Hell on earth at the Great Boiling Valley of Owakudani
“Welcome to hell.”
It's hardly the most appealing of tourist slogans, but according to official Owakudani sightseeing literature, that’s exactly where I was, even though my map said I was only 100 kilometers out of Tokyo, in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture.
More to the point, I could believe the claim -- at least in part -- with my eyes watering from rotten sulfuric gases.
Clutching my remaining black eggs (more on those later), I made my way back to the ropeway that would airlift me out of the stench and back to reality.
It’s in the name
As they say in many a business, it’s all about location, location, location.
When it comes to location, Owakudani valley is definitely hot.
Before the area was called Owakudani, or Great Boiling Valley, it went by another name: O-jigoku, or Great Hell. Once my senses encountered the landscape for the first time, I understood why.
Three things hit me almost immediately when I arrived at Owakudani Station on the Hakone ropeway: smells, sights, and sounds.
It’s a volcanic area that hisses and boils beneath your feet. Trails of sulfur fumes fill the air, while cracks in the earth release vents of steam to complete the hellish picture.
Why this landscape? Because Owakudani is actually inside the crater of the volcano Mount Kamiyama. That eternal symbol of Japan, Mount Fuji, is just next door.
Geological soul of Japan
Seismic events form a huge part of the culture, history and development of Japan.
Artists such as Hokusai have incorporated them into their work for centuries.
Children regularly participate in earthquake drills at school and building regulations acknowledge the risk of earthquakes at their core.
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Owakudani is a place where it’s possible to catch a sense of the power that lies underground. And of what makes the ground move when the pressure becomes too great.
It’s a place to get insight into the geological soul of the land, and to understand what makes this earthquake-prone country tick.
Puts years on you
There was another reason I had to visit this great boiling valley. It’s a reason that draws thousands of Japanese visitors every year -- the chance to buy and eat kuro-tamago, or black eggs.
Kuro-tamago are chicken eggs that have been boiled in the bubbling pools inside the crater at Owakudani. When they go in they look like any other egg.
The presence of sulfur and iron in the volcanic water, however, turns the eggshells black as they cook.
The eggs have more going for them than simply their color. Legend has it that eating one of these eggs will prolong your life by seven years.
Eat two and you’ll gain an extra 14 years.
My partner and I bought a bag of six for ¥500 and quickly consumed 14 years each, saving an extra seven for the evening.
It’s cheaper than plastic surgery and Botox, at least.
Getting to Owakudani
I made it a day trip, starting early and ending late in central Tokyo, with the journey very much a part of the experience.
I started by purchasing a Hakone Freepass ticket for ¥5,000. It covered me for all my transportation costs, as well as entry to a host of different attractions in the Hakone district if I wanted to add to my Owakudani itinerary.
Stage one: The boring part
I took the Odakyu line from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Hakone Yumoto Station.
Of the four different parts of the journey, this is the part I’d call the dull stretch.
Still, it worked out pretty well. Because I was setting off in the early hours, I used the two-hour train journey to sleep in readiness for the day ahead.
Stage two: Riding the switchback
At Hakone Yumoto I crossed to platform four and took the Hakone Tozan train line to Gora Station.
This train is the oldest mountain railway in Japan, with a track that includes three switchbacks that enable it to negotiate the steepness of the climb.
It’s not the most comfortable ride, but the views far outweigh any discomfort on this 40-minute leg.
If you can, get in the carriages either at the front or back for the best views as you make your way round the bends and curves of the uphill climb.
Stage three: The cable car
At Gora Station it was time to take a cable car up the 214 meters to Sounzan Station.
I sat at the back and watched civilization and the hot springs of Gora gradually disappear.
Because I was traveling during fall, the reds and golds of turning leaves gradually filled my view as the cable car climbed.
Stage four: The Hakone ropeway
For the final stage of this four-part journey, I took the Hakone ropeway, where my partner and I were lucky enough to get a gondola car all to ourselves.
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As it crosses from Sounzan to Owakudani Station, the ropeway travels up to 130 meters above ground. Be warned: I spent much of this time peeking through my fingers and praying for it all to be over.
After 10 minutes or so of dealing with my inner demons, we arrived at our final destination with its more concrete demons.
Owakudani: Welcome to hell?
When I first read about Owakudani I did wonder about the name. Does any place really deserve such a description?
The parallels became clear when I stepped out of my gondola at the ropeway station.
The bubbling pools. The wafts of sulfur. The never-ending clouds of steam. Pretty hellish, if you ask me.
Still, the romantic in me wants to call it something like Volcano Valley, or Earth’s Engine. Something not quite so damning at first glance.
Then again, such a friendly sounding spot might not allow us to believe so readily in those seven extra years, would it?