Hakone, conveniently located between Tokyo and Kyoto, is a great place to experience the Japanese countryside. There are lots of cultural attractions, impressive scenery and if you’re planning to stay overnight, there are lovely ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and steaming onsen (hot baths). Here’s a few of our recommendations.
1. “The Circuit”
There are many different ways to get around Hakone, the easiest is to buy the “Hakone Freepass” which allows you to use the buses, trains, cable car, ropeway and even cruise on a pirate ship! Although at some points it felt like a bit of a tourist trap, it was a fun way to get around the region.
We started our circuit at Hakone-Yumoto where the first mode of transport was the Tozan Train. It featured steep switchbacks zig-zagging up the hillside, where the driver (in his white gloves) had to change ends to keep driving the train. There were lovely views of the valley below and it summer there are supposed to be beautiful hydrangeas along the track.
After stopping at the Hakone Open Air Museum (see below) and we continued to the end of the train line at Gora station. This was a larger town and a good place for lunch and visiting Hakone Gora Park. We then took the cable car, which was more like a funicular, from Gora to Sounzan. It was short and steep, gaining 750m in height in about 10 minutes.
Unfortunately due to volcanic gases, we couldn’t get on the connecting ropeway but instead had to catch the bus to Owakudani. This was a highlight of the circuit and we had great views of Mt Fuji. From Owakundani we were able to take the open sections of the ropeway down to Lake Ashi.
At the shores of Lake Ashi, we had our longest wait for connections – this time for the voyage on the pirate ship. There didn’t seem to be any particular reason for the pirate theme, and sadly it had become a bit overcast so we couldn’t see Mt Fuji across the water. After about 40 minutes of pleasant sailing we alighted at Hakonemachi-Ko.
Here we visited the Hakone check point, which used to be on the main road between Kyoto and Tokyo, and browsed the souvenir shops. We also walked through the ancient cedar avenue – planted 400 years ago – and spied the famous tori from across the lake. Finally we took a bus back to Hakone-Yumoto. What a lot of different transport options for one day!
2. Hakone Open-Air Museum
There are a variety of museums in the Hakone region, at the top of our list was the Hakone Open-Air Museum. Even on our marathon weary legs, we enjoyed walking around the gardens and admiring the sculptures. A lot are site specific and work extremely well in the gently rolling grounds, surrounded by mountains.
The park has a range of 19th and 20th Japanese and Western sculptures including pieces by Rodin, Henry Moore and Joan Miro as well as Ryogi Goto’s network of humans, Niki de Saint Phalle’s giant black lady and a weeping head by Francois-Xavier and Claude Lalanne. About half way around the grounds, there was a hot spring foot bath, which was a good rest break and very soothing for the tired feet.
There even were a couple of artworks designed for kids to play in. One was the crystal structure of diamond Curved Space-Diamond Structure that was like a playground climbing frame. Another was a giant wooden structure Woods of Net that housed hand-knitted forms that could also be climbed. They looked like lots of fun to play in, a pity we were too big!
My favourite piece was the Symphonic Sculpture, which was a tower of beautiful stained glass windows, viewed from a curved staircase inside the artwork. The detail was incredible and there were heaps of birds, animals and people hiding in the panels.
Owakudani, also known as “Valley of Hell” is a volcanic area created during the last eruption of Mount Hakone, about 3000 years ago. The landscape is barren with sulphurous fumes and steam vents. Unfortunately when we visited, all the walking trails were closed due to the amount of poisonous gases being emitted but we still got the ‘vibe’ of the area.
Owakundani is famous for black eggs (kuro-tamago). These are normal eggs boiled in the hot pools, with the sulphur turning the shells black. Tradition says that eating one is supposed to add 7 years to your life! We bought a bag of five (lots of extra years) and they didn’t taste too bad, just more smelly than usual…
Owakundani is also a fantastic place to view Fuji-San (Mt Fuji) and we were lucky to be there on a clear day (although it clouded over later in the afternoon).
4. Ryokan and Onsen
Our advice would be don’t visit Hakone as a day trip, as then you will miss out on the best part – staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan. However, we’d also caution against staying in ryokan immediately after running a marathon as getting up from your futon can be challenging!
We stayed in a ryokan in Hakone Yumoto, in a tatami mat room complete with a low table (again a problem after running a marathon), tea service on arrival and yukata to change into. The staff rolled out our futons after the dinner service and apart from the getting up / down issues, they were very comfortable.
The meals were incredible kaiseki (multi-course) spreads which were served in our room. Dinner included sashimi, pickles, soup, a different hot pot each night, rice and many different accompanying sauces and garnishes. There were also lots of dishes for breakfast such as dried fish, eggs, tofu, rice and miso soup.
The Hakone region is famous for onsen, which have been visited since the Nara period (710 – 914). Onsen are natural hot springs (as opposed to sento which are man-made hot baths) and the minerals are reported to have health benefits (bring on restoring our tired legs!). Our ryokan had both public and private onsen, and we tried both.
When I visited Japan as a teenager, I was terrified of the public baths. However, being older I wasn’t really bothered and after going through the rigorous cleaning process, I enjoyed both types of bathing experience. The only issue was the water temperature – a bit hot for a foreigner so it was hard to soak for too long!