Ropeway to mountain thrills
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.