September 8, 2017

Two Days in Hakone

Thought not what one might call an off the beaten path destination, Hakone has more than enough hot springs, history, nature and more to enjoy.

Mt. Fuji as seen from the shore's of Hakone's Lake Ashi in Kanagawa Prefecture

Welcome back to another one of my area guides where I detail all the things you need to know for a successful, hassle free trip! This time, we’ll be looking at the charming Hakone area in the western reaches of Kanagawa Prefecture. Hakone is a popular weekend destination for many Japanese. One of the best things about the region is that it easily appeals to all visitors. Be it from history, nature, hot springs, pirate ships, and even an anime pilgrimage, Hakone has it all!

If you’ve never heard of Hakone before know that it is nestled high in the mountains about two hours west of Tokyo. Most of the area is centered around Lake Ashi and within the borders of the volcanically active Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. The region is rich in both natural beauty and ancient history. In fact, during the Edo period (1603–1868), Hakone was consider the “entry point” into the Tokyo area. Those traveling from Kyoto on the Tokaido highway knew only a few more days remained before reaching the capital.

Hakone’s mountainous terrain can make it a navigational challenge and especially so for the buses. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth visiting. To help make sense of it all, I’ve put together a one-and-a-half to two-day itinerary that you can follow. While it’s possible to explore Hakone in a day trip, you’ll get a lot more out of overnighting here. Besides, who wants to wake up at the crack of dawn just to rush from attraction to attraction! Budget time for the stay and find yourself a classic ryokan with a hot spring.

A cup of hot coffee at a cafe in Kanagawa Prefecture’s Hakone area

Before continuing though, a quick word of advice. This area guide is going to be VERY LONG so grab a cup of coffee, settle in, and get ready to do some serious reading. I’ll be outlining all the information you need to get the most out of a trip to Hakone while avoiding several common pitfalls.

Getting to Hakone & the Free Pass

An overhead map of where to find the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Center in Shinjuku Station

There are many ways to get yourself to Hakone but before discussing that, let’s first talk about the Hakone Free Pass. These passes are sold by the Odakyu Group and provides unlimited use of the buses, trains, boats, cable cars, and ropeways in the Hakone area. The Hakone Free Pass can be purchased for either two or three consecutive days. What’s more, the pass provides several discounts to many of the area’s tourist attractions and hot springs.

The Free Pass can be purchased either in Hakone or at Odakyu’s base in Shinjuku (see the above map to navigate the labyrinthine station). It seems that it’s also possible to reserve a pass online however you will need to pick it up in person anyway. The passes are a significant investment up front but a real godsend when it comes to getting around the area. Do yourself a favor and buy a pass. This way you avoid the headache of having to figure out the price of each leg of the journey. It’s cheaper in the long run anyway!

In addition to the above benefits, it is also possible to purchase a Free Pass that includes transportation to and from Shinjuku. Most guides to Hakone recommend you pay the additional 890 yen to upgrade to the “Romancecar.” This limited express train will take you from central Tokyo to the Hakone area in just a tad over 80 minutes. Check Hyperdia or a similar service for the latest information on departures.

While the Romance Car might be a good option for those already living in Japan, there’s a faster and cheaper option for JR Rail Pass holders. Simply hop on any of the Kodama Shinkansen trains bound for Osaka and get off at Odawara Station. Doing so will allow you to cut your travel time down to approximately an hour while not incurring any additional costs thanks to the JR Rail Pass. Talk about a bargain!

Odawara Castle which is near Kanagawa Prefecture’s famous area of Hakone

If this weren’t enough reason to take the Shinkansen already, Odawara is also home to the interesting and conveniently located Odawara Castle (here’s my article on it). If you budget your time for a day and a half, you can hit up the castle on Day One before making your way to Hakone around 2:00 to 3:00 PM. This is my preferred method when visiting the area and one that I highly encourage you to consider.

Please note, if you opt for the Shinkansen, you can still purchase the Hakone Free Pass once you arrive in Odawara. This is a good way to save additional time as there will likely be shorter lines than at either of the terminal stations. Once have a pass in hand you’ll be able to continue on via the Hakone Tozan Railway to Hakone Yumoto Station for free. This means that the entire trip can be done for just the price of the Hakone Free Pass!

Finding Accommodations in Hakone

A ryokan on the banks of Hakone’s Lake Ashi in Kanagawa Prefecture

As alluded to earlier, the premier way to enjoy Hakone is to overnight in one of its many ryokan. After all, this area is a noted onsen town. A stay at a traditional Japanese inn is a quintessential experience that many travelers yearn for when visiting. Luckily, Hakone is home to a wide variety of establishments that cater to all comfort levels. Do your research and find one that best suits your needs (Google is your friend here).

