Hakone

Although Mount Fuji lies only 80 miles from the heart of Tokyo, it’s hard to see the mountain from the city unless it’s a perfectly clear day. While I arrived in Tokyo at the end of Mount Fuji’s official climbing season, I still wanted to get up close and see one of Japan’s most iconic landmarks.

Mount Fuji Hakone

If you want to enjoy spectacular views of Mount Fuji without climbing it, the tourist town of Hakone offers almost any activity you can imagine, from shopping and exploring museums to relaxing in onsen (hot spring resorts). Hakone lies in the Kanagawa prefecture of Japan, a little over an hour outside of Tokyo.

Hakone Japan

One of the biggest draws of Hakone is Lake Ashi, a scenic lake formed by a crater near Mount Hakone. The lake offers views of Mount Fuji, boat cruises, and several hot springs resorts. Although I stopped at a point where Mount Fuji was barely visible, the beautiful lake more than made up for my lack of view.

Lake Ashi Hakone

Mount Fuji, peeking out behind another mountain in the distance

Lake Ashi Hakone

Many of the pleasure cruise boats on Lake Ashi are modeled after traditional sailing ships, which you can see to the left.

Many vantage points along the shores of Lake Ashi offer souvenir shops as well. If you’re looking for a Fuji-inspired present or a traditional Japanese craft, make sure to stop by.

Mount Fuji souvenirJapanese souvenir

Mount Fuji souvenir

Mount Fuji coin purses! Aren’t these cute?!

 For beautiful views of Mount Fuji, Lake Ashi, and the surrounding countryside, I highly recommend taking a gondola among the mountains, called the Hakone Ropeway. The aerial lift has several stops around the mountains, ending in a stop right by Lake Ashi. This line is one of the best opportunities for sightseeing in the area, particularly during the fall when the leaves are changing.

Hakone ropewayHakone ropeway

Hakone ropeway

While you can take the gondolas for a round trip, I recommend getting off at Owakudani, or the Great Boiling Valley. Owakundani is a volcanic valley with active sulfur vents and hot springs, which offers even better views of Mount Fuji on a clear day, hiking trails along the vents, and souvenirs. You can definitely smell the sulfur in the air, but it’s pretty cool to walk along active steam vents.

Owakundani

Owakundani

Owakundani

Mount Fuji, from a view at Owakundani

Owakundani is known for its kuro tamago, or black eggs. These are a local specialty food in Hakone, where the eggs are boiled in the sulfur hot springs.  As a result, the egg turns black from a chemical reaction and smell like sulfur. Eating a kuro tamago is supposed to add longevity to your life (seven years for every egg), but be warned: if you eat more than two and a half in seventeen years, there could be dire (and unexplained) consequences. I thought the eggs tasted exactly like normal hard-boiled eggs, but eating one gave me a stomachache later.

Owakundani

Hello Kitty/Kuro Tamago photo opportunity? DUH.

Owakundani

Owakundani

The majestic black egg. Oh, and Mount Fuji in the background.

Owakundani Kuro tamago

Just a normal egg on the inside.

If you’re interested in more manmade attractions, Fujiya Hotel is another Hakone must-see. This historic hotel was built in 1891, and is a mixture of both western and Japanese architectural elements that were popular during the Meiji period in Japan. The beautiful hotel has hosted many notable people and celebrities over the years, including the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller, and the Showa Emperor.

Fujiya Hotel HakoneFujiya Hotel Hakone

Fujiya Hotel HakoneIf you can’t stay overnight at the hotel, make sure to take a tour of its rooms and historic artifacts, and plan to stay for dinner. Fujiya is famous for its beef curry, which is served in its French-inspired restaurant.

Fujiya Hotel Hakone

Fujiya’s famous (and expensive!) beef curry.

I ended my time in Hakone at the Hakone Open-Air Museum, a park full of beautiful sculptures, interactive art that you can play on, galleries, and more. With works by Picasso and Henry Moore, it’s a great way to walk around in the fresh air and enjoy some art. My favorite part was a tower constructed from stained glass, which you could climb up inside and enjoy views of Hakone’s countryside.

