It is our first full day in Hakone and we have a lot planned in a short time. For today, we decided to check off the things close to the hostel, so tomorrow we could venture farther out for the whole day.
This morning we actually slept in for the first time in Japan and didn’t get out of the hostel until 10:30. We walked 10 minutes to the nearest ramen restaurant that was recommended by our very friendly hostel owner. We ordered the soy sauce ramen, the one the restaurant is named after and a pork cutlet over rice. While scarfing down both dishes we agreed that that was the best ramen we have ever had! After lunch, we walked another 10 minutes to the Choanji shrine.
We didn’t really know what to expect from it besides it was kind of in the woods so we knew it would be gorgeous. When we got there, the first thing we saw was a picturesque pond with a narrow footbridge stretching out into a small offering box and shrine on the water. The pond was full of midnight blue coy circling the edge of the pond. After paying our respects, we continued into the main area of the shrine which was several short, interconnected hiking trails lined with statues. If you weren’t looking carefully, you would assume they were moss covered rocks. We wandered the trails for a while studying all the statues, finding the ones that we liked, giving them a small offering, and hoping for a small blessing in return. Even though we weren’t sure who each statue was or what they represented, we felt that they would be kind to us for making the effort (we also avoided giving an offering to the angry or sad looking ones just in case). After we gave out all our one yen coins, we figured we should continue with our day.
The next stop for us was the Hakone Venetian glass museum. This place had hundreds of Venetian glass sculptures and goblets as well as dozens of Chihuly glass installments. We wandered around the indoor section that housed the Venetian glass and had to keep reminding ourselves that we were in a mountain city of Japan and not the middle of Italy. Once we had exhausted the indoor section, we went outside to find breathtaking trees made of glass and colored crystal, that sparkled in the sun like diamonds, as well as a covered bridge made in the same fashion. The bridge spanned a small pond; the center held a magnificent 10-foot tall tree made entirely of iconic Chihuly spikes. After taking in the whole museum, we moved on to what we thought would be our last stop of the day, the botanical garden of the wetlands.
Going there, we didn’t have very high expectations because the gardens had just opened for the year. Our guess was that most of the flowers weren’t going to be in full bloom yet, but we figured it would still be worth the trip. Especially because the glass museum offered a combined ticket, and the garden was now only 200 yen each as opposed to the 1000 yen it was supposed to cost. Our assumption turned out to only be partially correct. There were plenty of small flowers and plants that had bloomed into an array of shapes and colors, but the majority of the plants only had buds. We were probably two or three weeks too early for the garden, but it was a nice stroll with great views nonetheless. Because the garden didn’t take as long as we planned, we found ourselves with a couple extra hours to utilize.
When planning what to do, we realized we had not scheduled in the open air museum that held a world-renown Picasso exhibit. How had we missed that? The museum closed at 5 and we were boarding the bus a little before 4, but we decided to hop on a 30-minute bus and make it work. We figured we couldn’t leave Hakone without seeing the Picassos, so we thought that even if we only had enough time to get there and look at the collection and leave…that would be worth it. I mean how many chances do you get to see 30+ works by one of the greatest artists to ever live? That alone is worth the entrance fee. So, we hustled off the bus, power walked the 10 minutes to the museum, and had just about 20 minutes to take it all in. We weren’t worried about seeing anything else in the museum, so we didn’t rush our way through the Picassos. I think we would both agree that it was well worth the hassle.
After the museum closed, we slowly made our way to the exit trying to take in as much of the other exhibits as possible. At the gift shop, Haley bought a postcard with one of her favorite Picassos that we saw in the collection, and we started to make our way back to the hostel. We considered going to another outdoor sculpture park that closed at 7, but we were tired and ready for dinner so we just walked to the bus station. We didn’t realize this but, apparently, the whole town of Hakone shuts down at 5 o’clock (besides restaurants). The museums close, the parks close, and even the buses stop running. Luckily, we didn’t go to the second park because we caught the last bus for the night at 5:25. If we missed that, we would have been stranded 2 hours away from our hostel with a grueling walk up the mountain roads at night. So a little advice if you ever decide to visit the city of Hakone, which we recommend you do, be wary of the bus times and don’t wander too far from you hostel when it’s getting close to 5.
Once we got back to the hostel, we walked 10 minutes to a local pub where we got a cheap set meal that included one main dish (fried chicken for Haley and ginger sautéd pork for me), a side (fruit that looked like a pale grapefruit but had a taste we couldn’t place), miso soup, and pickled bamboo shoot. After dinner, we walked a few minutes to the local 7/11 to get some ice cream and pastries, and then headed home for a night of Japanese cable and planning.
Until next time,
Justin and Haley
All photos by Justin Ruck