There’s no denying Tokyo’s electrifying appeal, yet with so much to discover just outside the bustle of the capital, a refreshing change of pace is never far. With ANA’s nonstop flights to Tokyo from cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, nature hikes, rejuvenating hot springs, and fascinating cultural treasures are just a short train ride away. While on assignment in Japan, photographer Sam Horine was prepared to trade in the concrete and glass for swaths of forest and open skies, eager to see the country’s meditative side. Close enough for a day trip, Hakone ticked all the boxes: outdoor hikes, historical sites, and even a culinary speciality rumored to extend one’s life.
Photos by Sam Horine | Lake Ashi with Mount Fuji in the background
Getting there would be simple with a zippy two-hour train ride from central Tokyo. Horine quickly boarded from Shinjuku Station, eager to find relaxation in the misty forests southwest of the capital. As the train chugged along, it seemed as if Tokyo’s cityscape stretched on forever, until “all of a sudden, you’re in the middle of the mountains.”
Lake Ashi from Ashinoko Skyline Drive
And there he was, in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, one of Japan’s most popular recreational destinations. Once in Hakone, the area can be explored by foot, car, even by boat, but the efficient “ropeway” system is the most recommended. The modern cable car connects Hakone’s best-known attractions, and with a Hakone Free Pass, Horine would have unlimited on-and-off riding privileges throughout the region. In pursuit of outdoor adventure, he arrived by car to his first stop: Lake Ashi.
Find your reflection in Lake Ashi and the Hakone Shrine
The main attraction in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park is arguably Lake Ashi (commonly shortened from Ashinoko). This enchanting caldera lake was formed over 3,000 years ago after the eruption of Mt. Hakone, a still-active volcano. Entirely surrounded by mountains, Lake Ashi is most famous for its stunning vantage points, especially its northwest framing of the impossibly symmetrical Mt. Fuji on a clear day. Many visitors tour the lake aboard a replica of a medieval sailing ship, traversing the chilly waters in pursuit of lakeside attractions like the Onshi Hakone Park and the Hakone Detached Palace, the former summer palace of the Imperial Family. Regarded as Lake Ashi’s ultimate highlight is the Hakone Shrine, a holy Shinto sanctuary. From the shores of the lake, Horine meandered the forest trail through bright red torii gates to the main shrine, ultimately ending at the majestic Torii of Peace. Emerging from the lake, the photogenic gate immediately evokes a sense of serenity: “We’re in a different part of Japan for sure,” he says.
Eat lucky boiled eggs in the Owakudani Valley
“It looks like a mini-galaxy,” observes Horine as he cradles a matte black egg in his left hand, clutching his DSLR camera with his right. Legend has it that eating one of these black eggs, called kuro-tamago, will add seven years to your life. Kuro-tamago can only be found in Owakudani, the Great Boiling Valley, a Hakone “hot spot” formed by the same volcanic eruption that created Lake Ashi. Owakudani can be reached between the Sounzan and Togendai stops by the Hakone Ropeway, or by car. A hiking trail also leads up from Lake Ashi, but is often at risk of closure due to volcanic gases.
Though a clear day will gift views of Mt. Fuji’s conical silhouette, most people come to Owakudani for the steamy landscape and the eggs. Despite a peculiar exterior, they actually come from a normal chicken—it’s through a chemical reaction to being boiled in the sulfur springs that their shells darken. Peeling off those shells reveals the familiar interior of a regular boiled egg, and a similar taste, though perhaps with a subtle minerally undertone. “Is it possible that I already feel seven years younger?” he says as he begins to crack another.
Mountain shrine atop Mt. Komagatake
Visit the mountain shrine atop Mt. Komagatake
From Lake Ashi, a seven-minute ropeway ride carries you to the summit of Mt. Komagatake, a lava dome that rises nearly 5,000 feet into the sky. Hopping off the gondola, Horine first noticed the striking red torii gate of the Hakone Shrine Mototsumiya, the okumiya (mountain) counterpart to the satomiya (village-adjacent) lakeside monument. For over 2,400 years, the peak of Mt. Komagatake has been a site of worship to the gods of nearby Mt. Kamiyama, the tallest in the Hakone mountain chain.
There’s little vegetation up on Mt. Komagatake, but a whole lot of jaw-dropping views, especially of Mt. Fuji. Horine points his lens at its snow-capped peak, cloud wisps hovering overhead: “This must be the closest I’ve ever been to Mt. Fuji,” he says. A 360-degree spin at this location will grant you more panoramic views: Gaze farther down the ridge for more mountains, then look right toward the ocean for Sagami Bay and the city of Odawara. Behind you will be Lake Ashi, where the journey began.
Ride in the clouds along the Ashinoko Skyline Drive
Horine’s final stop was the Ashinoko Skyline Drive, perched above the western shores of Lake Ashi. Essentially a winding toll road with spectacular views across the Hakone caldera, the Skyline does require a car to truly enjoy all seven miles of the scenic route. The most popular stretch is the Mikuni Pass, where Mt. Fuji comes into view on one side, and the ocean and Izu Peninsula on the other. With several on-site hiking trails, Horine was determined to spend his last few moments in Hakone taking in more of Japan’s calmer side before returning to the Tokyo bustle. And just as the day was ending, he found the perfect spot to linger a little longer: “Watching the sun going down behind Mt. Fuji…it’s something I’ll never forget,” he says.
With ANA as your travel partner, it’s easier than ever to continue your adventure throughout Japan’s most enchanting getaways, no matter the time of year. Whether you’re a beer enthusiast craving Sapporo’s renowned breweries or a surf aficionado ready to tackle Miyazaki’s tropical beaches, get there in maximum comfort with nonstop routes from Tokyo to over 40 of Japan’s greatest destinations.
Originally published by Conde Nast Traveler, Paul Jebara. Photography by Sam Horine