I have so many backlogs of Japan trip it’s not even funny. Not only have I not finished my posts from my previous trip back in Feb 2016, I have recently visited Japan again for Christmas. It was an unplanned trip, at least on my part. I was blessed to have gotten a trip to Japan as my birthday present back in November. The hubs thought it would be such a waste to not do anything or go anywhere during the Christmas shutdown period and so, he decided to buy us a trip to Tokyo for Christmas.
As we didn’t get to visit Hakone the last time due to possible volcanic activities, visiting Hakone this time around was on top of my list. Hakone is a very scenic town famous for its onsen (hot springs) ryokans (traditional Japanese inn) and Mt Fuji views. Getting a good room however, could be quite tricky, especially if you don’t mind splurging a little bit for that perfect ryokan experience. Most of the time, they are booked out quite fast and early so a little bit of planning is essential. As it was a pretty last minute trip for us, I didn’t have a big selection of choices left. I was however, considered quite lucky to get us a room at Hakone Lake Hotel. Although a little far from the town centre (Hakone Yumoto), the hotel is situated 2 minutes walk away from Lake Ashi and Togendai station (ropeway station that gets you to Owakudani). It is therefore, good location for us as we wanted to catch the sunrise at the lake. I will do a review and my experience at Hakone Lake Hotel in my next post.
There are a few ways to get to Hakone from Tokyo. If you are planning to go there for 2-3 days I highly recommend getting the Hakone Free Pass. The ticket allows you to take the Odakyu Highway bus from Shinjuku to Odawara and vice versa, unlimited trips on the ropeways, the Tozan trains, cruise on Lake Ashi, the Tozan cable car as well as the local busses around Hakone. It’ll cost about 5140yen per person for a 2 day pass and if you top up another 680 yen per person per trip (or 1360yen pp return) you can book the e-Romance car, which is actually a train from Shinjuku to Hakone Yumoto. We took the e-Romance car as I feel that it’ll be much more relaxing travelling in the train with designated seats since we are travelling with our luggages as well. You will need the Hakone Free Pass in order to be eligible for e-Romance car and whilst you can buy your e-Romance car tickets online from the odakyu website, you can only buy the Hakone Free Pass from Odakyu service centres which can be found at Shinjuku station or Hakone Yumoto station. Do book your e-Romance car in advance if you don’t want to be left out with no seats on that day.
Our train rides on the e-Romance cars had been decent and enjoyable. As all seats are reserved, you will need to arrive at the station early in order not to miss your train ride. Like all long journey trains in Japan, you are allowed to eat in the train and there’s even a lady running food carts up the aisle once in a while. We bought some bentos (packed lunch) at the train station to eat on the train. It’s quite hard to find where the bento shops are as Shinjuku station is really huge. I remember seeing a lot of them nearer to the shinkansen platforms. There is however, a small shop selling some drinks, bento and magazines at the end of the platform for the e-Romance car next to the “e-Romance cafe”. I bought the chicken mince bento this time and the hubs got some onigiris. The bento was pretty good. I didn’t like the chicken mince so much though because I find it a tad too sweet for my liking. The karaage (fried chicken) and the pickled greens were however really good. I like how the bentos were not cheap plastics or polystyrene boxes. It was actually really solid and you can wash and keep them if you wish to, instead of throwing them out.The train ride to Hakone Yumoto is about 1.5hrs from Shinjuku. Along the way you get to see some really nice sceneries of outer Tokyo. The only complain I have about the train is that there aren’t any spaces for larger luggages. You only have overhead compartments for cabin size luggages and on some cars you have a little hook in front of you to hook your jackets/smaller bags. But it’s hardly enough if you have a slightly larger luggage. We had to put ours at the back of the car behind the last row of seats and hoped that no one steals it. That being said, Japan is a relatively safe country so I guess it’s ok.
Hakone Yumoto took me by surprise. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. It is a small town but it feels very warm and inviting. I don’t know how to put into words but it just gave me a very nostalgic kinda feeling. Like as if I was going on a holiday with my family in a holiday town when I was younger. Not sure how to explain it. May be it’s just me but the atmosphere where everyone there is there to relax and enjoy their holiday as well as stalls along the main streets that sells local delicacies just make it so inviting and somehow brought back memories of when I had family holidays when I was younger. The main street consisted of shops and shops of restaurants and stalls selling soba noodles, fish cakes on sticks and even a local favourite, coffee ice cream. The fish cakes on sticks was really really good. I had one with onions and one with shrimps. The onion one was sooo good and the fish cakes were really fresh and chewy. The hubs got himself the coffee ice cream as well and it was also really good. The shop sells their own coffee beans too. There’s also a seven eleven on that street so if you need to buy any snacks for your stay, you can get them there. Behind these row of shops parallel to the street is a river. I’m not sure if the “waterfall” are man made or natural but there are lots of larger rocks on the river on different levels and heights that created something like a waterfall which was pretty picturesque with the bridge on the background. I didn’t get to explore Hakone Yumoto town as much but that’s the general idea. The station itself has a few services that you might want to use. If like us, your hotel is situated a lot further than Hakone Yumoto, there’s actually a luggage transfer service located at Hakone Yumoto station. With a fee of 1000 yen (or less if your luggage is smaller) you can drop off your luggage at the luggage transfer counter and they will bring it to your hotel. This service is also available for pick up from hotel and transfer to the station. It’s very very very useful especially if you are staying quite a while away from the station and didn’t want to take the big loop back to the hotel just to get your luggages after sight seeing.
