Japan's Hakone Ropeway open again, offering up-close volcano views

By Miwa Uehara

The service has gradually resumed since the volcanic alert level for Mount Hakone was raised in May 2015

Visitors to Owakudani Park in Hakone, Japan, stop for photos against the background of volcanic plumes. Photo / Japan News-Yomiuri
Visitors to Owakudani Park in Hakone, Japan, stop for photos against the background of volcanic plumes. Photo / Japan News-Yomiuri

An aerial tramway gondola climbs smoothly between the green mountains. Immediately after it reaches the top, a barren basin appears below.

Excited passengers exclaim, "Wow!" and "Amazing!"

They point their cameras toward several billowing columns of smoke and patches of land stained yellow with sulfur.

On the last weekend of July, the Hakone Ropeway in Hakone in Japan's Kanagawa Prefecture, which traverses one of the nation's most famous hot spring resorts, glided over this dynamic volcanic topography to its highest destination, 1044-metre-high Owakudani Station. Outside the station, the odor of sulfur hung in the air and volcanic smoke enveloped the land.

Volcanic plumes, captured in this photo from a helicopter in July, hang over Owakudani on Mount Hakone. Photo / Japan News-Yomiuri
Volcanic plumes, captured in this photo from a helicopter in July, hang over Owakudani on Mount Hakone. Photo / Japan News-Yomiuri

This area, known as Owakudani Park, is one of Hakone's biggest tourist spots. Sightseers are now returning to the area for the first time in about 15 months.

After the volcanic alert level for Mount Hakone was raised in May 2015, the area around Owakudani was closed off and operations of the ropeway suspended. The ropeway service has gradually resumed since the autumn of 2015, but it was not until July 26 this year that it became fully operational again, including the section between Sounzan and Owakudani stations that traverses the area of volcanic plumes. Some daytime restrictions around Owakudani were lifted at the same time, allowing people to go outside Owakudani Station.

Tourists were taking souvenir pictures against the background of the smoke and formed a long line for the famous black eggs that are boiled in a hot spring. Security guards watched the crowds to ensure people did not enter dangerous areas or become sick from the volcanic fumes.

The shops inside Owakudani Station were busy with customers. Shoko Suzuki, 28, welcomed tourists with a smile, saying, "I get excited whenever I see customers coming in."

Hakone Ropeway allows visitors to take in views such as the crystal-clear blue waters of Lake Ashi, the rising volcanic fumes of Owakudani and Mount Fuji on a clear day. Photo / Getty Images
Hakone Ropeway allows visitors to take in views such as the crystal-clear blue waters of Lake Ashi, the rising volcanic fumes of Owakudani and Mount Fuji on a clear day. Photo / Getty Images

Suzuki, from neighboring Odawara, left another job to work in the tourist area in December 2014. She was assigned to a store in the station, but after less than half a year the area was closed to visitors.

"Compared with the fear at the time that Owakudani might remain off-limits for good, being busy is not a burden to me," Suzuki said enthusiastically. "I want to help revitalise Hakone."

The increased volcanic activity had a major impact on the local economy. According to the Hakone town government, the number of tourists there declined by 18 percent in 2015 from the previous year to the lowest level in 10 years.

Kazuyuki Osawa, 69, the owner of Lunch Cafe Soun near Sounzan Station, said that people living in resort condos in the surrounding areas seldom came to his cafe. There were some days in the past year when he had no customers.

Owakudani Park is one of Hakone's biggest tourist spots. Photo / 123RF
Owakudani Park is one of Hakone's biggest tourist spots. Photo / 123RF

But he is more optimistic now. "The mountain is quiet, and people are not worried anymore," he said. "It seems that we are heading in a good direction."

The grandeur of nature is one of the pleasures of travel, but it sometimes bears its fangs at humans. The people of Hakone are at nature's mercy, but they have recovered again and again from the challenges of living with the mountain.

The day when the people who love Hakone fully restore it is not far away.

Mount Hakone alert level

Because of the risk of vapour explosions at Mount Hakone, which straddles the border of Kanagawa and Shizuoka prefectures, the five-stage volcanic alert level was raised from 1 (be aware of active volcano) to 2 (do not approach the crater) on May 6, 2015. On June 30, 2015, a small eruption occurred in Owakudani, and the alert level was raised to 3 (do not approach the volcano), with an evacuation order affecting 54 people. The alert level returned to 1 in November last year. In July this year, entry restrictions within about 500 meters of the crater were lifted for most areas between 9am. and 5pm.

Travel directions

From Odawara Station, visitors can access Owakudani Park via the Hakone Tozan Railway train and cable car, which link Odawara and Sounzan stations. The Hakone Ropeway connects Sounzan and Owakudani stations. A one-way ride takes eight minutes and costs 840 yen ($11). If going by car, the nearest interchange is at Gotemba on the Tomei Expressway.

- Washington Post

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