Hakone is one of the most recommended excursions from Tokyo and a popular destination among Japanese people as well. Easily accessible from Tokyo, full of museums and natural beauties, including the view (albeit not so obvious) of Mount Fuji and onsen, can be enjoyed both as a day trip from Tokyo, and as a two-day overnight in a Ryokan.
Yes, Hakone is touristy. Prices are a little higher than average and it is quite crowded. But it’s worth it.
I have been there twice, the first in 2014 on a day from Tokyo during my second trip to Japan, and againlast weekend, during the rainy season, to realize one of my “Japanese dreams”: to ride the Ajisai Densha, the hydrangeas train. Unfortunately, the climate change that is bringing hot summers, anticipate the flowering of hydrangeas, which at the beginning of July, instead of being in full bloom (or still behind in some areas), were already “burning” and ending.
I couldn’t admire the blooming at its peak along the path of the Hakone Tozan train up the mountain….
There are tons of things to see and do in Hakone, from art to hiking, from relaxing in the onsen to shopping in nearby Gotemba. Activities for children, but also an ideal escape for couples and groups of friends, with many ryokans and guesthouses, making it a perfect destination for all types of travelers.
Only a couple of hours away from Tokyo and thanks to the convenient Odakyu Electric Railway’s Hakone Freepass, it’s often chosen as a destination for a weekend getaway and is easy to find but quite crowded. I was lucky both times, but I would advise you to avoid the weekend if possible, also because overnight in Hakone during the week costs much less than at the weekend!
Visit Hakone: 1-day itinerary
If you plan to visit Hakone in a day trip from Tokyo, you should choose to overnight near Shinjuku Station, from where the Odakyu Line trains depart, thus optimizing the time available to visit Hakone.
There are many things to see in Hakone and I advise you to organize the day in advance so as to be able to make the most of the time available. The ideal solution is to take a circular route from Hakone Yumoto, and you can decide whether to do the tour counterclockwise (as I did) or clockwise. If you want to have a little more time available or simply want to travel more comfortably, you can pay the additional fare (1,100 yen one way) and use the Odakyu Romancecar train, which will take you directly to Hakone Yumoto without the need for change trains in Odawara.
Hakone Tozan Train
The Hakone Tozan railway starts in Odawara, but is between Hakone-Yumoto and Gora which is something absolutely amazing. A small train climbs up the mountain between switchback and exchange points (apart from the stations and in a few other sections there is one track) on what is the steepest railway in Japan. To build it while respecting the natural surrounding environment, the engineers have studied the drawings of the Bernina Red Train (which by the way is on my list of things to do sooner or later!!) and since 1979, sixty years after its construction, a twinning has been signed between the two railway and for this reason, you will find posters of the Swiss train everywhere, as well as some red cars with the white cross!
The train passes among stunning nature and over some breathtaking valleys, but above all it is in the rainy season, with the flowering of hydrangeas, which turns into something even more magical, the hydrangeas train.
In the evening, two special trains with larger windows also come into operation and slow down near the illuminated hydrangeas….. So imagine my disappointment and anger at having lost them due to the exaggerated heat that caused the season to end early….
Once in Gora, the train turns into a cablecar that climbs further up the mountain for a difference in height of 214 meters and a gradient of 20‰.
Owakudani and the black egg
A surreal valley, from which rise clouds of smoke and the overwhelming smell of sulfur. Owakudani means “great bubbling valley“, was formed following a violent eruption and is still part of an active volcano. When the gas emissions from the ground exceed a certain level, access to Owakudani is closed for security reasons. Okawudani can be reached with a ropeway that passes over the valley, offering a spectacular aerial view over the arid land dotted with gas eruptions: a unique emotion.
From the arrival of the cablecar in Souzan, take the ropeway that passes over the valley and arrive in Owakudani, where you will have plenty of time to stop for a break and eat the infamous “kurotamago“, eggs cooked in the thermal water of the valley, the shell of which turns black for a natural reaction. It seems that eating these black eggs extends the life of 7 years.
During my second visit, knowing a minimum of Japanese, I saw that you can do guided tours in the area, there are departures 4 times a day for a maximum of 30 people. I am not sure if is needed to book in advance or is a first-cone first-serve basis, but I assume that, given the lack of information about it in English, the tour is entirely in Japanese.
It could happen that if the fumes intensify and become too toxic, access to the Owakudani area is interrupted, check the situation at the Hakone Information Center.
