I’d been saving the Hakone Round Course tour (a day long circuit of scenic Hakone mountain utilizing rail, cable cars, ropeway, a boat, and buses) until we had visitors. When Breeann and Liam asked if they could visit us for a few days before Christmas, I knew I wanted to add this to the itinerary. When we lived in Monterey, Bree and I took weekly hikes together. I knew that Bree would be keen to see more of the natural side of Japan— the side of Japan that I have truly fallen in love with. As soon as we were all dressed and ready on their first day in Japan, I whisked the four of us out the door and onto a long series of train rides to Hakone. It took about an hour and a half to arrive at Hakone Yumato Station where we boarded the oldest mountain train in Japan. I had hoped that this was when things would get interesting. I pictured a scenic train, but it was really just an older version of the trains we had ridden to Hakone. It was also quite crowded despite being a Monday in December. We made our way up the mountain disembarking at Gora Station to get on the first ropeway. Will had fallen asleep on the train and it was almost noon. I suggested grabbing a peaceful lunch while Will slept before continuing on. A friend raves about a fried tofu place in Gora so we walked to the restaurant, added our name to the list and then Will woke up. Waiting for a restaurant with a refreshed three year old didn’t sound like a good idea, so we found a soba joint and grabbed a quick lunch there instead.
Fueled up and excited, we hopped on the Hakone Tozan cable car which really was just another train pulling us straight up the mountain. As we transferred to the Hakone Ropeway, I was beginning to wonder if this day would be a total bust. So far we had spent a few hours riding in fairly uninteresting modes of transportation. The Ropeway did provide some better views and the cars were not as packed as the previous trains. As we rode higher to the summit, we could see the ocean behind us. We then came over a ridge and Fuji shone brilliantly and majestically in the sky. We looked down to see we were about to ride over a smoking volcano. The trip suddenly went from somewhat dull to very awesome. The Ropeway stopped at Owakudani and in the station, Santa Claus was taking photos of tourists in a mock cable car. Santa was actually the photographer but he nicely agreed to take a photo with the boys.
I could smell the sulfur as soon as we stepped outside where we could walk around a bit and admire the volcano. (There is a short nature trail and a longer hiking trail here as well, but due to an increased volume of sulfurous fumes being emitted these are currently closed). Liam willed the volcano to erupt. We attempted to take a group photo with Fuji but an employee kept purposely walking behind us. This was my first experience in Japan with someone blatantly being rude. Will wasn’t interested in participating in the group picture either so at least the man wasn’t ruining the perfect shot.
We re-boarded the cable car and began the ride down to Lake Ashi. The views of Fuji and the lake were incredible. We had just missed the next Pirate boat so had some time to waste at the port. Lucky for us, there were more staged photo opportunities. This station even provided blazers and hats for us to dress up like the Ropeway employees. It was pretty random but it kept us entertained until it was time to board the Pirate Ship. After the Pirate ship, I had hoped we may have enough time to do a 1-2 hour hike on the Old Tokaido highway, but it was already 3:45 by the time we boarded. I realized we wouldn’t even have time to see Hakone Shrine as the sun was quickly sinking behind the mountains. The late afternoon light was beautiful though, and the boys loved the boat ride. We took the boat to the second stop (Hakone-Machi). Along the way we had been collecting stamps at the various stations so the boys could get a prize at the end. With dusk beginning to settle in, the station office at Hakone-Machi was already closed. Bree knocked on the door and the nice employee unlocked the door for us to get our last stamp—he was then mobbed by lots of people wanting the same thing. We lingered around the lake and then walked on the portion of the Old Tokaido highway that flanked the lake. The old Samuarai checkpoint was a virtual ghost town at dusk. The tall cedars and darkening sky did add to an eerie atmosphere that delighted the boys. It worked to our advantage to do this short 20 minute hike. We were able to get seats on an express bus back to Hakone Yumato station. The bus made one more stop at Hakone Machi (where we got off our boat). The last boat had just unloaded and the bus line was long. A bus conductor helped load as many passengers as possible onto the bus. At the end of a long day, it may have been a miserable thirty minute bus ride if we hadn’t had seats. It was a super long but extremely enjoyable day and both of the boys were excellent travel companions.
I successfully got Will on the school bus. We had told him we were taking Liam to the dentist and going to an all you can eat broccoli restaurant so he wouldn’t feel he was missing out on anything. In reality, we were going to Kamakura, the center of Japan’s military power in the 12th and 13th century. It’s a fun town to visit and only two train stops away. We began the day at the Big Buddha and then took a couple km hike along the Daibustu trail. I was very impressed; Liam was doing an insane amount of walking on a fractured foot. Kuzuharaoka Shrine is located on the trail and for ¥100 (less than $1) you can smash a small plate to rid yourself of negativity. I love that so many temples and shrines have fun little activities making it more fun for children. Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine, one of my favorites, is also located in this area. We entered the shrine via a long cave. Multiple Torii gates and a couple small waterfalls decorate the grounds. The highlight of this shrine is washing money in another cave in hopes that once spent it will come back to you twofold. Liam also enjoyed this activity but was most delighted when he found a bow and arrow made from sticks outside the shrine.
We exited the trail (although it continues on to Jochi-ji Temple) and walked back to main shopping street. We found a cute restaurant on an adjacent alley where we feasted on yummy tuna bowls with a side of tempura. Somehow we saved room for green tea and sweet potato ice cream before exploring Hachimangu Shrine, Kamakura’s main Shrine. I then deposited Liam and Bree at a cat café while I shopped a bit more (I am highly allergic to cats, but this was on Liam’s list of things he must do in Japan). We picked Will up from after-school care and met Mike for a yummy dinner at my favorite kid-friendly sushi go round. Their menu includes all kinds of traditional sushi as well as fried chicken, French fries, noodles and little hamburgers on rice. Liam loved ordering the sushi from the iPad then having it delivered on the conveyor belt.