So what’s there to do in Hakone?
- Lake Ashi Cruise
I’ve mentioned this lake a couple of times. It is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of Hakone. Lake Ashi is one of the five lakes that surround Mt Fuji. It is probably the second lake closest to Mt Fuji and on a very clear day, you can see Mt Fuji very clearly and relatively close to you. However, to view Mt Fuji, you will need to be on the cruise facing towards Togendai station. There’s only a few points on the lake that you can see the famous mountain as the surrounding mountains do block the view of Mt Fuji when you are at different angles. If you have the Hakone Free Pass, you can get on to the cruise as many times as you want within the 2 or 3 day period. There’s three stations for the cruise, Togendai Ko- Hakone Machi Ko – Motohakone Ko. Togendai station is connected to the ropeway station as well that will bring you up to Owakudani, a volcanic valley with active sulphur vents. Hakone Machi Ko is near the Hakone Checkpoint, an important highway checkpoint back in the Edo period between Tokyo and Kyoto. There’s also a rather scenic cedar tree avenue that lined the passage of the old Tokaido. I did get off at this station but didn’t think we have enough time to explore this area. We got back on to the cruise and head towards Motohakone-Ko
- Hakone Shrine
Hakone Shrine is located about 10-15 minutes walk from Motohakone-Ko. There lies a small town, a very picturesque view of the lake with the famous Torri gate from the Shinto shrine nearby. The walk to the shrine is very relaxing and very very beautiful. Japanese styled red lantern lamps lined the path towards the shrine. Once you reach the entrance of the shrine, you can either walk down the steps towards the lake where the Torrii gate is or walk upwards where the actual shrine is. Very very scenic. A must visit if you are visiting Hakone.
To get to Owakudani, you will have to take the ropeway either from Togendai or from Souzan. The ropeway ride from Togendai to Owakudani is really scenic as you get to see the lake on the left while going up and then you get to see a very clear view of Mt. Fuji on your right. The ropeway ride was pretty quick and very very frequent. There’s really nothing much to do in Owakudani. I was slightly disappointed as I thought I would be able to see glaciers close up. However, we can only see the vents. There’s a really big shop that sells souvenirs of all sorts, a lot of them related to the black sulphur. One of the most popular must have is the Owakudani Kuro Tamago (Owakudani black eggs) that has been boiled in the natural hot springs of Owakudani. It’s sold for 500 yen for a bag of 5 black eggs. It was said that you will prolong your life by an extra 7 years with each egg you eat. Despite the lack of activity at Owakudani, it is probably one of the best vantage points for Mt. Fuji. You can clearly see Mt Fuji and it felt really really close. The scenic ropeway is also a good excuse to get to Owakudani.
- Other activities around Hakone includes the famous Hakone Open air museum (an art museum), and the museum of the little prince (a well known children short story). I didn’t have the time to look into these so I won’t comment on these.
While I loved my visit to Hakone, there are a couple of things that I would have love to know before going there that could have changed my decisions on certain things.
- Do not take the Tozan train if you don’t have the time. It runs at an exceptionally slow speed. Not only it is slow, certain parts of the train tract only has one tract and hence, in order for the train from the opposite direction to pass, from time to time, the train will need to park at a side tract and wait for a good 10 minutes or so for the train to pass before it starts to move again. Personally, I wouldn’t mind so much if it’s a slow train, but, to wait and not do anything for 10-15 minutes not once, but a few times, in a sardined packed train is not ideal and enjoyable. Do not travel with a lot of luggages on this transport.
- The Tozan Cable car was interesting, but also sardined packed. Again, if you have lots of luggages, I would suggest for you to use the luggages service transfer I mentioned earlier.
- There are a lot of local busses with different paths. Know which ones you are taking. The odakyu website has a map of the bus routes. While I don’t mind the bus ride, keep in mind that many locals uses the bus too on a daily basis on top of tourists. Therefore, the bus can be a little packed at times too and luggages can only be stored at the front of the bus.
I hope this post gave you an insight of Hakone and what to expect. It is a very touristy spot both for local Japanese and international tourists. That being said, it is still a very lovely place and very relaxing if you plan it over a 3 day instead of 2 which I did. It is also exceptionally enjoyable if you book a stay in a ryokan and experience the Japanese culture in this setting. Overall, I really liked this trip and I highly recommend it if you are visiting Tokyo and would also like to travel and hour or so away from the busy city to experience rural Japan a little bit. My highlight of the Hakone trip is definitely my stay in my hotel (which I will talk about in my next post) and Lake Ashi.
Til the next post, keep experimenting~!