A stunning open-air art gallery adds another dimension to a weekend spa escape from Tokyo, discovers Julie Miller.
One of the joys of spending time in a mighty metropolis is getting out of it, discovering the green, scenic havens where locals go to recharge.
For Tokyoites, a weekend escape means mountains, lakes and onsens – the perfect recipe for relaxation, bundled into an enchanting, bento-box town called Hakone.
Less than 100 kilometres and just an 85-minute train journey from central Tokyo, Hakone offers scenes straight out of a classic Hiroshige ukiyo-e woodblock print: distant Fuji views across a misty lake, flanked by dramatic rocky bluffs and deciduous forest reflecting the glory of the seasons. Terraced high altitude gardens provide nooks for quiet contemplation; while an ancient Shinto shrine, marked by a bold red torii gate rising from the waters of Lake Ashi, pays homage to the deities of nature.
Hakone first came under notice of travellers during the Edo period (1603-1868), when it was a checkpoint on the Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo) route known as the Tokaido Highway, established to "control incoming guns and outgoing women" – in other words, to detain the wives of feudal lords attempting to escape from their shogun captors in Edo. More happily, it was also used as a base for pilgrims en route to Mount Fuji, revitalising weary bodies in the healing waters before they tackled the challenging ascent.
There are 17 sources of hot mineral waters surrounding the town, with 25,000 tonnes gushing from the volcanic bedrock each day. Most hotels and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in the area have private indoor and outdoor spa facilities; there are also several public bathhouses, including the themepark-like Kowakien Yunessun, which offers novelty sake, green tea, coffee and red wine baths as well as Roman-style baths, water slides and traditional Japanese outdoor rock pools.
With such indulgent temptations, you could forgive Hakone's 20 million visitors a year for doing little more than soaking away the stresses of city life. For those seeking respite from waterlogged extremities, however, there is a wonderful cultural surprise at hand: a world-class open-air art gallery displaying some of the world's most significant modern sculpture.
Established in 1969, the Hakone Open Air Museum is intended as a "dialogue between nature and art", and has more than 120 grand-scale works scattered around 70,000 square metres of manicured lawns and gardens vying with misty views of forest-clad hillsides for the visitor's attention.
This is the antithesis of a stuffy museum, and the perfect introduction to modern art for children, who can run around and play in interactive exhibits designed to be touched and climbed on. Even for those indifferent to art, it's a pleasant place to linger, with an excellent gift shop, a cafe and a fabulous hot spring footbath to soothe weary soles.
For modern art lovers, however, the museum is a revelation, with a staggering collection of some of the world's most important pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries. Overseeing the museum's stark entry plaza, for instance, is Rodin's Balzac, its stern gaze surveying a Henry Moore reclining figure (one of 26 Moores on rotating display, the world's largest collection) and a towering podium where Carl Milles' Man and Pegasus take dramatic flight.
From here, a concrete path winds down a terrace, a veritable yellow brick road of discovery, past a pond of floating sculptures, a mesmerising golden globe (Sfera con Sfera by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro), a garden maze and a colourful Joan Miro to the delightful "Woods of Net", an architectural interlocked wooden nest in which children swing on a giant knitted jungle gym.
At the base of the hill lies a Picasso pavilion, an indoor gallery containing 300 paintings, sculptures, photographs and ceramic works donated by the artist's daughter and revealing personal insights into one of history's most enigmatic creators. There are also several other indoor spaces at the museum with smaller works by Brancusi, Giacometti and Medardo Rosso.
One of the most popular exhibits at the museum is Symphonic Sculpture by Gabriel Loire, a steel and stained glass tower rising 18 metres and topped by an outdoor deck with spectacular views of the distant mountains. Once again, the kids can run riot, yelling and giggling as they clomp up and down the spiral staircase, footsteps echoing around the structure.
From here, it's just a few short steps to the museum's piece de resistance, the steaming footbath. Here, under shadecloth sails for protection from the elements, you can soak in steaming mineral waters scented with floating oranges and lemons, massaging your tootsies on raised river pebbles. This surely must be the most practical and thoughtful addition to any art museum in the world – there are even tiny towels available from a vending machine with which to dry off before you continue your artistic exploration.
Of all the jaw-dropping pieces in Hakone's collection, there are two that impressed me most with their whimsy and humour. Miss Black Power by Niki de Saint Phalle is an ode to strong and powerful women; while at her monumental feet sprawls Close by Antony Gormley, a naked bronze figure spreadeagled on the emerald lawn.
English sculptor Henry Moore, famed for his semi-abstract human figures, once stated "sculpture is an art of the open air". Hakone Open Air Museum provides the perfect natural forum for these large-scale creations, bringing art to the people in the most enjoyable and fanciful way imaginable.
Japan Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Tokyo daily, see au.jal.com/aul/en/.
From Tokyo, catch the Odakyu Railway from Shinjuku station to Hakone-Yumoto station. An 85-minute journey costs $21.50
A double room at Hotel de Yama, on the shores of Lake Ashi in Hakone starts from $155 a person a night. See odakyu-hotel.co.jp/yama-hotel/english
Hakone Open Air Museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Tickets $17 for adults or $15.50 purchased online; $8 for school children. See hakone-oam.or.jp
The writer travelled as a guest of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu Tourism Association.