There are many myths, legends and real stories about Hakone Onsen, and they all intertwine to reveal a deep history. Your trip will become even more fun if you know about these stories. This time, let us introduce to you the various legends and anecdotes about Hakone Onsen!
1. The opening of Hakone-Yumoto Onsen
Hakone’s hot springs were first discovered a long time back, around 1300 years ago. According to folklore, smallpox was spreading around the Kanto area then, causing many to suffer. It was then, that a monk training on Hakone-Yumoto called Jojobo witnessed a hot spring gushing into life. It is said that the ill who entered the hot spring were cured one by one.
Actually, this spring (Soyu-onsen) is still around. Driving through the way from Hakone-Yumoto station (Lane 1), you’ll see the Yumoto Kumano Shrine when you turn left after crossing the Hayakawa. Soyu-Onsen is located below the shrine, and you can soak in it at the Ryokans around the area.
2. Hakone Shrine
We can call the Hakone Shrine the center of Hakone. It was built in the 8th century by a famous Buddhist monk called Mangan Shonin. It is somewhat weird for a Buddhist monk to have built a Shinto shrine, but it means that Japan has always had rather flexible religions.
The Gods worshipped here are Ninigi no Mikoto, Konohana-Sakuyahime no Mikoto, and their child Hikoho-hodemi no Mikoto, whose grandchild is the first emperor, Emperor Kanmu. It’s a mystical place where folklore and reality is linked.
3. Legend of Kuzuryu
Mangan Shonin also left a legend at Lake Ashi. Back then, there was a dragon with 9 heads living in Lake Ashi, and it went around attacking villages. The people who heard this story built an altar at the bottom of the shrine and prayed to it, and finally exorcised the dragon with Buddhist power. The regretful 9-headed dragon swore to protect Hakone and its people, and Mangan Shonin built the Kuzuryu Shrine to worship the dragon.
On 31 July every year during the Lake Festival, the locals sail out on a boat with unvarnished wooden boxes of Sekihan (red rice), and sink them in the middle of Lake Ashi to offer them to the dragon. It seems that these wooden boxes have not surfaced even once. Perhaps the dragon is eating the rice at the bottom of the lake.
4. Ohiradai Onsen and Ninotaira Onsen
If you look at a map of Hakone, there is a portion of flat land on the way from Hakone-Yumoto to Miyanoshita via the Hakone main street (Lane 1). That place is called Ohiradai Onsen, and is also home to a legend. In the past, there lived a giant serpent on the mountains of Hakone that harmed people. In order to exterminate it, the villagers shot at it with arrows. The serpent swung its tail around wildly in pain, and the place it hit became flat. Furthermore, the second place it hit when swinging its tail around was Ninotaira. Ohiradai and Ninotaira are around 2km apart, so it must really have been a huge serpent.
There is a tragic story originating from Shojinike-Pond which lies along the Old Hakone Highway in between Ashinoba and Moto-Hakone. A long time ago, there was a a young man who came to Hakone Onsen to heal his eyes, and fell in love with a beautiful lady he met in the middle of the night at Shojinike-Pond. However, the lady was actually a serpent and the master of the lake, and she rose to the skies during the full moon, sweeping away the mountains and the villages. The serpent warned only the young man beforehand, but he ended up telling the villagers about it. As a result, the villagers killed the serpent, and the serpent dragged the young man into the pond to accompany. The young man’s name was Shoji, and that’s how the lake came to be called Shojinike-Pond. Do be careful if you spot a beautiful lady in the middle of the night, she might not be human.
It is said that the grave of Yaobikuni lies at a pagoda called Hokyointo, which is located in the vicinity of Shojinike-Pond along the Old Hakone Highway. The legend of Yaobikuni, an immortal woman who ate the meat of mermaids, has spread all around Japan. It seems that she remained youthful and beautiful till she was 800 years old. Perhaps she used the Yaobikuni Hot Spring to maintain her youth.
Legend of Kintaro
Kintaro is a famous olden tale in Japan. He was born near Hakone’s Mt Kintoki and was a kind and active child who climbed on bears on mountains and Sumo wrestled with animals. He grew up to become a warrior and the story of him exterminating a demon called Shuten Doji is still passed on till now.
The Kimitoki Shrine at Sengokuhara on Hakone worships Sakata Kintoki, and while climbing up Mt Kintoki, you can see the axe that Kintoki used to carry and the ball, Temariishi he used to play with. Kintaro’s name also comes up frequently in Mangas and Animes. Kintaro who is “kind and powerful” is the origin of Japan’s young heroes!
Kintaro also left a legend at the Ubako Shrine on the northeastern shore of Lake Ashi. Once, Kintaro hurt his eye with a tree branch and Uba prayed to the gods of Hakone. They told her to wash his eye with the hot spring water, and it really healed after doing so. Based on that story, this hot spring was named “Uba and Child (“Ko” in japanese) and is said to be effective for eye illnesses. For people who use their computers a lot, it may be good to relax your eyes at this hot spring!
8. Stories about warlords
Hakone is located in a prominent place, linking the east and the west of Japan, and has always been an important place for warlords. Many warlords have left their name here at Hakone, but let us introduce to you some of the especially famous ones.
Minamoto no Yoritomo
Minamoto no Yoritomo is a historical figure that lived at the start of an era of warriors that lasted for 670 years. At the start of the 12th century, he was the warlord who brought Kamakura into the Bakumatsu Era. He was once cornered by enemy forces at Hakone Shrine, and still visited Hakone Shrine even after he received the highest title of Shogun. After that, visiting shrines and hot springs became popular amongst warriors and the locals, and Hakone-Yumoto also became well known as a lodging town that links Kyoto and Kamakura.
The Sengoku Era began in the 15th century when a warlord called Hojo Soun conquered Izu, which is located to the left of Mt. Hakone. Afterwards, Soun expanded his forces and conquered Odawara which is located to the east of Mt. Hakone. There is a temple called Sounji at Hakone-Yumoto, and there is a stunning japanese garden boasting it’s cherry blossoms in spring, and you can really bask in the Japanese atmosphere here.
Sokokura Onsen which has a history with Toyotomi Hideyoshi is located at the bottom of Jakotsu River which you can access from Hakone-Yumoto via Lane 1.
Toyotomi Hiseyoshi is one of the 3 major warlords during the Sengoku Era. When attacking Odawara Castle, the last step to unify the country in 1590 , he had soldiers lie in ambush in Hakone’s mountains. Back then, the soldiers soaked in Sokokura Onsen to heal their wounds and rejuvenate their fatigued bodies.
Every August, the Taiko Hyotan Festival is held, and fireworks and entertainment shows are put up, suitable for Taiko Hideyoshi, a lover of flashy things.
Embraced by nature, Hakone has seen many historical figures. How about pondering over Hakone’s history while soaking in a good hot bath?