Pirates cruise on Lake Ashi
Yes, you read that correctly. In Hakone, there is a pirate ship sailing on Lake Ashi….. and no, I have no idea why it looks like this. The fact is that once you always get off with the ropeway from Owakudani to Togendai (beware that here about halfway through you could see Mount Fuji on the right!!), to reach the other side of Lake Ashi and the areas of Hakone-Machi and Moto-Hakone, you’ll have to sail on these ships. During this 30-minute cruise, enjoy the beauty of this volcanic lake nestled in the mountains, from which, with a little luck, you can see majestic Mount Fuji right from where you set sail. There is no need to reserve a seat on the pirate ship, but keep in mind that the rides are infrequent and it is better to check the timetables. For the bow of the ship an additional fee is required, the so-called “first-class”, but personally I think it is not worth it … you will also have a beautiful view from the rest of the ship!
The checkpoint on the old Tokaido
Get off the pirate ship at the Hakone-machi stop and visit the Hakone Sekisho, a reconstructed Tokaido checkpoint as it appeared in the Edo period. Tokaido was one of the five great roads of feudal Japan that connected Edo, where the Shogun resided, to the rest of Japan. Along these roads several villages were born, post stations such as Ouchijuku, where travelers could stop and rest, but near Edo there were also 53 check-points where they were mainly controlled “the weapons entering and women exiting”, in order to ensure the safety of the Shogunate headquarters. At Hakone Sekisho, in addition to the buildings, there is also a museum with various interesting explanations also in English.
The Hakone Checkpoint is open from 9.00 to 17.00 and admission costs 500yen.
From here you can then walk a small piece of ancient Tokaido up to Moto-Hakone, up an avenue of cedars and part of the still original pavement. If you have more time available, you could then continue further, I explain the details later in the article.
Hakone Shrine and the torii gate in the lake
At Moto Hakone you will see a large torii portal rising up on the road: it marks the entrance to the Hakone Jinja, the most important Shrine in the area, particularly famous for the photo spot of the torii gate that rises from the waters of Lake Ashi
In 2014, before this shot became popular on Instagram, visiting the Hakone Shrine meant immersing yourself in a mystical environment: the red of the shrine contrasted with the bright green of the surrounding forest and the peace and silence that permeate Lake Ashi. I managed to relive this atmosphere by going there at 7AM, otherwise, now there is often a long line to take the famous photo. However, aside from the spot near the lake which is generally crowded, once you go up the stairs to the Shrine, peace reigns.
Onsen at Hakone Yumoto
Frequent buses leave from Moto-Hakone both to Kowakidani station from where you can take the train back to Hakone Yumoto, or directly to Hakone Yumoto, where you can enjoy a few hours of relaxation immersed in the thermal waters before heading back to Tokyo. Several onsen offer daily admission without the need for an overnight stay, but I believe that in all tattoos are prohibited (if small, you can cover them with special patches).
The Kappa Tengoku is the cheapest option (800 yen), very simple and a little dated but with an outdoor pool and access until 10pm.
If you prefer an onsen in which to try 5 different types of thermal waters, you could opt for the Yu no Sato of the Okada hotel, also open until late and with a free shuttle that leaves every half hour from Hakone Yumoto station, admission 1,450 yen.
Hakone Yuryo offers, other than indoor and outdoor baths, also private onsen and a free shuttle bus is available from the station. Admission 1,500 yen and starts from 4,300 for the private onsen
Visit Hakone in 2 days
The first time I visited Hakone on a day trip from Tokyo, while the second time I spent a weekend there, leisurely enjoying some of the other attractions this hot spring town near Tokyo has to offer, here some idea that you might choose among:
Overnight in a ryokan
In Hakone, there are many ryokans, many of which also offer private onsen that can also be used by those with tattoos and is an ideal destination for those who want to try the Japanese ryokan experience by taking a classic itinerary.
We stayed at the Mikawaya Ryokan, a beautiful building with a history of 140 years, where important people such as the painter Takehisa Yumeji stayed. There is also a small exhibition of the history of the ryokan and across the street is the Horai-en garden, with gorgeous autumn momiji and 30,000 azaleas blooming towards the end of April.
The location is great: the bus stop is right in front of the Ryokan, a three-minute walk from Yunessun (with free access to its traditional onsen part) and about 15 minutes from Kowakidani station. The Hakone Open-Air Museum is also reachable with a short walk, as is the Chisuji waterfall, where fireflies can be seen on summer nights!
