Hakone is a beautiful mountain forest region, south of Tokyo, dotted with quaint villages, waterfalls and spa hotels. During our recent trip to Japan, we had a pretty hectic itinerary of sightseeing planned and wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo for a few days.
Hakone is located near well-known Mount Fuji, approximately one and half hours by train from Tokyo. We visited Hakone as a stopover when travelling between Tokyo and Kyoto. Its possible to do the Hakone region during a day trip from Tokyo, but we found it much more enjoyable taking our time and exploring the region over two days. It is well known for its hot springs and attracts many Japanese and international visitors all year round.
We visited in the fall which was, in my opinion, one of the best times of year to experience the beauty that this region has to offer. Think rolling mountains covered in deciduous and evergreen foliage, the entire area was like a Monet painting with vistas of reds, oranges, yellows and greens as far as the eye can see.
HOW TO GET TO HAKONE
There are two main options for getting to Hakone, both of which sound more difficult than they really are. Trains in Japan always run on time and are surprisingly easy to navigate with most signs in Japanese and English. If you already have a JR Rail Pass, then the most economical way of getting to Hakone is to catch the Shinkansen train from Tokyo or Shinagawa stations to Odawara, then change onto the Hakone Tozan Railway line. This option is also the fastest.
If you don’t already have a JR Rail Pass, you could take the Romance Car from Shinjuku station on the Odakyu line to Hakone-Yumoto station. If you purchase the Free Pass at the same time, you’ll receive a discount. From Hakone-Yumoto station you then change onto the Hakone Tozan Railway line. The Hakone Tozan train zig-zags up the mountain, stopping at several stations along the way and offers some absolutely gorgeous vistas of valleys, mountains and waterfalls.
Before arriving in Hakone, I would recommend purchasing a Hakone Free Pass for 2 or 3 consecutive days, depending on how long you plan to be there. I found this pass to be great value as it covers all the public transport options you’ll need, including the Tozan Railway from Odawara or Hakone-Yumoto stations, the cable car, ropeway, Lake Ashi cruise and the Tozan Buses. The pass also gives you a discount at various museums, restaurants and other attractions within the area.
THINGS TO DO IN HAKONE
1) ONSEN SPA EXPERIENCE
The cool climate of Hakone during the fall made us pretty eager to experience a Japanese Onsen. An Onsen is a natural hot spring bath. There are thousands of Onsen dotted around the volcanic regions of Japan. An Onsen is said to have therapeutic qualities, leaving one feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and relaxed after a good soaking. Experiencing the therapeutic benefits of a Japanese Onsen should be at the top of anyone’s list of things to do in Hakone. It’s what the region is famous for.
Mount Hakone is an active volcano, so the water is heated naturally through underground springs. The water is then fed directly into the Onsen at around 70 degrees. Most hotels in the region have their own Onsen but there is also public Onsen available. I would highly recommend staying in an Onsen hotel. Otherwise, Yunessun Hot Springs Resort and Spa, located in the town of Gora, offers a hot spring theme park that can be visited with a day-pass.
2) STAY IN A TRADITIONAL RYOKAN (JAPANESE INN)
Many Ryokans in Hakone have been built on the natural hot springs to take advantage of the geothermal energy, thus offering bathing facilities exclusively for their guests use. The thought of bathing naked in a public Onsen made me feel more self-conscious than relaxed, so my husband and I decided to book a room at Hotel Hakone Gora Byakudan, which features a private open-air Onsen bath in each room. We spent a whole afternoon soaking in our own private hot tub, listening to the rain falling on our balcony.
Staying in a Ryokan and experiencing Japanese Onsen culture go hand-in-hand and is one experience I would highly recommend in Hakone. Our hotel was a modern-style Ryokan with traditional styling, Western-style bedding and a few modern conveniences. However, there are also many more traditional Ryokans on offer around the Hakone region.
3) KAISER DINING EXPERIENCE
If you do decide to spend an evening at a Ryokan, your accommodation will most likely include breakfast and dinner. Many lodgings offer guests a traditional Japanese Kaiseki meal as part of their stay. This authentic Japanese dining experience was definitely a highlight.
Kaiseki meals consist of multiple courses prepared from fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. Each element is ornately assembled for aesthetic appeal. Japanese chefs undergo years of training, as the preparation of such meals requires fine precision and skill. The course is served on decorative Japanese ceramics and in a specific order, leaving the diner feeling special and satiated. In some hotels, guests may be offered traditional robes, called Yakata, and slippers to wear to dinner. We found this added to the authenticity of the experience. Meals are generally served in a traditional Japanese style dining room with tatami mats, screens and timber furniture.
4) THE HAKONE OPEN AIR MUSEUM
The Hakone Open Air Museum is an outdoor exhibit featuring hundreds of sculptures set amongst nature in beautiful Japanese gardens. The many exhibits at the Hakone Open Air Museum, include collections from famous artists such as Picasso and Henry Moore. I’m not usually a big fan of museums as I lack the patience to fully appreciate each piece. But I found this museum to be rather interesting as some of the sculptures are really unique.
I would recommend a few hours to wander around, as it covers quite a large area. Every corner you turn reveals another amazing work of art so it is very easy for time to slip away. The star of the show is most definitely the Picasso exhibit. It featured hundreds of pieces, ranging from some of his very early works to quite a few of his very famous pieces. It’s located at the rear of the property so you have to wander through hundreds of sculptures to get there. The best part, because it’s set on such a large nature garden, you won’t be tripping over other tourists or have them getting in the way of your photos.
