To echo John Cleese and his observation about gondolas in Venice, Japan has mountains, mountains, mountains, mountains, mountains, and more [deleted] mountains.
Don’t even try to get away from them: the country is 80 per cent mountainous. These peaks are absolutely everywhere.
Mountains are why Japan is such a crowded country — most of the population is squeezed into the non-mountainous areas, which essentially means the Pacific coast, in shoulder-to-shoulder conurbations pretty much from the north to the south.
While mountains may not be very accommodating to modern, sprawling industrialised cities that dominate 21st century living, they are a good place to get away from those places and the mountain escape is something that Japan does with style.
One of the most popular alpine destinations is Hakone — no pitons or ropes needed, this is a very welcoming and accessible kind of mountain resort.
Just an hour or so from Tokyo by train and within sight of Mt Fuji (take our Fuji Paths Tour if you are interested in seeing Mount Fuji), Hakone is also very easy to get to, making an escape without drama or trauma.
Hakone, like similarly famous resorts Magome and Tsumago-juku, was once an important way station on an ancient route connecting Edo (now Tokyo) with Kyoto. In Hakone’s case the old road was called the Tokaido route. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Japan modernised with enthusiasm and linked the major cities with railroads. The old settlements that thrived because of the arterial roads fell into decline, which is where the mountains come in, because a few of these towns realised that their big neighbours were where it was at and reinvented themselves as tourist destinations.
Setting Hakone apart from other resorts is its location in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park and UNESCO-designated Geopark (area of outstanding geological significance) — or in other words, it’s slap bang in the middle of a volcanic zone that includes Mt Fuji.
This volcanic zone is not quite the smouldering Mordor of Kyushu, but volcanic it is with all that entails, from hot springs to geysers to the slumbering volcano itself. Owakudani, the Great Boiling Valley, is a fuming area of sulphurous springs — but at the time of writing this is closed to visitors because of dangerous volcanic gasses.
But Hakone is not all geological drama. The hot springs, trapped and trained by hotels and baths provide a quintessentially Japanese hot dip. There are also some novel hot baths where you can soak in sake, coffee, green tea and wine so that you can celebrate those special moments when you need nothing more than to soak in sake, coffee, green tea or wine.
Really, there may be more hot springs than mountains.
The great outdoors welcomes: there is good hiking and Lake Ashinoko, which will catch the reflection of Fuji for you if you’re lucky, is the gleaming centrepiece.
Art galleries, shrines and the old tollgate for the ancient road provide the history and culture in your tour and add the marvels of humanity to the marvels of nature.
It’s a cliché of travel writing to claim a place has everything, but then this place does. Hakone: mountains with a view to having a fascinating experience.
Switch-back train up to Gora
From the gateway town of Hakone-Yumoto, take the switch-back train up to Gora. It's a beautiful ride at any time of the year but during May and especially June when the hydrangeas are in bloom, it really is a stunner.
Cable car ride up to Owakudani
Pirate ship across Lake Ashi
Sekisho - the old Tokaido Checkpoint