Sunday, October 1, 2017

Tamago* Versus the Volcano

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Japan sits entirely within the Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile horseshoe-shaped portion of the Pacific Ocean, the earth's most seismically active region where volcanoes and earthquake eruptions are regular occurrences.

Japan has over 100 active volcanoes - almost 10% of the world's supply of fire-breathing mountains.

Adding to this the Japanese spirit of adventure and love for the outdoors, it should come as no surprise that volcanoes are the star attractions at some of Japan's most popular tourist sites.

Case in point: Ōwakudani, in Hakone.

Hakone lies about 90 minutes southwest of Tokyo by bullet train. The area is part of the "Fuji Five Lakes" region, and well-known for its cuisine, ryokan, and onsen (hot spring baths - the best of which are heated by volcanoes).

Hakone foliage in autumn.

During the medieval era, the Tōkaidō passed through this area, en route from Kyoto to Edo - in fact, the Hakone leg was considered one of the most physically strenuous parts of the journey. (More on that another day.)

Hakone is also known for its famous shrine, beautiful lake . . . and, of course, for the chance to "enjoy traveling on multiple modes of transportation" . . . including a ropeway ride over the steaming mouth of a live volcano.

Wherein, as always, lies a tale.


The moment I arrived in Hakone last autumn, I dropped my bags at the ryokan, jumped on the Hakone Tozan Railway (Japan's oldest mountain train) and rode 45 minutes up the mountain to Gora.

From there, I hopped a 5-minute, 1 km cable car ride to Sounzan on a funny little cable car packed with other excited travelers eager to catch a glimpse of the volcano (and, hopefully, Mount Fuji, which is visible from the top of Owakudani on clear days).

Here comes the cable car!

Sounzan sits at an elevation of 767 meters (just over 2500 feet) above sea level, and is primarily known as the southernmost terminus of the Hakone Ropeway. In other words, it's where thousands of probably-crazy-but-nonetheless-eager people climb willingly into ten-foot gondola cars for the chance to dangle several hundred feet above the gaping, steaming maw of a live volcano.

Your one-way ticket to the volcano.
But I digress.

Upon arriving in Sounzan, I followed the crowd up a steep set of stairs, showed my Hakone Freepass to the attendant (a $30 ticket that gets you free access to all modes of transportation in Hakone for 2 days, $40 for 3 days - and is worth the price many times over) and accepted a pre-moistened towelette wrapped in plastic "for use if volcanic gases threaten to overwhelm respiration."

I see no way this could possibly go wrong. 

After a five-minute wait in a fast-moving line, I boarded a ropeway car, snagged a seat at the front to ensure good views, and started up the mountain.

Fuji Five Lakes in autumn.
The ride to the summit crest takes about 5 minutes, with gorgeous views the entire way. In autumn, the foliage is breathtaking, and in summer the valleys are filled with gorgeous greenery. (I went back again this summer, and can't wait to see it in spring and winter, too.)

Most of that white is volcanic steam, not clouds.
The steam from the volcano is visible long before you reach the summit. It rises from the crater in thick, white plumes like the breath of a sleeping dragon.

After reaching the summit, the ropeway cars take a leisurely, 2-minute ride across the volcano's crater, giving amazing views of the steaming sulphur vents and scientific research and monitoring stations set up in the mouth of the volcano.

Welcome to the volcano!

Why yes, that is a live volcano directly beneath you.

On the far side of the crater, the cable cars stop at Ōwakudani Station, where visitors disembark to walk around, visit the museum, gift shops, and restaurants, or (weather and volcanic emissions permitting) hike one of the trails that climb up and around the crater.

View from the restaurant overlooking the crater.
I opted for lunch in the restaurant overlooking the crater, and chose the local specialty: Ōwakudani black curry (it's made with pork) and onsen tamago- soft boiled eggs made in the mountain's volcanic springs. 

Pork tonkatsu, black curry, onsen tamago 

"Black eggs" boiled in the sulfuric volcanic springs are a local specialty of Ōwakudani. Eating one supposedly adds 5 years to your life - which means after all my visits there, I'm a couple of decades to the good.

After spending time on top of the mountain, visitors take another ropeway car down the opposite side of the mountain. The views are even better than the first ones - especially if the day is clear, when Mount Fuji's iconic cone rises up behind the nearby foothills.

The lower 2/3 of Mount Fuji . . . Thanks for nothing, cloud.

I take this on faith, by the way, because Mount Fuji and I have unresolved issues - as the photo above demonstrates.

I loved my visit to the volcano so much I returned the following day, and went again this summer with my son, who loved Hakone--from its volcano to its shrine--as much as I do.

My son, with the water gate of Hakone Shrine

When it comes to Japanese volcanoes, the eggs might lose in Hakone, but for the rest of us it's a resounding win.

* Tamago is the Japanese word for "egg." See what I did there.

1 comment:

  1. Why was it, Susan, that as I viewed your photos of your time in the cable car above the volcano, I kept thinking "lobster pot?"