Rope­way to moun­tain thrills

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - SEAN CON­DON

FROMmy ho­tel bal­cony in Hakone I can see across a deep green val­ley to the side of Mount My­o­jo­gatake, about 5km away.

The slope is com­pletely cov­ered in dense green for­est ex­cept for a large area that has been cleared and has a huge kanji sym­bol carved or mown or tram­pled into the space. It’s huge, hun­dreds of me­tres wide and long, and the Ja­panese char­ac­ters mean large, mak­ing it a per­fect ex­am­ple of the medium meet­ing the mes­sage. On Au­gust 16 ev­ery year it’s set on fire dur­ing the Gora Sum­mer Fes­ti­val.

The pop­u­lar moun­tain re­sort town of Hakone, 90km south­west of Tokyo, of­fers spec­tac­u­lar views of pretty much ev­ery­thing. You can see beau­ti­ful forests, gey­sers, lakes, sun­sets and the holy grail of Ja­panese view­ables, Mount Fuji, from al­most any­where here. But the best place to en­joy the abun­dance of nat­u­ral won­ders is the Hakone Rope­way, pro­claimed as ‘‘your stroll across the moun­tain tops’’.

De­spite its name, the Hakone Rope­way is made mostly of steel. It is a four-stop cable ride that runs be­tween the small towns of Gora and To­gendai, on the shores of Lake Ashi, 4km away.

At its high­est point it is more than 1000m above sea level and more than 400m above the ground. It is not a ride for the faint-hearted. The small cars fit up to 20 pas­sen­gers and they are not air-con­di­tioned so you could end up sweat­ing a lot whether you’re afraid of heights or not.

So here I am, sweat­ing and swear­ing, sus­pended above the amaz­ing Owaku­dani Val­ley. I could re­ally use one of those sweat-soak­ing hand tow­els many Ja­panese carry with them ev­ery­where. Owaku­dani means great boil­ing val­ley and it is ex­actly that — a large vol­canic crater stud­ded with highly ac­tive sul­phur vents and steam­ing hot springs.

Be­fore Owaku­dani, it was known as O-jigoku, or Great Hell. And no won­der, as all across the scarred brown earth clouds of steam burst from crevasses while the acrid smell of sul­phur suf­fuses the en­tire gorge. Far down be­low us there is a trail that winds through­out the bub­bling and boil­ing hot springs.

There’s also a shop that sells kuro-ta­m­ago, or eggs that have been boiled in one of the hot springs. The chem­i­cals in the wa­ter turn the shells black, and it’s said that eat­ing one of th­ese eggs will ex­tend your life by a neat seven years.

Con­tin­u­ing along the rope­way to­wards To­gendai there is a fan­tas­tic view of Mount Fuji. It’s truly mag­nif­i­cent and as I stare I be­gin hop­ing I’ll live long enough to see it again (apart from on the re­turn trip), even if it means eat­ing three or four kuro-ta­m­ago, but not in one sit­ting. Down on the serene waters of Lake Ashi I board a large wooden sight­see­ing boat. Ev­ery­thing about the ex­pe­ri­ence is sub­lime, from the beau­ti­ful blue wa­ter to the su­perb views of the sur­round­ing moun­tains, and the flame-tinted maples and beech trees that sur­round the lake.

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