Following our overnight stay in Atami, my family and I left with our tour group to continue towards Tokyo, the capital of Japan known for its blend of modern and tradition within its metropolis. Before we arrived there, however, we had one more stop en-route at the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park where we spent much of our second full day enjoying the lush, natural sights that it had to offer.
Spanning over 1220 square kilometers (474 square miles), the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park contains a wealth of well-known natural landmarks, the most famous being Mount Fuji. Aside from that, other features include cerulean lakes, mossy hiking trails, and hilly vantage points which rewarded tourists postcard views of the island’s vast landscape. Due to its immense beauty and proximity to Tokyo, it’s no wonder that this national park is considered the most-visited in Japan.
Our tour group left quite early in the morning to make the drive over. From what our tour guide had told us, we were expected to see Mount Fuji as our tour bus climbed the high cliffs on our way to the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Unfortunately, the morning fog completely obstructed any chances of seeing the iconic mountain—not a peek of it, even (pun intended)!
The morning fog lingered even after we clambered out of the tour bus for a short, boat tour on one of the lakes in the national park. Twenty minutes later, we reached the other end of the lake and made our way to the Hakone Sekisho, an important checkpoint used by shoguns to protect the area during the Edo period (17th century). We wandered through a few small, broad-roofed buildings which had displays reenacting life back in the Edo period, before climbing a flight of sandy steps outside for lovely views of Lake Ashi. By then, the morning fog cleared off, replaced with blue skies (not to forget rising temperatures!).
Just before exiting the Hakone Sekisho, we visited a small shop which specialized in puzzle-box making. Basically, it’s a traditional, hand-carved wooden box which is a lock in itself; it can only be opened by pushing, pulling, and turning the various pieces on the box in a certain manner. Although I would love to have purchased one (sadly, didn’t have the money), nevertheless I found it a neat concept—no padlock needed!
After a small buffet lunch outside of the park, we visited another called the Onshi Hakone Koen Park. Also home to plenty of green pathways and aqua lakes, this park contains the once-imperial villa of the Emperor himself; the building had been destroyed twice by earthquakes, and since has been remodeled. Today, visitors can climb to the second floor balcony for views of the lake and Mount Fuji in the distance. Unfortunately once more, it was quite hazy that afternoon despite blue skies, so we couldn’t make out Mount Fuji there, either. I’ll have to return some day to get a clear view of that mountain!
Our tour guide then took us around the park; we did a bit of hiking through the mossy-green forests, coming across a lovely, small stream that flowed parallel to the 200-or-so steps we took down to get to a clearing. Mind you, those steps were quite slippery from the water, and it was risky business trying not to slip and eat it down to the bottom! Arriving at the clearing, we came across some of the most beautiful places I’d seen in Japan so far; this bridge made for a picturesque memory, and even some of the tourists used it as a photo shoot location!
We ended our visit in the national parks soon thereafter, taking our tour bus (finally) to the heart of Tokyo. Getting in 90 minutes later, we checked into our hotel before proceeding to head out again with the tour for a small visit in Shinjuku, one of the most-happening municipalities in the city. Filled with everything– bars, restaurants, shopping, games– it makes for the ultimate urban experience in the Japanese capital. I could imagine myself frequenting this area if I were to return, in order to get that fast-paced, entertainment experience.
After the brief tour of Shinjuku, we were given the rest of the day to explore on our own. My family and I wandered around a bit more, spending some time in the Shinjuku train station, which is the busiest of all in Tokyo. Let me tell you: the amount of shopping and eating opportunities at train stations in Europe greatly pale with those in Japan—seriously, it’s a whole new city underground, filled with small food stands selling just about everything– tea, pastries, onigiri (rice balls)–and even clothing stores! I was introduced to UNIQLO, which I would say is the equivalent of Primark in Europe, and my life was completely changed (usually, I don’t have interest in clothes shopping, but UNIQLO changed that for me!).
Outside of the Shinjuku train station, we took a quick tour through the narrow, Medina-like alleys of the “Golden Gai,” a small quarter which boasts plenty of small, outdoor bars and eateries, with establishments all squished next to and across from each other, thereby creating an intimate (possibly claustrophobic) experience. My family and I didn’t get dinner there, but instead headed to a cute café which specialized in omurice, a Japanese take on the Western omelette: besides having eggs, the dish contains rice which is then encased in the omelette itself, so that when it’s cut through, the rice pours out. Drizzled with some savory and thick black sauce, it makes for the ultimate, protein-on-carb meal! I ordered a mochi-cheese omurice, which I found rich in taste and texture. A hearty, satisfying meal, to say the least.
My family and I also did some shopping before and after dinner, one of which had us invest our hard cash (yen, at least) in some Dr. Grip mechanical pencils. Weird investment, I know, but it’s a thing to buy the little things overseas, especially since the pencils were significantly cheaper than if we were to buy them back in the States (and I’m talking three times as much!). We made our final stop for the evening at the Tokyo Observation Deck, located in one of the towering government buildings where one could get decent views of the city from above. Knowing myself, I love a good view, so we took the elevator to the top and were rewarded with some sunset views of Tokyo. Admittedly, we arrived there a bit too early for the lights to come on (19h00 and still bright!), and we weren’t going to wait a long time for them to do so (actually didn’t get dark until past 21h00), so we took what we got, enjoying the views before heading down and returning to our hotel for the night.
Another tiring day of exploring in and around the Tokyo area, before *finally* reaching Tokyo! We would be staying in the city for another night, which meant more adventures in the Japanese capital. Stay tuned for the second part!