Sorry for the click-bait title, but it’s pretty much accurate. And I also apologize in advance for this mess of a post. It’s basically just a bunch of pictures and jumbled up thoughts.
Having spent my childhood in Beijing and on the US East Coast, I grew up with 4 very distinct seasons: breezy springs, hot summers, colorful autumns, and snowy winters. And then we moved to Southern California, where we pretty much just got warm and slightly less warm.
Like any other girl, autumn is my favorite season because it’s cute boots and pumpkin season. I never realized how much I missed the turning of the leaves – the quintessential feature that makes fall… fall. It’s been a good two decades since I’ve experienced a real autumn. So I was super excited when my Auntie Hui said she’ll be taking us to Hakone to see the best of Japan’s fall colors.
Hakone Mountain Train
Hakone is a little mountain town west of Tokyo famous for an abundance of hot springs and open air museums. It’s also home to the Hakone volcano crater, which we didn’t go to explore (this time). Our main goal was to see the scenery!
But first, we had to get up the mountain! There’s only one way to do so, and that’s on the Hakone Tozan Railway. This little train is a fun experience in its own right. It carves through the luscious mountain forest, and has 3 switchbacks to ascend the mountain. There are some stops along the way for visiting the various hot spring resorts and open air museums dotted throughout the area.
Once in a while, we were treated to some gorgeous views. I only managed to just snap these pictures as the train zoomed past! Kind of disappointed in the poor quality, but oh well.
After about a very cramped hour’s ride on the Hakone Tozan train, we arrived at the Gora station (which is the terminal station).
Our hotel for the night was just next to the station. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find this listing on hotel booking sites. But it’s literally just next to the station as you walk out. My aunt said that the literal Japanese translation of the hotel name is “Hotel With a Large Pipe” (anyone can verify??).
As soon as we dropped off our excess luggage, we were out the door again. Our destination: the Hakone Art Museum. It was getting later in the afternoon and the museum wasn’t going to be open very much longer.
Getting Grandma up the hill
From our hotel, the Hakone Art Museum was just up ahead, but up a large hill. And we had a challenge: how were we going to get my 81-year old grandmother up the hill?
Our first thought was to grab a taxi, but a few that passed were already occupied, so we decided to just walk it with my grandma in a wheelchair. “It’s only 300 meters away”, my Auntie Hui said. “Only a ten to thirteen minute walk.”
Only when that 300 meters is all uphill on a pretty severe slope, the normal guidelines of time and distance no longer apply.
My aunt was pushing the wheelchair and within a minute, she was huffing and puffing. She pushed with alllll her might up the hill. At this point, none of us realized her difficulty yet so we didn’t step in to help. Even though the rest of us NOT pushing a 150 lb dead weight were breathing quiet heavily too.
My uncle saw she needed help and took over. But soon he was having trouble too. As big and strong of a man he is, it was clear he couldn’t do the job himself. My aunts stepped in to push him while he pushed the wheelchair.
When that wasn’t even enough, my other aunt grabbed the wheelchair from the front and pulled. And so it was like this, with everyone’s effort of pushing and pulling simultaneously (I went to help pull on the other side after taking these photos), that we made it up the hill.
We were all rasping for breath and laughing until our tummies hurt and nothing looked sweeter at the moment than the sight of the museum.
And yes, we made quite the sight for other visitors and locals who passed by on the way. I think we gave everyone a good laugh too.
Hakone Museum of Art
This is actually an art museum, but we only came to see the garden portion of it. And it was BEAUTIFUL.
This is the perfect time of the year to visit as the leaves are in the midst of a beautiful transformation. As soon as I stepped into the garden, I was in awe. Every shade of red, yellow, and green greeted us. The garden is truly magical at this time of the year.
There are also quaint little teahouses tucked within the garden. I imagine it’s a lovely place to relax and have a few sips.
This portion is called the moss garden, as you can see the moss covering nearly every surface.
Japanese moss is an amazing thing. I love how every little individual stem (is that the right term?) of moss is like a tiny plant. I spent a long time trying to get good macro shots of the moss.
My inner wannabe photographer went crazy at this place. I found myself lagging behind to take pictures every 5 feet of everything.
Finally caught up to my family! I really like this candid shot for some reason.
