A Mountain Retreat in Hakone

A Mountain Retreat in Hakone

© Odakyu Group

I live in Kamakura, a seaside town one hour from Tokyo by train. From the hills around my house, I can look north to the distant skyscrapers, south to the Pacific, and to the west, the mountains surrounding iconic Mt. Fuji. The largest of these mountains is Mt. Hakone, the “steepest in the land,” according to the beginning of the classic song, Hakone Hachiri (1901, composed by Rentaro Taki). It was here that the Zen monk Musō Soseki (1275-1351) founded a mountain retreat to get away from the hustle and bustle of the capital in Kamakura. For my first trip after quarantine, I thought to follow in Muso Soseki’s footsteps and find my own retreat in the mountains. My trip began on the Enoden (Enoshima Electric Railway) rail line that runs through the streets of Kamakura before heading out on the coast, making for the distant mountains.

Though Hakone was popular even from before Muso Soseki’s time, it flourished in the early 17th Century as one of the 53 designated post stations along the Old Tokaido Road that connected Kyoto in the west to Edo (now Tokyo) in the east. The 20 miles (32 km) of the road that crosses the southern part of Mt. Hakone from Odawara in the east to Mishima in the west is called Hakone Hachiri, one of the toughest sections of the Tokaido, and the namesake of the song that greets you at many of the train stations in the area.

Hakone Mountain is the steepest in the land
Her peaks are high, her valleys deep
Her roads wind like sheeps’ insides all covered with slippery moss

I got off the train at JR Odawara station where the Hachiri starts, and wary of those high peaks, I took the bus west toward Moto Hakone, where the first Hakone rest station used to be. From there, the bus climbed up those winding roads like sheep’s insides—quite the image, but dizzily accurate. I respect the bus drivers who drive these roads daily and the travelers and porters from Edo times who had no choice but to walk or if they were lucky, ride a horse up these steep slopes.

The bus makes a stop at the Amazake-chaya tea house, the last remaining tea house along the Hakone Hachiri. The thatched roof and old fashioned fireplace made me feel, just for a moment, like a traveler from Edo days, drinking the sweet (non-alcoholic) amazake rice drink and soy-marinated mochi rice cake. From there, a trail leads to the old road bound for Moto Hakone, where the old station once stood by the shores of Lake Ashi. The trail was slippery as advertised, and I picked my steps carefully, marveling at how the hikyaku porters must have sped up and down these roads in centuries past.

Clouds crown her mountains, and mists shroud her valleys

It was an hour down the mossy cobblestone road until the vista of Lake Ashi spread out before me. It is a gorgeous lake, even with shy Mt. Fuji hiding behind thick clouds as it so often does in the warmer months. A torii gate stands on the side of the lake, just below Hakone Shrine, where the founder of the Kamakura shogunate, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199) is said to have made regular pilgrimages.

The cedar avenue, deep in shadow even during day
Leads to a checkpoint where one man could hold against 10,000

Along the shore of lake Ashi runs an avenue of tall cedar trees planted by the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 1600s to protect travelers from the heat of summer and snow in winter. I walked down this historic road, enjoying the occasional patches of sunlight coming in between the 400-year-old trees. The road ends at a modern reconstruction of the Hakone checkpoint where great processions of travellers were stopped for inspection of papers and baggage.

Her peaks rise ahead, the valleys fall behind

Hakone Mountain is a large, complex volcano crater created in an eruption about 3000 years ago, with a ridgeline circling the caldera, and a high peak in the middle called Kamiyama, or “mountain of the gods.” Kamiyama looks down over Owakudani Valley, where the geothermal activity is closest to the surface and you can feel the earth breathe. From the Hakone “ropeway” gondola I saw yellow plumes of sulfur smoke, steaming cravasses, and wilted woodlands.

While the landscape is impressive, it’s what lies beneath the peaks that has kept people coming here for centuries: hot springs. History tells us that people found these springs more than 1200 years ago, and pilgrims would visit to dip in the hot springs for their reputed health benefits. Seven original hot springs grew to the current seventeen locations as more places and varieties were discovered. Ms. Nemoto of the Hakone Tourist Association told me that “Hakone is like a hot springs department store—there’s something for everyone.” Some are clear, and some are clouded with the yellow sulfur, like the water at the inn where I stayed. It’s said the water is supposed to make your skin smooth and beautiful. I wish I could have stayed longer.

Samurai with spirit set off on their travels,
Long swords at their waist, tall clogs on their feet,
Clacking across the rocks,
As they made their way down the Hachiri.

It’s said that, when Odawara Castle was at war, the samurai used to sneak up into the hills of Hakone to take dips in the springs between battles. I wonder if they made it to Dogashima Onsen, where Musō Soseki made his retreat deep down in a ravine, halfway up the eastern face of Mt. Hakone. In Kamakura, he had trained in the Zen temples and served as head priest of Jochi-ji Temple, itself a retreat from the world of politics and warfare, but to really get away, he came here. The path down is winding, and all I could think about as I went down was the walk back up. But at the bottom, I took a lunch break, and thought about him seated in meditation here, 1000 years ago, with the roaring sound of water as his guide. The inns at the bottom of the ravine are currently under renovation. Someday, I’ll come back to enjoy the hot springs, and share a view with an ancient Zen monk.

My trip was just a day-and-a-half, but it felt like I had come to another world, where every corner you turn is a chance to discover the past, or relax in the present. I enjoyed my mountain retreat, walking the old Tokaido road, hearing the echoes of clogs from long ago, and dipping into the warm waters that run down from the peaks. Now, it is time to climb down that “steepest mountain in the land,” and make my way back to Kamakura. The ocean is waiting for me.

About the Author
Yukiyo Matsuzaki Smith spent her teenage years in New York where she studied piano at the Juilliard School. From 2007 to 2012, she lived in Vermont where she ran a country inn. Currently living in Kamakura, Japan, she started Kamakura Mind to bring more people into contact with Japanese culture, art, and nature in her hometown by the sea.

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