An unforgettable getaway from Tokyo that offers stunning views of Mount Fuji, this destination is an exceptional one. The town is Hakone (haw-cone-ay) and its centuries-old hot springs (onsen) are located in the volcanically active Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Onsen are very popular across Japan and are a longtime fixture in Japanese culture. The number of Hakone visitors continues to grow while the number of visitors to Japan reached over twelve million in 2014, breaking all previous records.
Soaking in hot springs is said to help heal almost anything that ails you. In the 16th century, soldiers came to heal their wounds. In the 19th century adjacent mountains were developed to convey the feeling of “Switzerland in Japan” and became a resort area. The railway that runs through the mountains features red trains that resemble Swiss railway cars and many of the stations look like Swiss chalets. Hakone’s traditional inns (ryokan) typically have their own onsen and the town now has an amusement park complete with soaking pools of red wine, sake, green tea or coffee. Even if you are just visiting for the day, many hotels open up their public baths to visitors for a small fee. I had no idea how expansive this could be so I’m sharing the adventure with you and some tips to make sure you have the best experience possible.
Highlights of the Mt Fuji Day Trip
- Explore the small town of Hakone (which is beautiful in the snow)
- Dip in a traditional onsen or visit a café with ashiyu (onsen for soaking feet)
- Ride across Lake Ashi on a pirate ship
- Soar above the mountains in a cable car with views of Mt Fuji (one of the world’s most breathtaking cable car rides per USA Today)
- Stroll the open air sculpture museum with 360° mountain views
- Explore the Venetian Glass Museum indoor and outdoor exhibits
- Enjoy the Hakone Botanical Gardens with year-round blooms
- View stunning modern architecture and art from Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Foujita and many more at the POLA Museum of Art.
One great thing about this adventure is that it’s a popular excursion, so it is very well planned already and you don’t have to do much work. It begins at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station where you will find the Odakyu Sightseeing Center. The station is huge so be sure to print out this map of the station or, like me, you’re going to have one heck of a time locating the Odakyu office. Once there you can purchase your first train ticket of the day for The Romance Car. Make your ticket reservations by phone before 4pm the prior day with the help of your hotel front desk. I’m glad I chose not to go with a guided tour because I enjoy being flexible with my time. My only regret was not staying overnight in Hakone.
A smart option to save on travel expenses is to purchase a Hakone Free Pass valid for 2 or 3 days. The pass will cost a one-time fee (around ¥5500) and covers all your transportation, sightseeing, and provides pretty good discounts at restaurants and shops in town.
The Hakone Loop
The train from central Tokyo will bring you to Hakone-Yumoto, a central point from which to explore Hakone. Essentially you will be traveling in a loop from this starting point (see map at bottom of this post). If you are only visiting for the day, don’t spend too much time here just yet because adventures ahead will be effected by closing times. I had to tell myself to “keep moving” the entire day. Next, you’ll hop on a bus to Lake Ashi (35 minutes and ¥960). Lake Ashi provides beautiful scenic views while the souvenir shops offer Mt Fuji themed sweets that you won’t find anywhere else. From the dock you will be picked up by a decorated pirate ship to take you across the lake.
After the boat ride on the other side of Lake Ashi you will enter the Togendai Ropeway Station and board a cable car (gondola). If you’re lucky you will have a clear view of Mt Fuji. The cable car will drop you off near the top of Mt Hakone where I experienced the most intense windchill ever (dress warm!) and panoramic views of Mt Fuji. You’re really here to soak up the view, though a short walk away is Owakudani where eggs are boiled in an open-air hot spring. The result is famous black colored eggs known as kuro tamago which, if eaten, are said to extend your life by seven years. A large market at the same location also offers skin care products made from the black eggs and hot spring water. Next, you’ll head back to the cable car and down the other side of the mountain, exiting at the Sounzan Ropeway Station.
From here you have options to visit the Botanical Gardens, the Open Air Museum, the Venetian Glass Museum, the much praised POLA Museum, hot springs and more. Each of these are a short bus or railcar ride away. Because it was so late, I had to go directly back to Hakone-Yumoto. I boarded the old fashioned Hakone Tozan railway car to Gora Station—the very steep tracks will take your breath away. It was fun! At Gora station I switched trains for a 35 minute ride back to Hakone-Yumoto. Phew, what a day! It’s worth mentioning that from mid June until late July, this railway is lined with colorful blooming flowers and goes by the nickname “Hydrangea Train”.
Where to Eat & Sleep in Hakone
Hakone’s traditional inns (called ryokan) typically have their own onsen and sometimes offer dinner and breakfast included with a booking. I was thrilled to find an amazing collection of very highly recommended ryokan with both private and public onsen. No big hotels here— these are the best of the best off the beaten path ryoken. You know what that means, right? Pure serenity. Most of these onsen overlook zen gardens, mountain scenery or Mt Fuji. Take a peek at the photos yourself —it’s like a fairytale!
For an excellent hotel accommodation with western facilities, check out the Hotel Green Plaza Hakone. They have a full service spa, restaurant and spacious guest rooms that are a nice mix of modern and traditional, some with private onsen. The hotel offers unparalleled views of Mt Fuji from their multiple hot springs which are open for non-guests until 3pm and hotel guests until midnight. Another accommodation choice, one of Japanese history and western luxury, is the Fujiya Hotel. Built in 1878, Fujiya has catered to guests including Charlie Chaplin, John Lennon, European royalty and Japanese emperors. Always check Agoda.com and Booking.com who typically have the best hotel rates in Japan.
For the complete experience nestled up in the mountains, there is nothing better than a hot bowl of noodles. When visiting Hakone I had a quiet dinner at Yamasoba near the main train station. I really felt as though I was a guest at their home. Yamasoba’s specialty is soba noodles made from a mixture of buckwheat and wild mountain yam flours. If you’re a foodie, head to The Fujiya (the historic hotel mentioned earlier) where they serve a famous emperor’s beef curry dish or Itoh Dining by Nobu, a steakhouse that ranks as the #1 restaurant in Hakone. The latter choices can be a bit pricey but visitors say they are worth it.
If you find yourself traveling to Tokyo, don’t miss the chance to experience Hakone. It will undoubtedly be a trip you will never forget.