The Hakone-Tozan Line serving villages in the hot spring resort of Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture takes passengers deep into the mountains and back in time.
When the first foreign settlers in Japan began making their way from Yokohama to the hot spring resort of Hakone in the late 1860s the only way of getting to the “Paradise in the Hills” was on horseback. The pioneering tourists would rest the night at the ancient castle town of Odawara and then proceed on foot along the Tokaido, the main road connecting Kyoto with Edo (modern-day Tokyo) on the east coast of Honshu. In the days of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867), Hakone was the last checkpoint and resting place before the de facto capital.
Much of the Tokaido fell into disuse with the development of the railways beginning in the 1870s, but a stretch of the old road remains in Hakone, a cedar-lined stone pathway close to Lake Ashi that makes for an atmospheric short hike. The Hakone Checkpoint can also be visited here. The buildings are replicas of the original structures but nevertheless evocative of feudal times.
Access to the mountain villages and many hot springs in the area improved with the development of the Hakone-Tozan mountain railway, which began with the opening of a horse-drawn railway in 1888 and culminated with the completion of the scenic Hakone-Yumoto to Gora adhesion railway in 1919. Modeled on the single-track Bernina railway in Switzerland, the Hakone-Tozan Line employs tunnels, three switchbacks and plenty of sharp curves to negotiate a gradient of 8% in places, one of the steepest climbs or descents for a conventional railway line anywhere in the world.
The two- or three-carriage trains — some dating from 1950 — zig-zag up and down the steep slope at 15-minute intervals. In the summer, passengers throw open the windows and take in the air as the train heads into the mountains through long cool tunnels, brushing against the hydrangea bushes that color the length of the route.
The Hakone destination of choice in the early days of foreign tourism was Miyanoshita, where a magnificent teahouse called Naraya and, later, the grand European-style hotel Fujiya provided the accommodation. Both establishments are still in business, though Naraya now operates on a much smaller scale and Fujiya is undergoing renovation work. (Update: Fujiya Hotel reopened on 15 July 2020 after two years of extensive renovation work.)
Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain, author of the 1899 A Handbook for Travelers in Japan, lived for twenty years in the Fujiya Hotel, so enchanted was he with the lofty locale. Fujiya was preferred to Naraya by the first foreign visitors not least because, as Chamberlain observed in Things Japanese, “stoveless Japanese tea-houses are woefully chilly places.”
Miyanoshita has retained much of its charm and attracts shoppers in search of antiques and hikers in search of waterfalls. But most travelers these days head for the concentration of hot spring inns at the start of the Hakone-Tozan Line, Hakone-Yumoto, or press on via the Hakone Cable Car and ropeway to the volcanic Owakudani valley and pristine Lake Ashi beyond.
Others still will jump off at stations along the line to enjoy one of the many excellent museums in this neck of the woods, Hakone Open Air Museum being one not to miss.
But every which way you turn in Hakone, there is unbound natural beauty and sights to behold that have not changed much in 150 years of tourism. All you have to do to see for yourself is get on the train.
Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal
Note: Story first posted to TJJ ONLINE on 5 June 2019. Updated 28 May 2021.