Less than a hundred kilometers from teeming Tokyo, Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, internationally famous for hot springs (including Owakudani), hiking and outdoor activities, majestic natural beauty and fabulous views of nearby Mount Fuji is deservedly one of the most popular destinations for visitors and Japanese alike. Well served with and by mass transit, including on Lake Ashi, the big park offers tourists a range of choices in addition to scenic outlooks, including the opportunity of lengthening their lives by seven years!
Our apartment in a bedroom community on the outskirts of Tokyo provided a view of the astonishing cone with snow-topped peak of Mount Fuji, the holy mountain of this island nation. So, we delighted in breakfast, conversation, and coffee watching as the top slowly developed its daily cloak of mist and cloud, which carried it through the rest of the day. A brisk 15 or 20 minute or so bicycle ride took me to my office, the end wall of which was glassed, it also overlooking the majestic peak. Then, in the afternoon, I tried to devote an hour a day to reflection and meditative drawing, looking out that wide wall of window, savoring my time – knowing it was fleeting – digesting the view.
Steaming Mineral Springs of Owakudani
Still, traveling out of our village, modern though it was, to the flanks of Fuji, and seeing the mountain up close was enlightening and surprising. One on-line account points out that “. . . this mountainous region, formed by volcanic activity some 400,000 years ago, first gained popularity as a hot-spring resort during the Edo Period (1603-1867). At that time, only feudal lords or wealthy merchants could afford to stay in the onsen town, but the eventual development of road and rail systems and the discovery of even more natural hot springs allowed ordinary people to visit and made it one of the most popular resort destinations in Japan.” And, as with almost everything which is “popular” in Japan, when it’s open, it’s thronged with visitors. As a sort of predilection, the Japanese seem to enjoy participating in groups, often really large groups. That preference is certainly manifest at tourism sites.
According to legend, consuming eggs cooked in the restorative waters of bubbling, malodorous Owakudani, situated in the area around a crater made during in the last eruption of Mount Hakone perhaps 3000 years ago, has wonderful result. Smelly, sulfurous odors pervade the place where the special eggs, boiled in the geo-hot water (reputed to prolong one’s life by approximately seven years, bus accidents aside) are for sale. The hot, mineral-rich water turns the eggs matt black, a pretty unusual look for eggs: “have a Gothic Easter,” but the taste is fine and the color doesn’t even go through the shell, much less to the food matter.
Some of the guidebook material is a little breathy, saying for instance that “ . . . the valley [now famous as a tourist destination for it’s novelty black eggs] is sometimes referred to as ‘The Death Valley’ by locals. Some 3000 years ago Mount Hakone erupted leaving the hot spring filled crater. All along the path to the egg vendor are active sulfuric geysers, which can be hazardous at times. The area is prone to landslides due to the constant volcanic activity. In potentially unsafe conditions, the walkways to the egg boiling springs may be closed.” However, the region is heavily engineered and, although realistically there would be no hot water if there was no seismic activity, the whole archipelago is alive with the stuff, as indeed is the entire Pacific Rim. In our apartment, we felt small quakes or quakelets every month or 6 weeks and big shakes, large enough to have us casting “is this the end?” looks at each other as books and bibelots jumped off the shelving before, each time, things settled down.
Getting Around Hakone and Fuji
With a good guidebook in hand or a cabled-up laptop Goggled to any of the numerous sites offering diagrams of Hakone’s lavish transportation grid, visitors can trace access from, typically, Tokyo, to the park. Driving is, naturally, one way to scoot around the scenic curves cut into the landscape, driving around vast arcs gaining altitude and curling out again and again for seemingly every time more spectacular views of Mount Fuji. The sprawling place offers—aside from longevity, no mean benefit in itself—biking, hiking, and ropeways or gondolas. Not least weird and certainly saddest is the forest of no return.
“Due to the vastness of the forest, desperate visitors are unlikely to encounter anyone once inside the so-called ‘Sea of Trees,’ so the police have mounted signs reading ‘Your life is a precious gift from your parents,’ and “Please consult the police before you decide to die!’ on trees throughout . . .” but largely to no avail, making the suicide forest one of the world’s most popular regions from which to shuck loose the mortal coil.
According to published texts on the matter, this such careful warning “ . . . does not deter determined people from committing suicide in this dense forest. Volunteers who clean the woods find each year dozens of corpses, but many are forever lost in the very thick woods. Japanese authorities have discontinued publishing exact suicide numbers in order to avoid making the place even more popular.” News outlets note a recent spike in suicides in the forest, blaming them more on Japan’s economic ups or downs than on such tropes as the romantic ending of Seicho Matsumoto’s novel Kuroi Jukai, which revitalized the so-called suicide forest’s popularity. A bit like reading Hemingway, such literature is thought to be a stimulus to action among those determined to take their final walk. Kuroi Jukaiends in Aokigahara as the characters are driven to joint-suicide.
Locals say they can easily spot the three types of visitors to the forest. They tick off trekkers interested in scenic vistas of Mount Fuji. The curious, basic traveller, hoping for a glimpse of the macabre. But last, according to those familiar with the trail of people onto the pathways, are those souls who don’t plan on leaving.
There are Parks and There are Parks
Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, internationally famous for it’s hot springs (including Owakudani), hiking and outdoor activities, and it’s majestic natural beauty, is also served by rail and a funicular. Water taxi and tour boats cruise Lake Ashi (with busses dropping folks at stops, to connect with the rail head).
Indeed, there seems to be a clear difference in cosmology or “world view” between the United States and some other nation’s notion of park space and Hakone. One way to view park space is to reduce or avoid the evidence of the “hand of man.” In Hakone it’s as though engineers have fanned out to wrestle that rascal nature to the ground: it’s under control with rail, pavement, cast concrete, and strung cable; parking lots, and sluice ways, and hard packed outlooks. It all really makes it extraordinarily easy to access the place.