In June (2021), I used one of the last pleasant days before the rainy season set in to hike a section of the Hakone Old Road between Ashinoko (Lake Ashi) and Hatajuku, with a short detour to a lesser known pond called Otama-ga-ike along the way. At just under 3.5 hours and 5 kilometers, this was a relaxing hike, and a perfect way to spend the morning. This post covers the first half of the hike, from Lake Ashi to Otama-ga-ike; the next installment will cover the second half of the route, including a stop at one of the oldest continually-functioning teahouses in Japan.
The section of the “Hakone Old Road” between Lake Ashi and Hatajuku follows the route of the Tokaidō, one of the five major travel roads established by the Tokugawa Shogunate during the early years of the 17th century. The Tokaidō was one of the most heavily traveled roads in Tokugawa Japan, and a primary route connecting the new capital of Edo (now Tokyo) with the former Imperial capital of Kyoto.
Portions of the Tokaidō were also segments of older roads, many of which predated the Tokugawa travel roads by centuries. One reason this route is called the “Hakone Old Road” is that a portion of this trail was not only part of the Tokaidō, but also part of the older Yusaka-Michi (which features in my 2020 Hiro Hattori mystery, GHOST OF THE BAMBOO ROAD). A road sign near the start of the trail shows the route, along with some of the other local trails.
This section of the old trail begins a five-minute walk from Lake Ashi, east of the bus stop at Moto-Hakone. Once you enter the forest, it’s easy to forget that modern buses, roads, and hotels are just a short hike away. The trail looks much as it did in the 17th century, when this was considered one of the roughest sections of the Tokaidō (due to the significant change in altitude between Harajuku and Lake Ashi).
Portions of the road are still covered by the original ishidatami (stone tatami) paving that helped to secure the trail against erosion and provided better footing for humans and animals traveling the route. The moss-covered stones may look slippery (and they are), but they’re still easier to walk on than slippery mud.
Many other portions of the route have been “re-paved,” either with original stones recovered after the Great Kanto Earthquake caused slides along the route, or with newer stones re-cut and placed using old techniques.
The trail heads uphill from Ashinoko for several minutes, but evens out fairly quickly, and the climb in this direction isn’t steep. (The hike from Hatajuku to Ashinoko is much steeper, as most of the altitude is gained walking in that direction–so if you want to hike it the easy way, start at Ashinoko and catch the bus to your destination from Hatajuku, instead of hiking toward Lake Ashi.)
A few minutes from Lake Ashi, a sign at the edge of the trail announces that this segment of the route was part of the older Yusaka Michi, as well as the Tokaidō. The travel roads of medieval Japan shifted from time to time, after a landslide or other natural disaster blocked or destroyed a portion of the route. Although much of the Yusaka Michi has been preserved, and can still be hiked, the Tokaidō only used a portion of that older route.
The travel roads follow the contours of the land, winding up and over passes and down mountainsides. While I hiked this portion of the Tokaidō in its entirety for research back in 2018, this year I took a detour about twenty minutes after leaving Hakone, and headed along a branch trail toward Otama-ga-ike, a pond I’d seen on several maps but never visited.
The massive cedars that line the Tokaidō disappeared almost at once, replaced by a natural, mixed forest of pines and deciduous trees. Birds sang, and a gentle breeze blew along the path.
About five minutes after leaving the Old Road trail, I came upon a large, fresh burrow at the side of the trail. The hole was about the diameter of a basketball, and although I wasn’t sure who-or-what lived there, it looked both freshly dug and likely to be occupied. I took the picture below and continued on my way.
Beyond the burrow, the trail descended sharply to a two-lane road, which I hurried across. A large sign on the other side announced my arrival at Otamaga-ike–though the scenery also suggested I’d found the pond.
I was greeted by a number of enormous dragonflies and an exuberant chorus of frogs. The path ended at a wooden boardwalk, which continued around–and across a corner of–the lake. My map suggested the trail picked up on the other side, and that it was possible to circumambulate the lake and pick up another trail not far from the one I’d used to get there, which would take me back to the Hakone Old Road. I had nowhere else to be that day, so I gave it a shot.
According to a signboard by the lake, Otama-ga-ike is named for a young girl from a fishing village in Izu (a peninsula south of Hakone) who was executed in 1702 for the crime of “breaching the barrier” after she tried to sneak through the Hakone Barrier checkpoint without a proper pass. Otama’s family had sent her to work for a relative in Edo, but the work was harsh and the girl ran away. She was captured while trying to sneak through Hakone, and executed near the pond–which was later renamed to memorialize her story and to appease her spirit.
The trail did indeed lead around the lake–and except for a quick and wobbly traverse across a nearly-rotten bridge over one of the streams that feeds the pond, it was a lovely and uneventful walk.
After walking almost all of the way around the pond, I found the second trail leading back to the Hakone Old Road/Tokaidō, and started along it, eager to reach my next major landmark: one of the oldest continually-operating teahouses in Japan.
I hope you’ll join me for that, and the rest of the adventure, in the second installment of this Hakone Hike! (Click here to read Part 2)