Hakone is a town in Ashigarashimo District in Kanagawa Prefecture. It’s less than 100km from Tokyo, it is most known for hot springs, natural beauty and, of course, Mt Fuji. Hakone, as well as Nikko, is one of the most popular destinations for Japanese and international tourists alike.
Getting to Hakone and seeing Mt Fuji has definitely got to be one of the major highlights of this latest expedition. I had never taken the opportunity to see this famous mountain before, for various reasons. But, you know, if this was the last holiday to Japan, who knows how many years it would be before I finally got this opportunity again?
Jack, Tammy and I separated from Kai for the day to travel to Hakone (he was staying in Tokyo for a few extra weeks after we left, and was going to Hakone on his own later on). We used the 5 Modes of Transport method of traveling through Hakone – train, cablecar, ropeway, boat, bus.
We were concerned with this suggested itinerary – how do we get to each station? How did we know which one to get on? Is it like the crazy Tokyo Metro, where there are a hundred different lines, all going in a hundred different directions?
We didn’t need to fear at all. Everything was simple. At each station, we followed the crowd. There was only one direction to go – up!
In the early morning, we went from our home station in Tokyo (Sumiyoshi) to Shinjuku station, where we could purchase the Hakone Free Pass from the Odakyu line. This pass allowed us to travel to and from Hakone, and everything in between, without paying extra for tickets. The pass included all modes of transport. The pass costs about $60, and that includes a reserve seat on the express train. Otherwise there are slightly cheaper passes that aren’t express, and don’t require you to buy a reserved seat.
Unfortunately, we arrived a little late and just missed the 9:10am express train. We had to wait around in Shinjuku until 10:40am for the next one. A lot of websites say you cannot do this trip in one day, and if you do, you have to get up super early – well, we beat that. We did it in 7 hours.
(Alright, alright, we did it in 7 hours but we missed out on a lot. We didn’t get to stop at any stations for museums, galleries or souvenirs, except for Owakudani. We basically did a loop and were in different forms of a vehicle for 7 hours. These websites reckon you’ll be getting off at every station to explore. We could have… if we caught the earlier train!).
The express train runs from Shinjuku station to Hakone-Yumoto, which is the first main station in Hakone. Here, you’ll find hotels, shops, restaurants and some beautiful mountain scenery. You also swap trains at this station (just a hop to the next platform!), which will now take you to Gora station.
Gora station seemed beautiful – there were hotels, shops and restaurants here as well, but also Gora Park, a whimsical French inspired garden. Unfortunately, the most we did at Gora station was stop for a potty break. It’s also where you change from train to cable car – a most interesting experience! The cable car is actually built on an angle to suit the hill it has to climb. Each time the cable car stopped and started again, it would, just for a second, slowly roll backwards on it’s own weight. Eeek!
The cable car had a few stops – most of them within a hundred metres of each other. Believe me though, you wouldn’t want to actually walk between stations unless you were heading downhill. One stop, that we had the intention of exploring, was Chokoku-no-mori. We wanted to check out the Hakone Open Air Museum, a museum exhibiting sculptures, art and paintings on manicured lawns with mountainous views. Due to our late start, we decided not to stop at Chokoku-no-mori, but I did get a super blurry photo as we whizzed past on the cable car.
The final cable car station is Sounzan, which is the first ropeway station. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
After approximately 10 minutes on the ropeway, we had reached our lunch destination; Owakudani. I’m sure you’ve all heard of Owakudani in some form or another. It’s one of the best places to catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji (if you go on a clear day, of course). The station was built atop of the massive crater that was created some 3000 years ago when Mount Hakone last erupted. It’s an active volcanic zone – which stinks of sulfuric gas (rotten eggs, my friend). There are hot springs you can try too. Taking a short walk down from the station, you can check out these spots up close, and even purchase black eggs. Black eggs, you ask? These eggs have been cooked in the water from the hot springs, and due to the sulfur, their shells turn black. If you eat one, it’s said that your life will be prolonged for seven years!
We didn’t get to check out the hot springs or steam vents – our time was still restricted and we were starving. We stopped for lunch at the buffet restaurant at the station (only ¥1600 each) and watched the scenery below us – including a grand view of Fuji from the opposite window!
When lunch was over, we quickly had a peak at the souvenir shops. We bought nothing – everything was shaped like Mt Fuji or black eggs. We didn’t want anything from this day except the photos.
The ropeway lead us from Owakudani all the way down to Togendai, where you hop off and soak in the view of Lake Ashi. By now, Fuji has been hidden behind other peaks. The next mode of transport is the boat. But not just any boat. A ship. Even better, a pirate ship. There’s a fake captain whom you can get photos with, and the whole thing is decked out like a Pirates of the Caribbean project. It takes about 30 minutes to cross the water from Togendai to Moto-Hakone port, on the opposite side of the shore. In the mean time, you can see some wonderful scenery, and get to explore the “ship” a little bit. There’s not a whole lot of seating available – it was very cold and windy on the boat, so everyone wanted to be seated at the back where the view was.
At Moto-Hakone port, there’s the Hakone Tozan Bus, which will take you back to Hakone-Yumoto station or, if you get on the right one, to Odawara station. If you are returning to Hakone-Yumoto, you must be there by 7:30pm, or you will miss the last train back to Shinjuku in Tokyo. The bus ride, especially late in the afternoon, is cramped and not unlike rush hour on trains. There are people standing all through the aisle. It’s a 40 minute drive, and you can get a bit motion sick traveling the windy road through the mountains. Your ears may pop as well, as you suddenly descend.
We had picked an excellent day for travel – tourists often remark on the foggy, view blocking atmosphere when taking this trip, but we had sunshine the whole day. We had checked out the weather forecast for the week and had chosen the day that we knew would be fine and sunny. My best advice is not to pre-plan when going to Hakone, but pick a day once you arrive in Japan and know what the weather will be like. Unless you intend to stay over in Hakone, of course.
Would I do this trip again? Yes.
Would I set more time to do it? Oh boy, I would.
Would I recommend this anyone? Oh, hell yes! If you get a clear day, this is definitely a highlight!