However, for those who want to save money there are also several guesthouses and being in the Hakone Yumoto area there is also a decent choice of places to dine. The Hakone Freepass is valid for two days and includes most of the transportation in the area, so you won’t have to pay extra.
Museums of Hakone
Art enthusiasts will find in Hakone a wide choice of museums to choose from, all set in a pleasant natural setting, which adds to that sense of relaxation expected from a location like Hakone. Most of museums offer discounts to Hakone Freepass holders, so don’t forget to show it at the ticket office.
Not being an art lover, I only visited the Hakone Open Air Museum, which in addition to being the first open-air museum in Japan, hosts 120 contemporary art installations scattered in a beautiful park full of blooms and various environments. Surely the main attraction is the Symphonic Sculpture, a cylindrical tower crossed by a spiral staircase that will give you the impression of being inside a kaleidoscope. The Picasso Hall collects several works by the famous painter.
Admission costs 1,600 yen (200 yen discount with the pass) and is open every day from 9 to 17.
Asian art and fine ceramics are exhibited at the Okada Museum of Art, where there is also a garden and a foot onsen, while the Pola Museum is a private art collection. At Hakone Glass no Mori there are works in Murano glass. Finally, I point out the Gora Park, a French garden whose entrance is free for Hakone Freepass holders, where you can also do different crafts experiences and literally create your own souvenir.
Walking the old Tokaido trail
In addition to the small stretch (about 15 minutes of walking), between Hakone Check Point and Moto-Hakone, you can take the ancient Tokaido road for a total of 17 km in the Hakone area, starting from Hakone-Yumoto. Probably the most interesting part is the one that goes from Moto-Hakone to Hata-Juku, passing by the Amazake Tea House. The well-preserved cobblestone road passes through the woods, is quite wide and easy to walk, especially if you go in the direction “towards Edo”, ie descending from Lake Ashi towards Hakone Yumoto. We made the section from Moto-Hakone to Amazake Chaya, a tea house that has come to the present day from the Edo period, where you can enjoy a delicious amazake and Chikara-mochi to regain your energy. Very calmly, taking photos and videos (and wearing normal Converse) it took us about 40 pleasant minutes, meeting only a group of cheerful elderly trekkers.
In Hakone the choice of onsen is certainly not lacking, but if you want to try something absolutely special, well the Yunessun is the place for you! In addition to an aquatic park with thermal water, especially interesting for children, here there are also very special onsen: you can soak in an onsen of wine, coffee, green tea and sake!! You wear a swimsuit and is not divided by gender, allowing you to enjoy the onsen as a couple. There is also a very quiet panoramic terrace, outside and away from the pool area (which yes, it is quite noisy as it is mainly for children) where you can enjoy the view of the mountains from the warm thermal waters.
The Mori-no-yu section is instead a classic onsen divided by genre where you enter naked. There are several indoor and outdoor pools well immersed in the natural context.
For those with tattoos, you can access the swimming pool area with swimsuits that cover them (rentable at the entrance …. and don’t worry, the Japanese often have swimsuits with long sleeves and pants, no one will think you are crazy, on the contrary!), while access to the classic section is allowed only for private pools.
The official website is full of information also in English, however, refer to that also for any discounts and promotions.
How to get to and around Hakone
To get around the Hakone area I absolutely recommend get the Hakone Freepass, which allows you to use the public transportations (most of buses, Hakone Tozan train and cablecar, pirate ship and ropeway to Owakudani). It lasts two or three days and you can also buy it in digital format directly from your smartphone at this link.
If you are visiting Hakone from Tokyo, choose the pass from Shinjuku for 6,100 yen, which will also include the Odakyu train ride between Shinjuku and Odawara.
If you already have the Japan Rail Pass or Hakone is an intermediate stop between Tokyo and another destination, I recommend to get the Hakone freepass from Odawara which costs 5,000 yen and still includes the already mentioned transportation in Hakone, but not the Odawara-Tokyo train (for which you can take the Shinkansen if you have the JR Pass or the ride route with Odakyu trains).
For my second trip, the pass was offered to me by the company, but I absolutely recommend it because even for the first time in Hakone I bought it because it was extremely convenient! Odakyu also offers other very affordable passes, such as the Enoshima-Kamakura Freepass to visit Enoshima, you can find them all listed on the Odakyu’s website.
Discover Hakone in my YouTube Video:
Did you find this article useful? Buy me a coffee 🙂