About 1.5 hours train ride from Tokyo, Hakone provides an interesting short country experience for those who wants to take a breather from the hustles and bustles of city life. Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Hakone in the Kanagawa Prefecture has all the ingredients for a perfect getaway in nature– mountains, lakes, onsen, volcanos, resorts, (loads of) museums, shrines, waterfalls, hiking trails, pirate ships and amazing kaleidoscope of flowers (except in winter).
Pic : View from the Ropeway; Lake Ashi on the left, Mt Fuji on the right, mountains of Hakone all around.
Most tourist would come here for either a day trip from Tokyo, or a 2-3 days trip. The Hakone Free Pass would be the perfect option as it covers almost all the transportation within the area, including the journey between Shinjuku and Hakone. Priced at Y5140 (2 days) and Y5640 (3 days), this is a pretty good deal, for tourist who can spare some time for a countryside excursion from Tokyo.
A typical 1-day trip itinerary would probably look something like this :
SHINJUKU –> (Odakyu Train or Romance Car) –> ODAWARA –> (Odakyu Train or Romance Car) –> HAKONE YUMOTO –> (Tozan Train) –> GORA* –> (Tozan Cable Car) –> SOUNZAN –> (Ropeway/ Special Bus) –> OWAKUDANI –> (Ropeway) –> TOGENDAI-KO –> (Sightseeing Cruise/ Pirate Ship) LAKE ASHI –> HAKONEMACHI-KO –> (walk) Hakone Checkpoint Sekisho –> (walk) Ancient Cedar Avenue –> MOTOHAKONE-KO –> (Tozan Bus) –> HAKONE YUMOTO –> (Odakyu Train or Romance Car) –> ODAWARA* –> (Odakyu Train or Romance Car) –> SHINJUKU
*You can probably slot in EITHER ONE of these activities (if you walk and take pictures really fast!) : Gora Park, Hakone Open Air Museum (Chokokunomori), or Odawara Castle.
I wouldn’t recommend going on a day trip though, it is too rush and you would just be hopping from a mode of transport to another mode of transport whole day long, without a chance to enjoy a leisurely stroll around the beautiful area to take in all the scenic surroundings.
The various types of unique and cute modes of transportation to ferry tourists in and around the area, are a large part of the attractions by itself. Tozan Bus, Tozan Railway, Funicular Railway (cable car), Hakone Ropeway, Hakone Sightseeing Cruise (Pirate Ship), Limited Express Romance Car.
Tozan Train – one of the steepest mountain trains, it climbs at the gradient of 80/1000, and uses switchback systems to navigate the mountains of Hakone. The difference in height between the driver at the front and the conductor at the rear can be up to 3.6 meters along the steeper slopes! As you ride on this mountain train between Hakone Yumoto and Gora, you will notice the train going back and forth in a zigzag pattern. At every switchback, the driver and conductor changes positions. A very unique train ride indeed.
Tozan Cable Car – travels between Gora and Mt Sounzan (1.2km long, rising 209m from Gora) in 10 minutes. A very steep ride.
Hakone Ropeway – between Sounzan and Togendai-ko, beautiful views along the way.
Hakone Sightseeing Cruise – This ship ferries passengers between Togendai-ko, Hakonemachi-ko and Moto Hakone. Modeled after medieval vessels, they look and decorated like battleships or pirate ships. There are 3 of these ships with First Class cabins, the Royale II even has creative 3D art in the cabin interior.
Romance Car – it’s not a car and there’s nothing romantic about it ;). It is the more comfortable and cool-looking Limited Express version of the Odakyu Train connecting Shinjuku and Hakone Yumoto. With an additional Y890, you can skip a transfer in Odawara and go direct to Hakone Yumoto hence saving some time and hassle. You will also be guaranteed a reserved seat of your choice, instead of the regular train where you might not get a seat at all if you are travelling during peak hours.
Owakudani Valley – steaming mouths of volcanic craters formed from the explosion of Mt Hakone Kamiyama 3000 years ago. The smell of active sulphur, hot steam and white smoke envelope the air in this area. Warning signs prohibit entry to various walking paths and hiking trails due to emissions of poisonous volcanic gases causing various health problems. There are even first aid boxes stocked inside every ropeway car, which travels over and above Owakudani, for respiratory emergencies due to gas poisoning.
Kurotamago, Black Eggs of Owakudani – eggs boiled at 1044m in the hot springs of Owakudani rich in minerals turning its shell black. It is said that every black egg you eat will extend your lifespan by 7 years. And they don’t sell by 1 piece. The MOQ for the kurotamago is 5 pcs per bag. Hence you are richer by 35 years if you choose to eat this bag of eggs! There’s also Black Egg ice cream, Yellow Egg ice cream, black egg candies and black egg cat dolls sold in the souvenir shops here.
Gorgeous view of Mt Fuji from Owakudani on a clear day.
Hakone Jinja – an ancient Shinto shrine in the hills, with a red torii gate overlooking Lake Ashi.
Chisuji Falls – a small but pretty waterfall in Kowakidani. A bit hard to find, I guess that explained why there is no tourists at all except us!
Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture – about an hour’s bus ride from Gora, the main attraction here is the Gotemba Premium Outlets. About 200 stores of international branded goods, this huge complex is divided by a long bridge into East and West wings. There are flocks of Chinese tourist here, even the announcement is in Chinese! (that’s a strange phenomenon in Japan!). A gorgeous view of Mt Fuji can be seen from here on a clear day.
Heiwa Park (Mt Fuji Peace Park) – about 10 minutes from Gotemba Premium Outlets. The moment I stepped into the compound of this park, a feeling of déjà vu swept over me. Walking further uphill with white stone lanterns on both sides of the road, I was sure I had been to this place before. Though I was pretty sure I have not been to Hakone before this trip. Upon reaching the top of this road, the appearance of the huge chalky white stupa surrounded by guardian dog statues confirmed my suspicions. I realised I had actually been to this place before, 10 years ago. I just didn’t remember the name of the park and that it was not in Hakone after all, but in Shizuoka.
Hakone visitors should pay attention to a few things though.
Food – Unlike Tokyo, restaurants/ food stalls are not available everywhere in Hakone. And few restaurants are open in the evenings after 6pm (beats me too). So if you are staying the night here, either include dinner from your hotel or find a restaurant which is not closed at 6pm, or get your fix from a convenience store (not so conveniently available too. There’s one in Gora though).
Transportation – keep a transport schedule book handy at all times. Study it diligently (if you are one of the adventurous ones who would like to venture out of the normal tourist “loop”). Between 9am to 4pm, it should be pretty easy and straightforward to travel within the “loop”. Ropeway and Sightseeing Cruise services end at 4pm.
Travelling after 4pm is a little tricky. So if you are not within walking distance to your hotel , or you would like to make use of your daylight time to stay out after 4pm, do take note of which specific bus will come at what time to pick you up. There might be different buses and times on weekdays and weekends. Also to note that there will always be a queue to take that bus (so start queuing early to avoid being unable to board that bus), as it might be the only mode of transport to take you back to your hotel. You don’t want to be stranded out in the hilly area after dark.