I’ve been thinking a lot about Japan lately. Just over a year ago I was on a dream trip through the country, visiting historic sites both famous and less touristy, and I am anxiously waiting for 2020 to play through to see if I can make my scheduled trip this fall, where I plan to hike the Kumano Kodō (熊野古道), a network of millennium-old pilgrimage trails through the south.
But while I wait, I’ve been reminiscing.
Author and Tōkyō resident Susan Spann was my guide to the best of Hakone, from the hotel where we were personally greeted to the little Italian restaurant where the owner brought in a wood-burning pizza oven. (Fair warning: I’m going to be talking up her books, both her historical mysteries about the murder-solving ninja/Catholic priest duo and her upcoming memoir about climbing 100 Japanese peaks in a year to change her inner and outer life.)
But today, let’s just talk about Ōwakudani.
Ōwakudani (大涌谷) is a specific volcanic area in the greater volcanic Hakone area. (It was originally named Daijigoku — Great Hell — but was renamed for Emperor Meiji’s visit in 1873.) It boasts a cableway on which you can ride over steaming vents. Volcanic gases are monitored for passenger safety, but currently all cableway use is suspended due to COVID-19 pandemic safety protocols.
The eggs boiled in Ōwakudani turn black — only the shells, the yolk and white remain as you’d expect, but the shells turn a striking black. The area is famous for these eggs, which allegedly add 7 years of life when you eat them.
But, science cannot explain why the shells boil black. And it doesn’t happen anywhere else. How freaky cool is that?
And while we’re not talking about the history or lore of Hakone today, here’s a brief little tale about the Hakone shrine.
Once, a great dragon with nine heads troubled the people of Hakone, shaking the waters of Lake Ashinoko and the land around it. (Some tellings recount that children were taken or had to be sacrified, though I cannot tell how near to the original this is. Other tellings say that the dragon’s trouble was manifested as landslides.) The high priest Mangan in 757 built a shrine to invoke the gods of Hakone to intervene, and the evil dragon (毒竜) was reformed to Kyuzuryuu (九頭龍, nine-headed dragon).
Minamoto Yoritomo took refuge at the shrine after losing to the Taira early in the Genpei War (see my history video) and became an important patron thereafter.
Today Hakone-jinja (箱根神社) is an important cultural and tourist site, famous for the water gate which allows the kami to enter directly from the water, and the Kyuzuryuu is remembered in this beautiful purification fountain.
I hope you enjoyed my brief memories of Hakone!