After spending about a week in Tokyo, I had a string of short visits to Hakone, Nagoya, and Kanazawa, all of which were within a 1.5- to three-hour train ride from the capital.
Hakone is a popular weekend trip from Tokyo. It’s a cozy and romantic town with many hot springs. To get to Hakone, I bought a three-day “free pass,” which included roundtrip transportation between Tokyo and Hakone and unlimited use of public transportation in Hakone.
My favorite stop in Hakone was the Open Air Museum, which contained outdoor art installations that reminded me of the Storm King Art Center in New York. The outdoor setting made the works more accessible than they would have been in a traditional museum.
The museum also contained an informative Picasso exhibit. The placards included English descriptions that provided insight into the themes present in Picasso’s works.
After the museum, I took a ropeway ride to Owakudani, a sulfuric volcano. The area around Owakudani contained several walking trails, but all of them were closed due to toxic fumes pervading the area. Before I boarded the ropeway, a staff member gave me a moist towelette that I could use to cover my mouth and nose “to prevent accidents occurring due to volcanic gases” (according to the packaging for the towelette). When I arrived at the Owakudani station, I got a whiff of the fumes. The smell was everything you’d expect from a sulfuric volcano.
A few vendors in Owakudani sell “black eggs” cooked in the hot springs surrounding the volcano. The eggs supposedly add seven years to your life if you eat them. I didn’t buy into the gimmick, but I thought a black egg Hello Kitty was adorable.
Instead of a black egg, I treated myself to an egg ice cream cone, which tasted like custard.
The Hakone free pass included a boat ride on Lake Ashi. On clear days, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance. Unfortunately, clouds blocked Mount Fuji on the day I visited, but the boat ride was still peaceful.
When I disembarked the boat, I walked by the lake and posed for a photo at the Hakone-jinja shrine.
My hostel contained both an indoor and outdoor onsen, which were big selling points for me. At first, I was nervous about stripping down in front of complete strangers–what if they noticed X, Y, and Z on my body? I got over myself when I realized that the other bathers were too busy either: (1) worrying about their own bodies to pay attention to mine or (2) enjoying the onsen to care about anyone else’s body. I decided to join group (2). Plus, we could cover ourselves with little towels provided by the hostel.
If you visit an onsen, be sure to scrub yourself clean before entering the water. My hostel had a showering area with shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. Also, it’s no lie that Hakone has hot springs. I loved the tranquil setting of the outdoor onsen, but I could only stay there for ten minutes before I got too sweaty.
After a couple of nights in Hakone, I took a train back to Tokyo and boarded a shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya.
Toyota’s headquarters are located near Nagoya, and tours of the plant are offered daily. Since the plant tours required advance reservations, I settled for the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. The museum provided an overview of founder Sakichi Toyoda’s start in the weaving business. We could press buttons to turn on weaving machines at the many hands-on exhibits.
Of course, the museum also described the establishment of the Toyota Corporation and technological advancements.
One of the highlights of the museum was a violin-playing robot. It was like a scene straight out of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Yuko, anyone?). I couldn’t decide if the robot was the strangest or coolest thing I’d ever seen.
I visited Nagoya Castle, which was once one of the largest royal complexes in Japan. Most of the complex was destroyed during World War II, but the castle has undergone extensive reconstructive work.
For lunch, I visited Ippudo at Nagoya Station to see how it compared to the locations in New York. I ordered ramen with pork, spicy sauce, mushrooms, scallions, nori, and the perfect soft-boiled egg.
Although the Nagoya ramen tasted very similar to the New York version, the Nagoya version reigned supreme since it contained fewer toppings – a plus for me. The New York version contains bamboo shoots, which is my least favorite ramen topping.
At night, I visited Sakae, a neon-lit area where groups of salarymen stationed themselves at restaurants and bars.
Sakae is home to Oasis 21, an oval-shaped transportation and shopping complex.
Oasis 21’s roof contained a pool and great views of the nearby Nagoya TV Tower.
Many travelers recommended that I visit Kanazawa, which I hadn’t heard of before visiting Japan. Based on their descriptions, I expected a small, quiet town, but Kanazawa ended up being a mid-sized city with a population of about 460,000. Although the size of the city threw me off at first, I fell in love with Kanazawa.
The 21st Century Museum was my most memorable art museum visit in years. I’d even recommend it to people who normally don’t care for art museums. An exhibit called “End of Civilization” featured trash from Japan’s beaches. The artist Jurgen Lehl believed he could draw attention to the pollution by creating a beautiful work.
Another highlight was “The Swimming Pool.” Visitors could take photos both above and below the pool.
Since I’m always looking at clouds, I had to take a photo from under the pool.
The 21st Century Museum contained many other fascinating, interactive exhibits where photography wasn’t allowed. For instance, in the exhibit “Memories,” visitors were welcome to leave trinkets at the museum and write a note describing an associated memory. The exhibit included ticket stubs, key chains, and even a pair of flats. Visitors were welcome to take a trinket they liked.
Another traveler had advised me to visit Kenrokuen Garden early to beat the crowds. Kenrokuen offers free admission a couple of hours before the regular opening time (7 AM during warmer months and 8 AM during colder months). I originally planned to get to the garden during the free admission period but couldn’t drag myself out of bed when my alarm trilled at 4:30 AM.
Instead, I arrived at Kenrokuen at around 7:20 AM, when the garden was still quiet. It drizzled during part of my visit, but the grounds were still beautiful.
I came to the garden at the right time because tour groups started filtering in at around 9:30 AM.
Kanazawa–like many towns and cities in Japan–is bike-friendly. I rented a bike from my hostel on the morning I visited Kenrokuen, which made it easy to beat the crowds.