Ōwakudani, One of Hakone’s Most Popular Sights
Close-up View of Volcanic Activity
Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture is a popular day-trip destination from Tokyo offering scenic spots like pristine Lake Ashi and the rolling fields of Sengokuhara and magnificent views of Mount Fuji on clear days. The area also boasts historic sites like Hakone Shrine and the Hakone sekisho, once an important checkpoint on the old Tōkaidō highway, along with numerous museums and other sightseeing spots. Accommodations range from traditional hot spring inns to glitzy, modern resort hotels. One of Hakone’s best-known draws is Ōwakudani, a rugged valley riddled with volcanic vents belching pungent clouds of steam.
Hakone’s vast caldera, measuring 11 kilometers in circumference, formed 80,000 to 130,000 years ago. Ōwakudani appeared during a volatile period some 3,000 years ago that also created Mount Kanmurigatake, the lava dome towering above the valley, Lake Ashi, and Sengokuhara. In the past, the rocky, desolate terrain of Ōwakudani, with it vents spewing sulfuric gases and reddish-brown earth, was thought to resemble the underworld and referred to by names like jigokudani, or “hell valley.” The spot was given the more pleasant-sounding Ōwakudani, meaning “great boiling valley,” on the occasion of a visit by Emperor Meiji in 1873 in the belief that it would be inappropriate to use the word “hell” to refer to a place visited by the monarch.
Hakone is a live volcano, a fact that visitors may tend to forget as they explore the diverse landforms created by long-ago eruptions and soak in the area’s many hot springs. However, visitors can get a feel of the mountain violent energies at Ōwakudani, where plumes of superheated steam remind sightseers that an active volcano lurks beneath their feet.
The Valley Floor: A Grand Panorama
Hakone is an easy drive from metropolitan Tokyo. Parking is available near Ōwakudani Station on the Hakone Ropeway, which sets 1,000 meters above sea level. Many people are satisfied with taking in the valley scenery from an observation point near the parking area, but a ride on the ropeway is one of the best ways to enjoy the remarkable landscape. There is a fee to park at Ōwakudani, but the parking areas at Sōunzan Station and Tōgendai Station, the eastern and western ends of the ropeway, are free.
The section of the ropeway between Ōwakudani and Sōunzan Stations passes over Ōwakusawa at a height of 130 meters, giving a bird’s eye view of the steam rising from the valley floor. The vapors contain volcanic gases that turn the barren earth a yellowish hue.
A Special Treat
Ōwakudani Station and the observation deck next to the parking area offer sweeping views of the valley. There is also a nature walkway that gives visitors a close-up view of the steam vents as well as a hiking path across the top of Ōwakusawa to Mount Kamiyama, although both are currently closed.
A 15-minute walk from the entrance to the nature walkway is Tamago-chaya, a shop that produces the area’s famed kurotamago, eggs blackened from being boiled in the caustic waters of the valley. Workers at Tamago-chaya make kurotamago, which purportedly extend the life of anyone eating them, by boiling normal eggs for an hour in an adjacent pond and then steaming them for an additional 15 minutes. The iron in the water seeps into the shells and reacts with hydrogen sulfide to create iron oxide, giving the kurotamago their characteristic black sheen. The freshly cooked eggs are transported down the mountain by ropeway to sell at Ōwakudani Station and nearby souvenir stands.
Yanase Masayuki, sales manager for Oku-Hakone Kankō, which operates the souvenir shop Ōwakudani Kurotamago-kan, says that the yolks of the blackened eggs have been shown to contain 20% more umami than ordinary hard-boiled eggs, a difference he claims visitors who eat kurotamago will certainly be able to taste. The reliance on thermal spring water removes concerns about electricity or fuel costs, allowing the eggs to be boiled for a longer time than is usual, enhancing their flavor.
Prime Tourist Attraction
Hakone is one of 50 volcanoes throughout the country that the Japan Meteorological Agency continually monitors. In the past, small-scale eruptions have caused authorities to close access to Ōwakudani. A Level 2 warning, barring people from approaching the area, was issued most recently in May 2019 and forced the Hakone Ropeway to close down temporarily. The JMA returned the warning to Level 1 in November 2019, but the nature walkway to the volcanic vents and parts of the hiking path remain closed.
Tourism has been further affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and Yanase says that visitors are only starting to return. He attributes this in large part to the Hakone Tozan Railway resuming full operations in late July following suspension due to typhoon damage in October 2019. However, he notes that the number of sightseers is still only about half of what the area typically receives.
Yanase says that Ōwakudani, which is just a two-hour drive from Tokyo, offers a valuable opportunity to observe volcanic activity up close. He explains that the wide-open spaces make it easy for visitors to observe social distancing while enjoying the natural surrounding and views of distant Mount Fuji—not to mention a kurotamago or two.
(Originally published in Japanese. Reporting, text, and photos by Nippon.com.)