Photo/IllutrationA family from the United States walk on the stone-paved old Hakone Kaido route in the Hatajuku district of Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture. (Eiichi Murano)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories featuring the aesthetic landscapes of Mount Fuji, Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture and Izu in Shizuoka Prefecture, which have been visited by an increasing number of tourists from overseas. Based on conversations with travelers, the series casts light on sceneries and cultural heritages that gave form to these areas.

* * *

After spending some time strolling around the Shinjuku and Shibuya districts of Tokyo and enjoying cherry blossom viewing in Ueno Park, a married couple from Australia wanted a change of pace.

They decided April 2 to head for Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture. They looked up at the giant cedar trees as they ambled along the old Hakone Kaido route near Lake Ashinoko before heading east on the stone-paved path built by the Tokugawa government in 1680.

Carrying backpacks, Steven Duffy, 40 and his wife Zalie, 38, walked the 2 kilometers to reach the atmospheric Amazake-chaya, a thatched-roof teahouse that has served as a place of respite for travelers since the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Quietly opening the sliding door, they found it dim inside, with roughly-hewn wooden tables and stools arranged on the dirt floor. There were seats at the back around an “irori” sunken hearth in a wooden-floored room. Beams of pale light filtered through “shoji” paper screen doors installed in several parts of the building.

A young English-speaking female employee attended to the Australian couple, who opted for cups of a sweet, non-alcoholic drink called “amazake.”

“Amazake is very tasty and gives us good energy to continue back on the trail,” Zalie said with a smile.

Steven viewed their visit to the teahouse was an authentic Japanese experience: “That’s exactly what we are after.”

As for the stone-paved route, he added: “When you think about how old that path is, you would never want to take the stones away. The fact is, it’s still in traditional form and needs to be treasured rather than upgraded.”

A growing number of people from overseas, mainly from Europe and the United States, are walking on the old Hakone Kaido route. On weekdays, there seem to be more foreign visitors than Japanese people in a section between the Hakone Sekisho checkpoint, which is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its opening, and Amazake-chaya.

According to Satoshi Yamamoto, 51, the 13th-generation proprietor of the teahouse, foreign visitor numbers have risen dramatically over the past three to four years. He is often asked why the teahouse is so dark inside.

“I tell them about Japanese culture, saying that light that comes through shoji screens in Japanese private homes is as dim as it is here,” Yamamoto said.

There were four teahouses in the area in the Edo Period (1603-1867).

But three of them had closed by the Taisho Era (1912-1926) with the opening of National Route No. 1.

There was a time when the teahouse received only a single customer a week. But Yamamoto and his family members were encouraged to keep going by patrons who said they were “saved” by the establishment after walking up the long slope to reach the premises, as well as letters saying how “tasty” his amazake was.

He adamantly refuses to meddle with the traditional method to make the drink from fermented rice without using sugar. The number of visitors increased again between the late Showa Era (1926-1989) and the Heisei Era that started in 1989 and ended on April 30, Yamamoto added.

The stone monuments standing in a spot along the old Hakone Kaido route near Lake Ashinoko were founded in the Taisho Era to promote the preciousness and beauty of Hakone for future generations.

It is said that a British trading merchant, Cyril Montague Birnie, spearheaded a campaign to protect Hakone's natural scenery in the face of threatening development after felling of numerous ancient cedar trees along the old route in the late Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Each April, a ceremony is held to commemorate Birnie and German physician Engelbert Kaempfer, who wrote about Hakone in a book published in the Edo Period. The event is in front of the monuments standing against the backdrop of the cedar trees spared from the development projects. Residents, the mayor and others express their appreciation for the efforts of the two Europeans to spread the natural charms of Hakone known outside Japan.

On April 6, I received an e-mail from the Duffys, who strolled the old route several days earlier.

“We had a great time in Hakone,” the message read. “We are now in Hiroshima and going to a soccer game this afternoon. We’re still searching for more teahouses that serve amazake--but no luck yet.”

* * *

Eiichi Murano is chief of The Asahi Shimbun’s Odawara and Atami bureaus.