Sunday, May 23, 2021

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a (Hakone) Pirate's Life for Me

 --Susan, every other Sunday

I make no secret of my love for Hakone--a popular onsen (volcanic hot spring) area about an hour south of Tokyo. Its mountains played an enormous role in my 100 Summits year, and will play an even larger one in an upcoming project I'm just beginning to outline.

That said, the mountains aren't the only thing to love about Hakone, so today, I thought I'd wander past one of Hakone's more incongruous--and yet most beloved--features: the pirate ships that "sail" on Lake Ashi.

Officially, the ships are part of the "Hakone Sightseeing Cruise," which travels between the port of Togendai, on the north end of Lake Ashi, and the ports of Hakonemachi and Moto-Hakone on the southern end of the lake.

The Queen Ashinoko - the fleet's newest ship, in port at Moto-Hakone

On clear days, you can see Mt. Fuji from the ports on the south side of the lake - which is part of the reason why the one-hour round trip journey is called a sightseeing cruise.

Queen Ashinoko and Royal II, in port at Hakonemachi

Even on cloudy days, the sights from the ships (which are motor-powered, despite their sails) are well worth seeing--especially during foliage season.

Foliage on the shores of Lake Ashi, seen from the pirate ship

Some of the ships are modeled on famous historical vessels: the Royal II is a scale model of the 18th century French gunship Royal Louis (which served as the flagship of the French navy at that time), while the Victory, as its name suggests, is designed to look like the HMS Victory (Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar). The newest ship, Queen Ashinoko, appears to be a unique design--although she doesn't differ all that much from the others in the fleet. 

The Victory, in port on a cloudy day

Technically, none of the ships is a "pirate ship"--they don't fly the skull and crossbones flag, and the decor inside is far more luxe than any pirate ship (plush benches, renaissance murals on the ceilings, and even crystal chandeliers). There's even a coffee bar, for those who prefer to sit by a window and watch the scenery pass by with a steaming cup of tea or coffee, rather than braving the sometimes-windy decks.

The Hakone Barrier and Mt. Byobu from the ship

The ships have sailed the lake over a dozen times a day for several decades, and have become a beloved part of the "Hakone Sightseeing Loop," which also involves a ride on one of Japan's oldest electric trains, a cable car, and a ropeway (gondola) over the mouth of a live volcano at Owakudani.

The Hakone Shrine water gate and Hakoneyama

Many visitors refer to the Sightseeing cruise as the "pirate ships," despite the lack of pirate paraphernalia--and the fact that Ashinoko is an entirely landlocked lake. The existence of any ships--much less enormous gunships--on a volcanic crater lake that can be circumambulated entirely on foot in a single day is a bit absurd. But I suspect that's precisely what makes them such excellent entertainment.

The View from the Royal II on a foggy day

On these ships, it's possible to shed the cloak of maturity we all must wear and become once again an explorer, sailing high seas in search of adventure. 

Minus the seasickness, heaving waves, and risk of scurvy.

Royal II and Victory in port at Hakonemachi

The ships are also fun in any weather, which is helpful in a country with a serious rainy season in the summer.

Royal II and Victory

In fact, after riding the ships in every weather, I must admit I'm a little bit partial to the days when the fog sets in, and the ship heading in the opposite direction appears from the fog like something out of a ghostly legend.

Sailing through the fog.

It doesn't matter that the "sails" are just for show, or that ships like these don't feature in Japanese history, except to the extent that they brought foreigners to the country's shores.

Beautiful, if odd.

Shores that, I'll remind you, are nowhere near, and don't connect to, Ashinoko...


And neither I, nor anyone else I've ever talked with, cares a whit about the historical (in)accuracy.

The Queen Ashinoko, the weekend of her launch in 2019

While traveling to and from Hakone for hikes in 2018-2019, I had the opportunity to watch the Queen Ashinoko being built in a slip constructed for that purpose at the edge of the lake near Togendai. They built her in situ, which makes sense, given that none of the winding mountain roads that connect Ashinoko with the rest of Japan is large enough or straight enough to transport a ship of her size. 

By coincidence, I happened to be in Hakone the weekend she was launched into service, too -- and as you can see from the photo above, the weather received her as warmly as the many adoring fans who came to ride.

Royal II and sakura

The Queen Ashinoko is the sixth generation of ships to cruise on Ashinoko. The first ship, christened Pioneer, set sail in 1964 and remained in service until 1991. The Victoria, which sported an enormous British flag on her hull, sailed from 1980 until the Victory replaced her in March of 2007.

Royal II "sailing" past the Hakone Shrine Peace Gate

The Royal II replaced the original Royal, which plied the waters of Ashinoko from 1987-2013--and, most recently, the Queen Ashinoko replaced the bright green Vasa, which retired in 2019 after 28 years of faithful service. 

Ship leaving Togendai to begin its voyage

Fortunately, the ships have become a beloved part of the Hakone area, so it's likely they'll continue to sail for many generations to come.

Which is great, because although I'm a big fan of history, and value authenticity, sometimes you just need to hop on a pirate ship and go for an adventure on the not-so-high-and-not-quite-seas.


  1. Hm, sounds as if Disney Park devotees and Hakone pirate-boat fans share a common preference for fun over facts when it comes to having a good time.