weather had improved, we still did not get a view of Fuji-san from the ropeway. Then it was back to Gora to pick up the other (ugh) bag, take the Hakone-Tozan line all the way back down the mountain and catch another train toward Kamakura.

つづく (to be continued)....in Dîner Français and the First Kamakura Shogun


ladybug said...

Gee, your trip sounds better and better with every post. I'm jealous! This part of Japan is definitely on the list when/if we get to visit!

As for the torture chambers tour-when I visited Bruges (a big medieval tourist destination in Northern Belgium), I was made to visit the Tower which had rooms of lovely (NOT) torture devices. They even had illustrations from a 18th century how-to manual....I remember specifically one image showing 2 gentlemen pouring molten lead down some unfortunate's throat! AAAGGGHHH! I told my host (we had had a Flemish exchange student, so he and his family showed us around) I wanted to leave NOW!

On a happier note, I thought the themed boats were hilarious, and oddly appropriate, considering "Talk Like a Pirate Day" is coming up - Sept 19 More info at

Pandabonium said...

There are a lot of things to see and do that we just didn't have time for, but just sightseeing from ropeways, boats, etc. is fun.

The Tower of London has similar devices - sick, sick, people. I lost any shred of respect I may have had for "royalty" after seeing that. The Japanese were into sharp objects, crucifixion, dismemberment, followed by beheading.

Arrr thanks for the link me hearty - Japan's pirates pretty much disappeared by the end of the 16th century, so a revival is in order - if only in speech.

Martin J Frid said...

"Lily-livered land lubbers..." LOL!

I remember reading some comedian stating that Japan's sight-seeing spots are all invisible - Mt Fuji is usually hidden by clouds, in Tokyo you can't see Tokyo Tower because of all the buildings around it, and most of the Imperial Palace is closed off to the public... So you were indeed lucky that day!

Pandabonium said...

Martin - Avast, ye Swedish scalawag!

I sometimes wonder how they get the pictures that they put on post cards - such rare days they are. I've seen Fuji twice from the Shinkansen, but never "crystal clear" like the tourist ads show. Anyway, it was nice to see it. Interestingly, it had no snow on the top.

alex kaplan said...

looks yami..It is a great blog

The Moody Minstrel said...

When I went to Hakone with my parents about years ago we took the Sounzan cable car to the top, got out, and were treated to a remarkable view of Mt. Fuji since the weather was unseasonably clear that day. We were hoping to move on, but we got started too late, took too much time mucking about, and only read the fine print at the last minute. It was about 4:55 when we realized the last cable car back down left at 5:00 and there was no other means of transportation still going.

We hurried back to the station and arrived at about 5:03...just in time to see the station keeper in the process of shutting down and locking up. He took one (kind of frightened) look at us, managed one "Eeto..." ("Ummm..."), and then he opened the gate, switched the machinery back on, and let us ride back down.

Yes, there are a lot of very kind people here.

Thanks for listing all the things I need to see and do next time I go there. (But at least I already got a good, clear view of Mt. Fuji, so I don't need to worry about that next time.)

QUASAR9 said...

love the pictorial tour

QUASAR9 said...

Alas gourmet food such a delight
but what a high value added craft
or should i say art

and still for $150 we'd expect a lot more from any other bamboo or craft, and we expect our mobile video phone razor to last more than one meal, no matter how surrear

Pandabonium said...

Alex - thanks for visiting. I've seen your comments recently on Quasar9 and will check out your blog - though I'm no astrophysicist, astronomy has been a hobby of mine.

Moody - Wow, that's a good story. Yes, there are kind people.

You were lucky to see Mt. Fuji clearly. Perhaps we will see it next time, though there is so much else to do, I don't know...

Quasar9 - Thanks. Glad you enjoy the pics.

Cooking is an art, and don't begrudge the Fujiya hotel for the prices - just out of my league. In Kamakura - as I hope you'll read in the next installment - we had a wonderful gastronomical experience.

Martin F said...

And today (Wednesday) was talk-like-a-pirate-day, at least according to The Daily Telegraph (a trusted source of gossip for all of us with an eye-patch and a wooden leg)


Pandabonium said...

Martin - Arrrr!

Swinebread said...

"Putting on airs" is fun, but actually paying for it isn't. ha ha ha that’s great!

With all the clouds it looks like Oregon

And Pirate ships?! What amazing places and views, I ‘m glad you’re having such a good time.

Pandabonium said...

Swinebread - it was a fun trip - hectic, but fun.