5) HAKONE TOZAN CABLE CAR AND ROPEWAY
From the Hakone Open Air Museum, we hopped on the Hakone Tozan Railway using our Hakone Free Pass and headed to Gora station. Gora was a pretty town but we didn’t spend much time exploring as we had already spent so much time at the Open Air Museum. We hopped straight onto the Tozan Cable Car for the ride up the mountain to the Ropeway.
The Hakone Ropeway goes from Sounzan to Lake Ashi with a couple of stops along the way. The views from the ropeway are quite stunning and on a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount Fuji.
6) OWAKUDANI GEOTHERMAL VALLEY
You’ll want to get off the Ropeway at the station in the middle to explore the active volcanic valley of Owakudani. After Mount Hakone erupted many many years ago it left a massive crater on one side of the mountain, which is quite spectacular to see. The area is still very active with sulphur geysers and vents spewing gases into the atmosphere. The entire area smells like rotten eggs, but don’t let that deter you.
There’s a tourist gift shop at the top which sells freshly boiled kuro-tamago (black eggs). They are ordinary chicken eggs, but the shells turn black due to being boiled in hot sulphur spring water! (It’s also possible to walk up to the hot springs and watch the eggs being boiled)
Owakudani is a great place for lunch as there are a cafes serving traditional Japanese dishes such as ramen, udon noodles, Japanese curry and Tempura. Despite being in a busy tourist area, the food here is surprisingly good and, on a clear day, you can even catch a glimpse of the peak of Mount Fuji.
7) LAKE ASHI CRUISE
After lunch at Owakudani, hop back on on the Ropeway and head down the mountain to Togendai station where you’ll see Lake Ashi, otherwise known as Ashinoko Lake. This is where you can take a ride on the Hakone Pirate Ship sightseeing cruise, also included in the Hakone Free Pass. Apparently there is a beautiful view of Mount Fuji, but unfortunately, we visited when it was quite cloudy.
The boat ride from Togendai to Moto-Hakone takes about 30 minutes. There is plenty of good hiking spots around the shores of the lake and it is possible to do stand-up paddle boarding when the weather is warm enough.
8) HAKONE JINJA (SHINTO SHRINE) AND TORII GATE
A short walk around the shores of the lake will bring you to a massive Torii gate overlooking the lake. You’ve probably seen it in a thousand Instagram photos because it’s a pretty spectacular sight. From here you can walk up a few hundred steps to reach the shrine. We arrived at the shrine late in the afternoon, around sunset which meant there were very few other people around which made our visit very peaceful to explore the beautiful gardens and temples.
9) CHASING WATERFALLS IN HAKONE
We had arranged to spend our second day in Hakone doing some hiking, but unfortunately, I injured my ankle just prior to our trip, so our plans didn’t eventuate. However, we met a group of American students at the museum who told us enviable stories of hiking through tri-coloured forests and finding amazing waterfalls.
If you’re not into hiking, it’s possible to reach some waterfalls by bus, which is exactly what we did instead. From Hakone-Yumoto station, the Tozan bus makes several stops on it’s way up (or down) the mountain. I would recommend picking up a local map from the tourist office in Hakone-Yumoto or from your hotel to help you navigate your way through the mountains.
10) EXPLORE HAKONE YAMOTO
Hakone-Yamoto is a stopover town for many on their way through, but if you have a spare few hours it’s a really nice place to explore. The main street is really cute with lots of shops and restaurants and there is a beautiful walk along the river. Plus, there are lockers at Hakone-Yumoto station to store your luggage while you wander around town tasting the many weird and wonderful delicacies on offer – my favourite was the purple sweet potato and green tea soft serve ice-cream!
For lunch, we stumbled across a pretty amazing Chinese-Japanese fusion restaurant located down a hidden alleyway called Haikara Chinese Nisshintei. It was a family-owned restaurant, run by a lovely Chinese immigrant who has lived in Japan for over 20 years. He greeted us at the door with his welcoming personality and the food was delicious! They also made their own ramen and udon noodles in the front window.
WHERE TO STAY IN HAKONE
We spent two nights staying at the Hotel Hakone Gora Byakudan, where the food and service were simply amazing. The entire experience was uniquely oriental and one of our most memorable experiences during our visit. The staff didn’t speak much English but went out of their way to make us feel very welcome and I would highly recommend this place!
WHEN TO VISIT HAKONE
I visited the Hakone region in November, which was a perfect time of year to experience all the activities listed here. The weather was cool and the colours of fall were simply stunning. We stopped so many times to take photos of the beautiful scenery. The burst of colours given off by nature at this time of year is often compared with that of the cherry blossom season, however, there are much fewer crowds in the Fall.
Given its proximity to Tokyo, Hakone is a very popular weekend getaway for residents visiting the city. To avoid the crowds, I would recommend timing your visit during the week, if possible!
I hope this article helps you to plan your own visit to Hakone. If you have questions, tips or updated information about visiting, please share them with readers in the comments.
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Our Top Places To Stay In Hakone, Japan:
- Hakone Kowakien Tenyu
- Hananoyado Fukuya.
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