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Owakudani: The sunny side of hell
The lure of a longer life, one sulphur-soaked egg at a time, draws thousands of visitors to the smelly Japanese town of Owakudani.
I wonder how many of us would want to spend our next holiday at a place that hardsells itself with the slogan "Welcome to hell". But what if the visit came with the promise of prolonging your life by seven years?
The answer was apparent as soon as I got out of the car after travelling through serpentine mountain roads dotted with towering pine trees, standing next to each other like obedient sentries. Owakudani - which literally means the 'great boiling valley' - draws hundreds of tourists.
At first sight, Owakudani is almost pretty with vantage points looking out at lush green forests. That's till your eyes start watering from the sulphuric gases that emanate from rocky vents. Add to that is the stench of rotten eggs. Locals say it was earlier known by another name Ojigoku, literally meaning the "Great Hell" but was changed after an emperor's visit as it wouldn't do to have royalty visiting a place known as hell.
A 100 km from Tokyo, it's an easily done day trip. Once you're there, a 10-minute climb up a hill - with cable cars crossing overhead - takes you to the foot of the Owakudani mountain which is dotted with rock pools filled with blue sulphur water. Be prepared to be occasionally blinded by an angry vaporous hiss from the land beneath.
Owakudani is the closest one can get to understand the geological soul of Japan - an earthquake prone country that is home to many live volcanoes. Owakudani itself was created during the last eruption of Mount Hakone some 3000 years ago.
But what draws thousands of visitors here every year is the kuro-tamago or the black eggs.
Legend has it that eating a normal chicken egg which has been boiled in the pale blue pools of sulphur increases your lifespan by seven years. Have two and add 14 years - something no feat of medicine can guarantee.
I had three, hopefully adding 21 additional years to my life - a much cheaper option than other "stay young therapies".
The egg tasted no different but the sulphur and iron in the volcanic water had turned the eggshells black. You can get these packed for friends or to consume later at one of the many egg stores. Black eggs aren't the only culinary peculiarity that Owakudani sells. You can also taste wasabi ice cream here at one of the shops.
The best way to visit Owakudani is the Hakone ropeway. The gondola car provides spectacular views of volcanic lakes, forests and slate red rocks. The ropeway travels 130 metres above ground.
Those who are lucky can get the best views of Japan's eternal symbol - Mount Fuji - from here on clear days. For the more adventurous, a rocky slippery hiking trail exists around Mount Kamiyama - the dominant mountain at Owakudani.
By the time I was leaving a strong wind had started to blow with the desolate earth spewing out white fumes. The feeling can actually be eerie - what if the volcano suffered a mood swing and starting spewing lava again?
I didn't want to wait to find out.
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