An easy day trip from Tokyo, or a good excuse for a weekend away, Hakone sits at the top of the Izu peninsula, surrounded by active volcanoes. It’s these volcanes which provide fantastic onsen (geothermal springs) that you can bathe in, making Hakone a very popular tourist destination in Japan.
I started my journey by taking the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Odawara and then buying a Hakone freepass. This two or three day pass allows you explore all around the area much more cheaply than if you pay-as-you-go for the various modes of transport on offer. If you have enough time, you can make a stop at Odawara and check out the castle there, which is a short walk from the station.
From Odawara station, I the hopped on the ‘normal’ train to Hakone’s Yumoto station, where I switched onto the Tozan train. This ancient old electric train winds its way up through the jungle and into the mountains, taking forever to do so but allowing for some pretty views. I got off at Chokokunomori and went to the Hakone Open Air Museum. The name is a bit misleading as this is actually a huge art gallery with expansive sculpture gardens and the largest collection of Picasso works outside of Spain. It is easliy one of the best art galleries I have ever been to.
The whole site is landscaped beautifully so that you keep stumbling across new areas by accident. I could have spent all day just walking around, wishing that I was under the age of 13 so that I could play on the kids areas, which look like so much fun! (Note to self: borrow someone’s child for the next time so that I can “supervise” them in the play areas and join in.)
After spending far too long looking at art, I got back on the Tozan train to Gora to get some lunch. I stopped at Tonkatsu Rikyu for a huge portion of very good hirekatsu (pork fillet fried in breadcrumbs).
I then took the funicular train up the side of Mt Komagatake to the stop at Sounzan, where I got on the cable car. This goes over ‘death valley’ (a very friendly place…) where the volcano lets off steam through loads of vents and deposits lots of sulphur. A local delicacy are eggs that have been cooked over the sulphurous vents – this makes the eggs cook from the inside out and they’re eaten when the whites are still a bit runny. By eating these, you’re said to add seven years to your life.
From up the cable car, on a clear day, you can get fantastic panoramic views of Mt Fuji. On a bad day, you will be inside a cloud and only able to see a few feet of the cable in front of you – so check the weather before you go!
At the end of the cable car at Togendai is the massive Lake Ashi that sits in part of an ancient crater at an altitude of over 700m. To get to the other side of the lake (and back to Hakone), you can take the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise on a giant, plastic pirate boat. Only in Japan…
At the other end of the lake at Moto-Hakone, it’s worth making a stop at Hakone JInja. The main building of the shrine is nestled between the tall trees of the forest, but it’s easy to spot due to the large torii (red gates), one of which sits out in the lake.
For some much needed R&R after exploring all day, I caught the Tozan bus to Tenzan onsen. This complex of buildings and outdoor hotsprings is absolutely worth a visit. All the buildings are traditional Japanese ones, inside and out, and there are many different onsen to choose from. There are huge reading/relaxation rooms to chill out in before and after you bathe, as well as a bar and a few restaurants. The onsen themselves are amazing – the outdoor ones are all set into the hillside and surrounded by lovely plants and trees. From Tenzan, it’s a short bus or taxi ride back to Hakone Yumoto station, allowing you to take the train back to Tokyo late in the evening.
How to get there: take the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Odawara Station, then the local train to Hakone Yumoto, or take the express “Romance Car” train from Shinjuku Station directly Hakone Yumoto.
Holly’s Top Tip: check the weather report before you go! If it’s cloudy, you won’t be able to see anything from the cable car or the boat as you will be right inside the clouds at that altitude.