And then I found the most beautiful dew drops on these plants.
And by then, what daylight there was was starting to wane (which during this time is like 4:30 pm). My pictures were no longer turning out good and my camera battery was dying, so time to call it a day!
By the way, there is actually an art museum. It’s way in the back after you’ve walked through the entire garden. It’s probably worth a look but we ran out of time! It focuses on displaying medieval Japanese ceramics.
And now it was time to go back down the hill.
Going back down the hill had the risk of the wheelchair careening down uncontrollably with no way to stop. We turned the wheelchair around so that my grandma doesn’t go down the hill face-first. We quickly discovered that the trick is to have 2 people at the back pulling, and 2 at the front applying back-pressure. We went down the hill all in one go at a jog. I think it was more scary for my grandma than for us, as she said she felt like she was on a roller coaster.
Now, who said you can’t travel with someone in a wheelchair? ;)
Japanese thermal bath experience
With everyone properly exhausted after this little excursion, it was straight to the thermal baths we go!
Now, before I came, I said that there was NO WAY I was going to do the thermal bath. I confirmed multiple times that yes indeed, Japanese thermal baths are all nude, and no, you can’t wear a bikini, and let’s face it, it’s super f****** awkward to be nude with your family. But alas, peer pressure is very much real and I found myself changing into the hotel-provided robe and following my aunts and grandma down to the baths.
Just to check it out, I told myself. And I’m very much “go with the flow” these days, so I’m always up for a new experience.
(And yes, it is men and women separated, so it’s not THAT weird.)
In case you’ve never been to one of those nude baths before, here’s what happens:
Step 1: Yes, you are given two towels: a tiny one and a slightly bigger one. Luckily, I’m small in stature, so the bigger one was juuuust enough to wrap around my body and not expose any of the private parts. I insisted on keeping the towel wrapped around me, while everyone else happily walked around in their birthday suit.
Step 2: Then, you must take a shower in the wash area, which has a row of wash stations set up with shampoos, conditioner, body soap, etc. I went to the corner station and pretty much just faced the wall. And I must say that the products there gave me the softest hair ever the next day!
Step 3: After the wash, you’re ready to jump into the bath! I walked to the bath with the towel wrapped around me, stepped in, and then put the towel on the edge of the bath. So all good there, nothing too awkward.
Step 0: Let’s go back to Step 0, because this is the most important one… don’t look at anyone else! It’s actually not too hard to avert your eyes so you don’t see anything you don’t want to.
So that was it… the short version of the prude’s guide to nude public bathing. :P
After we’re all washed up, we went to the buffet dinner. It was pretty amazing as far as hotel buffet dinners go. The main reason why Auntie Hui chose this hotel was because my aunt wanted to eat crab, and my uncle wanted to eat beef. And this buffet dinner has both, along with all the other popular Japanese foods! A lot of king crab legs and roast beef were had, as well as beer, shoju, and sake.
How to get there: Japanese railways are super annoyingly confusing. Luckily, Auntie Hui is familiar with it and so we just followed her. But here are some options:
- From Odawara: There are 4 railway companies operating out of this station, but I think this is the easiest: From Odawara Station, to go the Hakone-Yumoto Station (about 15 minutes) on the Odakyu/Hakone Tozan Railway line. Then from that station, take the Hakone Tozan Line (about 1 hour) up the mountain until it terminates at Gora Station. I know, SUPER confusing.
- From Tokyo: You can get to Odawara first on the Shinkansen if you want to use your Japan Rail Pass. You can start from either the Tokyo-Shinagawa Station or the Shin-Yokohama Station (both about 40 min). From there, follow the above steps on the Odakyu/Hakone Tozan Railway, which is not part of Japan Rail Pass. OR you can take the Odakyu Electric Railway from Shinjuku Station to Hakone-Yumoto (1.5 hr, not part of Japan Rail Pass).
Hours: Hakone Museum of Art is open daily from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm (4:00 pm December – March). You’ll want a good few hours because trust me, you’ll take pictures of EVERYTHING, and then especially if you want to visit the actual museum too.
Time to visit: November is the best time to visit for the fall colors.
Price: 900 yen, about US $9.
Have you been to Hakone? Have you ever had a weird public bath experience? Where did you see pretty autumn colors this fall?