Hakone

Hakone is a mountain region just few hours train ride from Tokyo. Mainly the area lives off domestic tourism. The Odakyu company, which owns at least a department store, trains and travel agency, offers special few days passes to Hakone region, with unlimited transportation.

From bustling Tokyo to the past
From bustling Tokyo to the past

The pass includes a suggested “sightseeing” course with an old-fashioned tram that goes up the mountainside, cable car over a crater and mountains, boat on a lake and discounts on different kinds of attractions, shops and restaurant all around the area. The information of everything was (of course) in Japanese, so due to my insufficient kanji-reading skills, we might have missed something great. It was pretty cool, anyways.

Cable car, or "keeburu kaa"
Cable car, or “keeburu kaa”

We stayed in Hakone for 2 nights just before Christmas, in a traditional minshuku (very little English spoken, of course). Interesting experience to sleep in a room with a semi-functioning heater, and waking up before 8 to have a Japanese, homemade breakfast. What comes to sightseeing, we took the tram and the cable car, but skipped the boat ride, Le Petit Prince Museum and Venetian Glass Museum (among others). We didn’t quite see Fuji-san due to cloudy weather, but the trip was still definitely worth it!

I did see Fuji-san!
I did see Fuji-san!

I could easily imagine people getting away from their big city life to relax in the small towns, but after two nights I was ready to go. In Hakone, there seemed to be only kamaboko (fish paste cakes) and omiyage shops after another. There was hardly any restaurants, all of the few offered only noodles or tempura. Since all of the shops close around 5, the rest of the evening is best spent in onsen, that are aplenty in the region. Unlike in Beppu, the Hakone onsen did not steam or smell.

True.
True.

If you ever go to Hakone, which you definitely should if you have a chance, I suggest taking the Special Limited Romance Car. The name is worth the extra price, though I don’t know what was so romantic about it. Other option would be to take the Odakyu metro train, which is quite uncomfortable for such a long trip.

Le Petit Prince, a bit lost maybe?
Le Petit Prince, a bit lost maybe?
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Yama, shiro, faamu and gift shoppu!

Field trip Japanese style! 3 destinations, 12 hours and closer to dozen gift shops – despite being behind schedule for a while, we made it back to Ap House in time, happy and tired.

The first stop (after the 10 minute bus pit stop) on our trip was Aso volcano, about 2 hours away from Beppu.

Crater, not an onsen, though both look pretty similar

The terrain on Asosan was rather rocky and rough. Since the volcano is located over 1500m above sea level, it was rather chilly, too. There was several warning signs for people with asthma, heart disease etc., since the fumes contained something not too healthy to breathe.

Pray to gods the volcano won’t erupt

After looking at the craters, we were supposed to walk down the mountain to the bus. Me and my friend too initiative and rode the cable car back down: we had plenty of time at the gift shop, and avoided freezing outside.

Cable car ride to Asosan, Mountain Aso volcano crater

Next stop was next to Asosan, a bowl shaped meadow Kusasenri, which actually was just a visit to a gift shop to hawk on all the free samples of the regional omiyage. (No pictures of the pond.) Next stop, my definitely most favorite part of the trip: lunch in Aso farmland.

Shrooms! And many different kinds…I would have needed a tour guide

The mushrooms pictured above were just a small part of the most likely best buffet I have ever had on an organized trip. The restaurant was called “Viking” for some reason, but the food was mainly Asian, luckily with many different salad and mushroom options. Unfortunately we did not have nearly enough time in Aso Farmland, so I did not even get to understand what the place was all about. There were some exercise domes, farm animals and funky activities for kids, spa, shops selling beauty and health products as well as loads of omiyage and other food, milk factory, mushroom cultivation and I can’t even imagine what else. I would have definitely liked to spend the whole day (or weekend) there! After rushing to the bus, we were off to the tourist highlight: The Kumamoto castle.

Part of the Kumamoto castle, and not even the best part

After few hours bus ride, we had an hour to explore the Kumamoto castle. After rushing through the main castle, me and my friend got to the best part: shopping area. Unfortunately, once again time was against us.

Time is money, so I saved my money here by not having time to shop!

3 hours on the bus with a sugar rush, I learned few new Japanese words. The trip was an overall success, and the price was ridiculous as well: 3000yen (30e) wouldn’t normally have even covered the entrance fees, let alone transportation and the magnificent lunch! I wish I had 2 or 3 days trip, but this was definitely worth going as it was. Now I just need to find out, if there are any similar places to Aso farm land!

Ps. The Kumamon bear started off as being cute and nice, but seriously: how many products can you make with it? It is everywhere! If you don’t know which bear I am talking about, google it and see if it looks familiar. If not, you should definitely visit Kumamoto – the castle is nice, too! And the city, even brom inside the bus, seemed so alive after Beppu.