Travelers seeking a more historical experience might consider staying at the Fujiya Hotel. This property is one of Japan’s oldest hotels and has welcomed the likes of John Lennon and Charlie Chaplin over the years. The Fujiya Hotel’s main building and surrounding structures are all registered as important cultural assets. The group also maintains another property in Hakone Yumoto called Yumoto Fujiya Hotel but this is not the historic building I’m suggesting; don’t book it by mistake!

Before moving on, I want to also introduce Guesthouse Azito. While this hostel does not feature the trappings of a ryokan, the setting is a great option for those traveling on a budget or who just need a place to crash at night. I rather enjoyed my stay here while sourcing the material for this guide. On one hand, I encourage you to try a ryokan yet on the other hand, I realize it can be somewhat intimidating or prohibitively expensive.

Day One in Hakone: Hakone Yumoto

A traditionally-styled Japanese bridge in Kanagawa Prefecture’s Hakone Yumoto

OK, let’s get on with the show. As previously mentioned, I’ll be proposing a one-and-a-half to two-day itinerary. Due to the fact that a lot of attractions start closing in Hakone around 5:30 PM, I suggest you plan on making the first day relatively light and leave the majority of the heavy lifting for the following day. This strategy will allow you to experience most of the sights while not wasting time on transportation.

You should aim to make your way to Hakone Yumoto no later than 1:00 or 2:00 PM. This station is the entry point to the Hakone region and boasts the largest collection of ryokan and hot springs. Those coming by Odakyu’s Romance Car Limited Express will have it easy as the train pulls right into Hakone Yumoto. Alternatively, if you follow my advice and visit the castle, you’ll need to take the Hakone Tozan Railway from Odawara.

Most of the action in Hakone Yumoto is centered around a single main street. This central strip is located at the base of a valley with many of the area’s ryokan and hot springs sitting up in the surrounding hills. Much like any onsen town, you’ll find a large collection of shops peddling an assortment of local goods and yummy delectables along the road. You can easily kill a few hours checking out and sampling the plethora of vendors here.

Hakone’s Evangelion-themed gift shop in Kanagawa Prefecture

Fans of the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion will be happy to know that Hakone Yumoto is also home to the official Eva store pictured above. What’s the connection you ask? Well, it turns out that Hakone is the site of Tokyo-3 in the series and many of the region’s landmarks pop up throughout! Take this scene for example; you’ll find the lakeside torii gate of Hakone Shrine on the left hand side! As you can imagine, a pilgrimage to Hakone is a must for fans of the series!

Day One in Hakone: Onsen Time

The hot spring baths of Tenzan Onsen in Kanagawa Prefecture’s Hakone

When it comes to experiencing an onsen, few venues beat Hakone. Each of the ryokan lining the Hakone Yumoto valley have their own hot springs for customers’ indulgence and enjoyment. Depending on where you’re staying, you’ll either share a communal bath with other guests or a private one in your room. In the case of the former, be sure to read up on the proper procedure to avoid committing any bathing faux pas.

If you choose not to stay at a ryokan, you’re not entirely out of luck. Many of Hakone’s facilities are available for day-use meaning that for a nominal fee, you too can soak away your worries! This is a great option for those staying in Airbnbs or in the aforementioned Azito Guesthouse. The following examples are some of my favorites for those not staying at a ryokan.

  • Hakone Yuryo
    This traditionally-styled, day-use facility is located in the nearby hills of Hakone Yumoto. It offers a shared outdoor bath as well as private rooms for those who’d prefer something more modest. You can access Hakone Yuryo in a matter of minutes via a shuttle bus from the station. Be sure to show your Hakone Free Pass when checking in for a discount!
  • Tenzan Onsen
    Tenzan onsen (pictured above) is a large ryokan that is located about 10 minutes by bus from Hakone Yumoto Station. The facility is also open for day-use for the fee of only 1,200 yen and has several outdoor baths of varying temperatures. The hill-side ryokan is done up in traditional Japanese style which combines perfectly with the surrounding nature creating the ideal ambiance. Furthermore it allows entry to those with tattoos, a rarity among onsen!
  • Kappa Tengoku
    This ryokan is located just above the Hakone Yumoto Station and can be reach in three minutes on foot. Though a little worn around the edges, Kappa Tengoku is the closest onsen to the station and a good option for those who are pressed for time. The ryokan is famous among Japanese tourists for its affordable price. Though it’s glory days are long gone, Kappa Tengoku is often still regularly recommended as a cheap and easy onsen to visit.