Hakone Open Air MuseumHakone Open Air MuseumHakone Open Air Museum

Whether you’re looking for spectacular views of Mount Fuji or just want a break from Tokyo, Hakone offers an activity for everyone. Bring good walking shoes and plenty of spending money, as you’ll definitely want to try more than one destination. Hakone is a perfect place to grab an iconic picture of Mount Fuji, and still have plenty more to do.

Hakone Open Air Museum

Next time I’m in Japan though, hopefully I’ll be able to photograph Mount Fuji from its summit instead.

Mount Fuji Hakone

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Asakusa

When I lived in Tokyo, I was constantly astounded by the mixture of old and new, tradition and modernity. Despite the differences between glass skyscrapers and wooden shrines, everything seemed to blend together seamlessly. That’s probably what I like the most about Asakusa, a popular destination that used to be home to Tokyo’s entertainment district in the Edo period (1603-1867). Although the area was bombed and severely damaged by World War II, today Asakusa offers a rich cultural experience as well as modern thrills.

With the Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance, first glimpses make Asakusa seems like just another modern district

With the Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance, first glimpses make Asakusa seems like just another modern district

Asakusa is probably best known for Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple. Thousands of people flock here every day to pay their respects to the bodhisattva Kannon, or visit one of the other many shrines in the area.

Kaminarimon, the entrance gate that leads to Senso-ji Temple

Kaminarimon, the entrance gate that leads to Senso-ji Temple

Senso-ji Temple

Senso-ji Temple

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My favorite part of the Temple grounds, however, was the long corridor of both traditional and modern shops that offer everything from keychains and Hello Kitty bags to yukata (summer robes) and traditional street snacks.

The main shopping street, Nakamise

The main shopping street, Nakamise

Here's the main street later on in the year. The decorations change to match the seasons

Here’s the main street later on in the year. The decorations change to match the seasons

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Asakusa is a great place to find souvenirs, especially if you’re looking for traditional Japanese arts. I must have come here 5 times, in search of the perfect gifts for my family and friends.

Traditional Japanese sandals, also called zori

Traditional Japanese sandals, also called zori

Ceramic dishes and cute pigs!

Ceramic dishes and cute pigs!

I regretted buying one of these, even though they were close to $40

I regretted not buying one of these, even though they were close to $30

Owl coin purses

Owl coin purses

Kimono shop

Kimono shop

Hungry? Asakusa is widely known for its tempura. Although I never had a chance to try it, I still had plenty of amazing meals in and around the temple. If you’re in the mood for a traditional snack, the vendors of the nakamise have plenty of options. If not, there are dozens of noodle shops and Western cafes just outside. My favorite food of Asakusa would have to be the ice cream- I’ve never seen so many interesting flavors from one vendor, and I wanted to try them all! I’ll cover the street food of Japan a little later, but here’s a few meals I managed to enjoy in Asakusa:

So many flavors!!

So many flavors!!

My favorite flavors- green tea on the left and sakura (cherry blossom) on the right

My favorite flavors- green tea on the left and sakura (cherry blossom) on the right

Other meals from Asakusa: katsu (pork cutlet) with soba noodles

Katsu (pork cutlet) with soba noodles

Kitsune udon

Kitsune (sweet fried tofu) udon

Gyoza (dumpling) set with fried chicken and rice

Gyoza (dumpling) set with fried chicken and rice

Asakusa is a great place to check out traditional Tokyo, but if you’re missing modernity, there are plenty of options around. Just across the Sumida river lies Tokyo Skytree, Japan’s tallest structure and the tallest tower in the world. There, guests can shop, explore an aquarium, eat at 5-star restaurants, and observe Tokyo from its full height of over 2000 feet.

Asakusa near the Sumida River, with the Tokyo Skytree in the distance

Asakusa near the Sumida River, with the Tokyo Skytree in the distance

I think the Tokyo Skytree is a post for another time. Until then, enjoy Asakusa and the cultural experience it has to offer. Where do you want to visit next? Let me know in the comments below!

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