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Modern Traditional, Gotemba and Hakone
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Modern Traditional, Gotemba and Hakone

Mid-winter is the time when most people tend to stay indoors and out of the cold. It is no different here, but when the sky is blue and the sun is out it makes me want to get out and do things. I took advantage of the nice winter weather and went to chase views of Mount Fuji as visibility of Japan's highest mountain tends to be better during the colder seasons. This time, I headed to Gotemba and Hakone and wasn't disappointed at all. While I travelled with my trusty steed (car, not horse) for this trip, all the sites are connected by public transport from JR Gotemba Station or Hakone.

The image of the two sites of Gotemba and Hakone tend to be (for me anyway) one of being upmarket and a holiday destination, a little like Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture. With that in mind, I spent the day checking out some famous homes and pretended to live the high life in my time there.

My first stop in the morning was to the Gotemba Premium Outlets to warm my cold wallet up. The outlet mall is located at the base of Mount Fuji, and offers fantastic views of the mountain. With my credit card exhausted, I left for greener pastures and headed to the nearby Chichibunomiya Memorial Park.

The grounds of the Chichibunomiya Memorial Park is where Prince Chichibu and his wife, Princess Chichibu, used to live for about ten years. The Prince who passed away in 1953, is the uncle of the current Emperor. The park grounds was opened to the public in 2003 and visitors can see the villa where the Prince and Princess lived as well as natural scenery that they love and cultivated in the garden surrounding their home. The entire park grounds is about 1.5 times the size of Tokyo Dome and takes about an hour to stroll through leisurely.

The Chichibunomiya Memorial Park can be reached in six minutes from Gotemba Premium Outlets (190 yen one way) by hourly Fujikyu buses bound for Kawaguchiko Station. Alternatively, it is a five minute bus ride from Gotemba Station (190 yen one way) by hourly Fujikyu buses bound for Gotemba Premium Outlets.

After getting my fill of greenery, I headed to the Former Kishi Residence, the private residence of the former prime minister Kishi Nobusuke for 17 years until his death in 1987. He is also the grandfather of the current prime minister, Abe Shinzo, who is said to have visited the residence in his younger days. The building is now owned by the Gotemba local government.

The more interesting thing about the residence, aside from who lived there, is its modern architecture. The house was built in 1969 and contains many modern details incorporated with traditional architecture and design. The architect Yoshida Isoya was in charge of construction and outlined a plan based on a traditional sukiya style. The end product is a home that is beautiful both inside looking out and outside looking in, and the little details in the architectural design that make rooms appear bigger than they really are.

A few steps from the former Kishi Residence, is the Toraya Kobo. The Toraya company is one of the oldest Japanese sweets companies, and this outpost in Gotemba is where some of their products that get sold across the country are handmade. Despite being a central kitchen, the grounds are extremely unindustrial-like and resemble more a serene tea garden instead. The cafe has a set lunch but I opted for tea with sweets, taking time to enjoy the surrounding garden.

The Former Kishi Residence and Toraya Kobo are located side by side and can be reached in a 15 minute walk from the Chichibunomiya Memorial Park. For those taking the bus, Higashiyama Kyu Kishi-tei is the closest bus stop to the two sites. It can be reached in four minutes from Gotemba Premium Outlets (210 yen one way) by hourly Fujikyu buses bound for Kawaguchiko Station. Alternatively, it is a six minute bus ride from Gotemba Station (210 yen one way) by hourly Fujikyu buses bound for Gotemba Premium Outlets.

From Gotemba, I made my way to Hakone. My first stop was Bakery and Table, a cafe and bakery along the shores of Lake Ashinoko. The cafe is located conveniently close to the Moto Hakone sightseeing boat pier and offers views of the lake. I managed to catch the sunset from the warm restaurant, feeling quite fortunate to be able to spend a day with great weather, and learning new things about Japan.

Even though the sun had set, I was still raring to go and visited a cafe in a relatively new hotel, the Nest Inn Hakone. A five minute walk from the Hakone Glass no Mori, the hotel recently expanded and added more rooms, cafes and a restaurant. While dining at the restaurant requires advance reservations (to be made before 18:00), the cafe and bar is open to all till later. I'm definitely coming back here again the next time I'm in Hakone just to chill and enjoy the quiet vibes.

My final spot for the day was back in Gotemba, at Toki no Sumika, a hot spring and accomodation area. While many of the winter illumination events are over in Tokyo city, the Hikari no Sumika winter light up event is still ongoing from 17:00 to 21:30 and will only end on March 20, 2017. The lights were certainly very pretty, and there even was a water fountain light show. Seeing the illumination and watching the show out in the open was beautiful albeit slightly chilly, and it would have been a waste not to take a bath at the hot spring facility.

Free shuttle buses by Fujikyu Bus operate between JR Mishima (hourly departures) and Gotemba (one bus every two hours) stations.

I ended my day, sitting in a hot bath under the stars, thinking back to the beautiful homes I saw, the gorgeous architecture, and having some quiet time in the warm indoors. Winter doesn't have to be all cold and dreary when there're so many things that warm your heart, keeping that spark alive.

The Chotto Zeitaku Japan series by japan-guide.com is a continuing project to seek out places that allow us to enjoy the better things in life. Not exactly a sightseeing guide, but one that transports the visitor into a different space to relax and get away from it all.