Oh and before you ask, yes I did visit all three onsen in Hakone just for this article. The things I do for you…

Day Two in Hakone: By Hakone Course

A map of the Hakone hot spring area of Kanagawa Prefecture

One of the cool things about Hakone is that it has a wide variety of transportation options. The classic Hakone Round Course that we’ll be following involves taking a train, a cable car, a gondola, a boat, and ending on foot or with a bus. On the journey you’ll venture high up into the mountains of the Hakone region and get to see some awesome scenery. The route can be completed in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Yet, common wisdom holds that counterclockwise is logistically more sound.

I’ve designed the following itinerary around the counterclockwise course with the goal of reaching the final stop, the Amazake Chaya by closing time. This historic rest spot sits along the ancient Tokaido highway that once connected Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period (1603–1868). Even today, the Amazake Chaya continues to beckon weary travelers with delectable mochi sweets and a welcoming glass of amazake (a fermented, non-alcoholic rice drink — trust me here, it tastes a lot better than it sounds).

Seeing as the Amazake Chaya closes unbelievably early 5:30 PM (last order is at 5 PM), you’re going to need to get an early start. The exact times of the train schedules vary depending on the week day but you will want to shoot for an 8:00 AM-ish departure from Hakone Yumoto Station. Please keep in mind there are only a handful of trains per hour so be sure to check the train schedules in advance so that you don’t waste precious time!

Day Two in Hakone: By Railway

The Hakone Tozan Railway passes by some hydrangeas in Kanagawa Prefecture

The first leg of the journey starts with taking the Hakone Tozan Railway from Hakone Yumoto to Gora Station. Located at an impressive altitude of 533 meters high up in the Hakone mountains, Gora Station is the highest train station in all of Kanagawa Prefecture. The entire ride from Hakone Yumoto will take around thirty minutes during which you’ll need to change direction several times to accommodate for the rise in elevation.

While en route to Gora Station you’ll pass several stops that are home to some awesome museums. Chief among these is the Hakone Open Air Museum which has a great collection including a number of works by Picasso himself. Adrenaline junkies will also rejoice to learn that you’ll also be happy to learn that they will pass by the Hakone Forest Adventure attraction on the ride up.

Unfortunately, if you want to make the 5:00 PM Amazake Chaya deadline, you’re likely going to need to pass on any of these attractions. If you’d rather visit the museum or adventure park instead, by all means be my guest just be mindful of the time. That said, a better alternative is to include any additions on the first day’s itinerary so you don’t miss out on the historic rest hut (more info on this later).

Day Two in Hakone: By Cable Car

The control system of one of Hakone’s cable cars in Kanagawa Prefecture

From Gora Station, the journey continues to Sounzan Station via cable car. You’ll find this immediately to the right upon exiting the Hakone Tozan Line. The trip to Sounzan Station takes about 10 minutes with cable cars typically departing about three times per hour. You could alternatively hoof it if you want but the slope is extremely steep.

Though there are several stops en route to the terminal station, the only real point of interest other than the cable car itself is Gora Park. This French styled landscape features a large fountain and a rose garden. I personally did not visit so I cannot say for sure but I would recommend skipping it. After all, there are better things waiting for you down the line.

Once you arrive, there’s not much to do at Sounzan Station but make your way to the ropeway. That said, there is a spectacular area immediately to the left of the cable car ticket gate that offers some fantastic views. During my visit, the nearby mountains were all shrouded in mist creating a most stunning atmosphere. It’s definitely worth the mere few seconds it takes to check out!

Day Two in Hakone: By Ropeway

Hakone’s ropeway cars pass over Owakudani in Kanagawa Prefecture

After taking a minor detour to view some scenic mountains, make your way back to Sonzan Station and towards the rope way. The whole ride will take thirty minutes and will take you up to an elevation over 1,000 meters high. Unlike with the previous modes of transportation, there are constant departures. Just get in line and wait for an attendant to usher you and your group onto the next available gondola!

The ropeway portion of the Hakone Round Course will take you from Sounzan Station to Togendai Station via the Owakudani caldera. You’ll need to make a transfer here but fret not; this area is an attraction in and of itself! The 3,000 year old crater was created by an eruption and to this day still discharges fumarolic gases. As you can see in the photo above, the best views of Owakudani present themselves only when the gondola passes over the caldera so be sure to have your camera ready!