After 2 full days, we had a bit of lazy morning Wednesday. We left for Enoshima shortly before noon. Our plan was to hike over the island in daylight then visit the winter illuminations. On our trolley ride there, I noticed a picture of a pagoda on the map by our train stop. I had never heard of a pagoda there, but online research revealed it was at a temple right by the station. Bree was willing to see it so we stopped first at Ryuko-ji, an old wooden temple. We had seen Fuji from the train, but could barely make out an outline from atop the hill at Ryukoji as the visibility had decreased. From there we walked to Enoshima, picking up a late lunch from 7-11. Enoshima is basically a very large rock with jutting out of the bay. It has multiple shrines, temples, gardens, shops and restaurants along its pedestrian paths. We climbed up and over the summit stopping to admire sites and wares along the way. We took a side path to the Love Bell which offered more beautiful vistas and an opportunity for Will to make a lot of noise.
On the back side of Enoshima are magnificent tide pools. We arrived there shortly before sunset. The visibility was improving and Fuji began to appear more clearly in the sky. Will quickly scrambled up a pretty steep rock so I quickly followed. The tide pools are also a bit unnerving with him, so I was prepared to be on guard. He wanted to make a home on the ‘castle rock”. Bree and Liam ventured down to the pools. Will has been here a few times now and is used to my frequent reminders to be careful. “Ki o skete!” he began yelling in Japanese to Bree and Liam as they walked along the edge of the island where the water is quite deep. As the sun sank lower, they joined us on the rocks. Bree and I opened a half bottle of bubbly, and we had snacks watching an absolutely incredible sunset.
We ascended back to the top of Enoshima arriving just as the lights came up. We had to wait in a short line to ride the elevator up to the Sea Candle overlooking Enoshima and the surrounding area. Fuji too was visible in the twilight. We next meandered through the light displays. We relaxed in a corner and had some more wine while the boys did somersaults and made friends with a young Japanese boy. Liam also discovered that the key to a vending machine was simply hanging behind it, illustrating how trusting everyone is in Japan. On the walk down and off the island, we passed an illuminated cotton candy stand which of course the boys had to have. I was hoping for more food vendors, but most things were closed on this weekday evening. Once home, we fed the boys then put them to bed. Bree and I sat up drinking wine and noshing on cheese and crackers while attempting to catch up on several years of missed conversation. It was one of the best nights in a long time.
We managed to get everyone out the door to get Will on his 7:15 AM school bus then Bree, Liam and I boarded the train for Tokyo. On Bree’s Japan wish list, she had requested kick ass sushi. I wanted to take her to Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, perhaps my favorite place in the city. I’ve been here a couple times but never made it past the delicious stalls of sushi, grilled fish and other yummy treats in the outer retail market. I knew there was an inner wholesale market that I wanted to see too. As with all my previous visits, we were quickly overwhelmed with the crowds and the tremendous choices presented for snacking. I definitely have some favorite stalls. We got a sampler of tuna at one and oysters at another. Bree was more adventurous than me trying things that we weren’t sure what they were. I was determined to find our way inside and we finally succeeded. I also learned why I had failed before (though to be honest my belly was so happy that I never tried that hard.) Anyway, we had to walk a couple blocks and then through large parking lot and loading docks to reach the wholesale section. Giant tuna and other fish were on display as well as in various stages of butchering. We learned through being scolded that photographer was not allowed at every stall. We also learned to stay quick on our feet to avoid being run over by the forklifts zipping through the narrow aisles. We wandered through for a bit then decided to head back out for an early sushi lunch. We picked a spot and enjoyed yummy sashimi bowls (and plain rice for Liam).
Our next thing to tackle was to get Liam some manga. A friend had recommend a shop in Harajuku so I suggested we visit Meiji Shrine, another favorite spot of mine, then head down famous Takeshita shop for Liam. We had barely started walking out of the train station when it started raining. Then it really started coming down. It was pretty miserable and we quickly decided that the shrine was not in the cards that day. Liam who had been walking 7 – 12 miles a day was really starting to feel the pain of his fractured foot. We ducked into a convenience store for an umbrella and a break. The rain slowed to a drizzle, and we made it to Takeshita street and a recommended manga shop. Unfortunately it was not what Liam wanted (admittedly I know nothing about this so wasn’t very good at ascertaining recommendations). We decided to go to Shibuya which is similar to Time Square. The station’s visitor center recommended several manga and anime shops for Liam. We visited a large bookstore first and Liam found exactly what he wanted in the English section and begged to start reading immediately. We found a café where Bree and I ordered wine. We ended their visit the same way our friendship began drinking wine and gabbing nonstop.
Very few people would travel halfway across the world with their child for a four day visit. I realized Bree and Liam were in Japan for only 99 hours. Despite jetlag and Liam’s injury, they were willing to make the most of their visit, and I am amazed at all we did in the time allotted. I am so grateful to have had this time with a dear friend. It was also wonderful to introduce Bree to Will as my parenting style has many things borrowed from the wonderful way in which she has raised Liam. I am a better person and a better mother for knowing her. Thank you Bree and Liam for giving me the best Christmas present!
Links to info and A LOT more photos below. Thank you to Breeann for sharing her photos too.
Hakone Round Course: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5210.html
Daibutsu Hiking Course Trail Head Map Pin: https://goo.gl/maps/ioZVyx9V5bm
Tsukiji Fish Market: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3021.html