I arrived in Hakone Yumoto station, the springboard for exploring Hakone, just before 11 a.m. Congratulating myself that the morning had gone pretty well. Amidst the chaotic madness of Shinjuku Station, I had been able to find the ticket booth, then find the train platform, gotten on the right train, had a hearty and tasty eki ben breakfast and seen much of the countryside from my window seat -- I was looking forward to things going smoothly from this point on.
From Hakone Yumoto station, the Hakone Freepass will get you on the Hakone Tozan Railway up to Gora Station. This little red train takes you up the mountains, chugging along and stopping at various quaint and picturesque towns. Most of the small towns have well known onsen resorts and hotels that are full of local travelers particularly during holidays and week-ends.
As we made our way slowly up the mountain I spent some time reading the handy station guide posted inside the train. This little poster tracks the whole Hakone Loop -- taking into account the various modes of transportation that you will be using for the whole route.
The train was packed with lots of young students out for a field trip. As with all young people, they were lively, noisy and excited to be out for the day.
Most of the stations where the train stopped were not more than just small sheds with a bench or two. This fat yellow tabby seemed to be the pet of this particular station guard. So adorable ... I'm glad I was able to take the photo.
After about 35 minutes, we reached Gora Station, more than 500 meters above sea level and last stop for the Hakone Tozan Railway. From here, I would have to take a short but uphill 900 meter ride on the Hakone Tozan Cable Car to Sounzan.
Since the masses of students who got off with me were all taking the cable car, I decided to hang back a bit and take a quick stroll outside of the station. Gora was a picture perfect little town and a few minutes wandering around would surely yield some delights.
True enough -- I was able to walk around and enjoy the village atmosphere of Gora. I also did a little window shopping in the stores right around the station. The air was cool and a bit nippy -- autumn had started after all. It was beautiful weather for walking around.
As I was ending my short walk about, the next train from Hakone Yumoto tootled by.
Oh no, I would have to contend with a whole new horde of travelers taking the cable car.
And yes, a long line had already formed by the time I got to the queue. More students, more local tourists. I was the only foreigner on the platform.
The climb from Gora Station to Sounzan, the end terminal of the Hakone Tozan Cablecar takes just 10 minutes. You can actually huff and puff up -- it's just a 900 meter ride after all but the steady uphill slope will easily tire you.
The cable car makes a couple of stops -- there are small museums, crafts stores, coffee shops and little clusters of houses along the way.
Sounzan is where you take the Hakone Ropeway. This is one of the longest ropeway journeys in the world. From Sounzan to the end point in Togendai, the journey takes 30 minutes.
These very sturdy and safe looking gondolas can fit up to 15 people at a time.
There was a long queue but since a gondola arrives every minute, the line moved quickly and before I knew it, I was being handed into a gondola and the doors were locked in place behind me.
I looked back at the Sounzan ropeway station. The ropeway would take us to Owakudani where we would have to transfer to another gondola for the ride to Togendai.
We were packed in our gondola -- I shared the ride with two groups of Japanese families who of course spoke no English but were friendly enough to nod and smile.
This is the highest point of the ropeway -- below are the enormous sulfur mines of Owakudani where if you get off -- you can buy the famous black sulfur water boiled eggs that the place is famous for.
Some people opted to leave the ropeway at this stop -- perhaps to eat some of the famous "black" sulfur eggs. I transferred to another gondola to continue on to Togendai.
Togendai is on the shores of scenic Lake Ashi. From here, you can take a boat to Hakone Machi and Moto Hakone, where the Hakone Freepass will get you on a bus for the two hour drive back to Tokyo. During the boat ride, if weather and luck permit it , Mt. Fuji may allow a glimpse of his noble face.
It was a cloudy day so I very much doubted a Mt. Fuji sighting.
Since it was past 2 when I got to Togendai, I didn't want to ride all the way to Moto Hakone and take a bus back to Shinjuku.
I decided to get off the Hakone Loop and go back the way I came. Besides, the Romance Car seemed a much more attractive option than a bus!
But first things first ... I had to have lunch!
It's a good thing that Togendai has a big eating hall where a good variety of Japanese meals are available. You line up and order, canteen style.
My Hakone Freepass even entitled me to a 5% discount on my meal!
Surprise, surprise - the restaurant had a vegetarian option! I got a large bowl of kakiage udon plus an equally large mug of draft beer -- specially brewed in the Hakone area.
Ice cold beer and warm noodle soup -- who knew it would be so well matched?
At 2 pm, the dining crowd had thinned out so I was able to get a table facing the window.
I enjoyed gazing out on the incongruous sight of two fully decked out pirate ships of the Hakone Sightseeing Boat line on the calm waters of Lake Ashi.
My lunch was so quiet and so relaxing, the beer was so cold and so refreshing that I wished I could stand up, order another beer and sit and stare out at the lake for as long as I wanted.
Such are the pleasures of solitary travel.
But, I needed to make it back to Tokyo before the rush hour hit Shinjuku Station so regretfully, I left my window seat and got back on the Hakone Ropeway that would take me back, the way I came in.
If I had travelled just a few weeks later, this hillside would be awash in the reds, yellows and oranges that make autumn in Japan so spectacular.
That would have been a glorious sight to see. For now, I had to be content with small patches of red that infrequently appeared along the tree covered mountain side.
On this trip back, the gondola was empty -- I had it all to myself! Everyone else had gone on to Moto Hakone and Hakone machi on board the pirate ships. I was the only one making the trip back. It certainly added to the specialness and contentment of traveling alone.
Once again, here was the familiar sight of the Sounzan terminal where I would get off the ropeway and step back on the cable car that would take me to Gora and from Gora, back on the Hakone Tozan Railway to Hakone Yumoto station.
I was right on time! Waiting for passengers was the Romance Car bound for Shinjuku. This time, it was a sleeker and newer version than the one I rode earlier in the morning.
Called the Super Express 5000, the front car had huge picture windows for the first few seats and larger and wider windows all throughout -- allowing for a wider and more panoramic view.
I had asked the ticket seller for good seats on the train. It was just 3:30 in the afternoon and still bright and sunny outside -- perhaps I would be lucky and get one of those front row panoramic vista seats?
The train's seats are numbered from highest in front to lowest number in the back. So after the initial excitement of thinking that my seat number of 2D meant that I would be seated at the front of the car, I quickly realized that it was actually a seat in the rear.
But this was nothing at all -- not a blip or a bump in this perfect day.
I still had a window seat -- I would still enjoy the scenery for as long as the light held out.
I was on the Romance Car back to hectic bustling Shinjuku and back to brightly lit Tokyo.
So aptly named -- the Romance Car had rekindled for me the love and pleasure of traveling alone.