Depending on the mountain’s condition, you may or may not be allowed a hike up to the volcanic zone. Once here, you’ll find a number of searing steam vents and bubbling pools that are definitely a sight to behold. Unfortunately, during my most recent visit, the trails were temporarily closed due to the recent emission of volcanic gases. The conditions are apt to change daily so be sure to check the updated status of the trail.

Black hard boiled eggs from Hakone’s Owakudani in Kanagawa Prefecture

In addition to the magnificent scenery, one of the biggest attractions in Owakudani is the area’s famed hard boiled eggs. The eggs are dipped in the mountain’s hot sulfuric waters and are said to add seven years to your life. The distinctive blackened eggshells result from the boiling process yet they taste just like any other. You can buy a piping hot set of five eggs from any of the vendors in Owakudani for a mere 500 yen.

Once you have explored all that Owakudani has to offer, head back to the ropeway station. From here, you’ll need to take the gondola down past Ubako Station to Togendai Station on the shores of Lake Ashi. Be sure to keep an eye out for Mt. Fuji along the second portion of your ropeway journey. The sacred mountain is often hidden behind clouds and therefore is frequently referred to as being shy. Should you visit on a clear day, you’ll be awed by the unforgettable killer view.

Day Two in Hakone: By Boat

Hakone’s infamous pirate ships on Lake Ashi in Kanagawa Prefecture

Yo Ho! Yo Ho! A pirate’s life for me! The next segment of the Hakone Round Course will see you take to the waters of Lake Ashi on a pirate ship; yes, you read that right. I am not exactly sure what the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise people were thinking when modeling their boats after pirate ships yet they definitely stumbled upon a fun idea (especially for those with kids).

Anyway, from Togendai Station you’ll need to take one of the Jolly Rogers to Hakone-machi. The whole trip will take about 30 minutes or so with boats leaving every twenty minutes. Schedules are subject to change based on the season so refer to the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise website for the latest information. If you’re planning on making it to the Amazake Chaya, aim to depart from Togendai Station no later than 1:30 PM.

Before moving on, a quick word of advice! After experiencing the Sightseeing Cruise first hand, I can definitively say that you’re going to want to get in line to board the ship at least 15 minutes before departure time. The boats can only hold so many people and you might find yourself having to wait for the next cruise if you try to cut it close. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

Day Two in Hakone: By Foot

A reconstruction of the Old Hakone Checkpoint in Kanagawa Prefecture from Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868)

The pirate ships will let you off at Hakone-machi where the next leg of the journey begins. This area is home to a number of small restaurants if you’re feeling hungry as well as an awesome view of Mt. Fuji (at least when the bloody thing isn’t hiding). From here on out you’re going to want to make your way to Moto-Hakone on foot. En route you’ll encounter a recreation of an Edo period (1603–1868) checkpoint on the Tokaido highway and the former Imperial summer palace before finally reaching Hakone Shrine in Moto-Hakone.

Once you’ve got your bearings, your next step will be to follow this map to the Old Hakone Checkpoint. Under the Tokugawa shogunate’s rule, 53 of these outposts were placed along major roads to control the flow of traffic. The checkpoint in Hakone was the largest and thought to be the most important amongst all the stations. One of checkpoint’s main roles was to control the weapons being brought into the capital. The posts also served as a means for preventing women (and especially wives) from fleeing the area.

The current Hakone Checkpoint is a reconstruction that was completed in 2007 following three years of exhausting hard labor. While the original buildings no longer exist, workers have faithfully followed authentic blueprints in an attempt to best recreate the historical vibe. Entry will run you a mere 500 yen and will also grant you access to a neat little museum highlighting this important juncture.

Hakone’s Detached Palace near Lake Ashi in Kanagawa Prefecture

Once you’ve explored the the Hakone Checkpoint, your next order of business will be to make your way toward the Hakone Detached Palace. This relatively unimposing building was once the former site of a summer home for the Imperial family. Taking in the residence is worth the short detour as it features some spectacular views of Lake Ashi and the famous shy mountain. You’ll find the Detached Palace located on a small peninsula between Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone in Onshi Hakone Park.

After visiting the Detached Palace, head to the opposite side of the main road where you’ll encounter a path that is bordered by over 400 cedars. The 350-year-old trees have watched over many a traveler passing through on the Tokaido highway. Some of these behemoths stand over 30 meters tall and boast girths of up to four meters wide! Walking among their midst, I couldn’t help but wonder how many important figures have passed under these ancient branches.

Anyway, you’ll want to continue along the cedar avenue until you reach a large torii gate straddling the road. This landmark signifies that you have made it to Moto-Hakone. Here, you’ll find a modest collection of restaurants and shops as well as a 7-Eleven should you need to stock up on beverages or take a quick bathroom break. Be sure to keep an eye out for Karatto, a cozy cafe along the main street with fried chicken to die for. No, seriously. It’s worth killing a man for!

Hakone Shrine’s iconic lakeside torii gate in Kanagawa Prefecture

After pausing for a quick breather and taking in the beauty of Lake Ashi, continue along the shore towards Hakone Shrine. It’s a straightforward walk but here’s a map link just in case. On the way, you’ll encounter a path through the trees that will take you right up to the shrine’s famed lakeside torii gate (pictured above). This scenic spot is absolutely gorgeous but it’s allure is sure to always draw a crowd. Expect a line while waiting to capture a panoramic shot so make sure your camera is at the ready!

Hakone Shrine’s legendary waterside torii is located down on the banks of Lake Ashi. However, the remaining structures are located on the nearby hillside. To reach it, you’ll need to do an about face and follow the stairs up and into the forest. The path is lined with vermillion lanterns and the surrounding trees create a wondrous ambiance. En route, you’ll pass under several more torii gates before finally arriving at the shrine.

A dragon water faucet at the temizuya of Hakone Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture

While Hakone Shrine’s torii is spectacular, the shrine itself isn’t anything too outlandish despite 1,200 years of history. The shrine was originally located on top of nearby Mt. Komagatake and you can still visit the original structure. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a hike to get to the ropeway that will take you to the mountain top. Besides, I’ve read that the summit is almost always veiled in a thick layer of mist and visibility is poor.

While visiting Hakone Shrine be sure to also check out the sub-shrine immediately next to the main shrine. This shrine is dedicated to a mythical nine-headed dragon that was said to live in Lake Ashi long ago. You’ll find its draconic iconography most present in the temizuya water ablution pavilion which has nine dragon-shaped faucets.

Day Two in Hakone: By Buses

Some amazake and some mochi at the Amazake Chaya in Hakone

The final section of the Hakone Round Course will see you take a bus from Moto-Hakone back to Hakone Yumoto or to the aforementioned Amazake Chaya. Though many similar respites for weary travelers used to line the Tokaido, the Amazake Chaya is the very last of its kind. As noted though, last order comes early at 5:00 PM so if you’re planning on making one last stop, you’ll need to arrive by then. Refer to this website for detailed information on bus arrivals and departures.

Anyway, by the time you get there, your body will likely be clamoring for some much-needed calories. Embrace your rapacious cravings and don’t hold back! What to order at this rustic little haven? I suggest that you don’t cut any corners and order both a cup of amazake and some mochi. It’s a little pricey for the portion but the Amazake Chaya is an experience unto itself making it well worth the cost!

A portion of the Tokaido highway that passed through Hakone en route to the Amazake Chaya

Before concluding, the history buffs (and idiots) out there will rejoice to know that it is possible to walk along preserved parts of the Tokaido while en route to the Amazake Chaya. The trek from Moto Hakone will take you around thirty minutes but only experienced hikers should even consider this feat. The trail begins here but it can treacherous at times, especially if it has been raining. It’s difficult to imagine that people traversed this rugged road during the Edo period (1603–1868). In straw sandals nonetheless!

Regardless of whether you opt for modern transportation or the fool’s path, when you’ve had your fill at the Amazake Chaya, head to back to the bus stop located directly in front. If you have time while waiting the bus, there’s a tiny museum for the Tokaido located directly next door that you can kill some time in. It’s by no means a must see but it has life size replicates showcasing travel along the craggy road during bygone eras.

Wrapping Up Your Time in Hakone

Odakyu’s Romance Car pulls into Hakone Yumoto Station in Kanagawa Prefecture

While traversing the various areas around Hakone, it’s quite easy to forget just how high up you are. The bus ride back will rudely remind you of all this as it makes one hairpin turn after another along the winding mountain roads. Once you’re back in the valley of Hakone Yumoto, all that’s left to do is figure out your means of transportation home. For many of you, this will entail heading back to Tokyo and either the Limited Express Odakyu Romance Car or Shinkansen from Odawara.

If you don’t mind getting back to the city much later in the evening, I recommend rewarding yourself with one more trip to the onsen before hopping on the train. My preferred option for a last minute soak is always Hakone Yuryo as it’s open as late as 10:00 PM and offers a free shuttle bus from Hakone Yumoto Station. As you relax in the soothing waters, be sure to think back on this epic journey and smile knowing you got the most out of Hakone!