The journey to Hakone for a quick weekend getaway was much more tedious than John and I had anticipated. However, from the moment we stepped off the cable car, awkwardly clutching our cumbersome suitcases, I knew that finagling two days in Hakone into our overpacked Japan itinerary was exactly what our weary jet-lagged souls needed.
The air was different in Hakone. It was so fresh and bracing…apart from the ever-present eau de sulphur emanating from the prevalence of hot springs that the area is known for. To be honest, I kinda liked the smell. It made me hungry, reminding me of the addictive egg salad sandwiches that are sold in convenience stores all over Japan.
We wheeled our bulky luggage along a winding road lined with towering trees, drinking in the lush views that surrounded us. I could see why everyone – local Japanese and tourists alike – would flock to this resort town.
Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park in the Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan, Hakone is a mere 100km from Tokyo. Not only does the close proximity and aforementioned hot springs make it the perfect getaway, it’s also the spot to view of the iconic Mount Fuji from across Lake Ashi…that is when the weather is co-operating.
The only drawbacks about Hakone is that everything closes REALLY early and the forest is home to menacing wild boars. The former isn’t so bad – we would just grab junk food and binge watch Terrace House in our hotel room. However, the wild boars are no joke.
These wild boars are not going to eat grubs and sing ‘Hakuna Matata’ with you.
Despite how kawaii the cartoonish DANGER signs posted in the area make them appear, you should definitely run away if confronted by one. The Japanese just have a habit of making everything look cute and cuddly.
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Wild boars aside, I definitely recommend spending at least 2 days in this mountainous town to unwind and get some healing Shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’ time. Here’s how you can spend a relaxing weekend getaway in Hakone:
Cable car ride in the sky
Appreciate aerial views of this mountainous town from the Hakone Ropeway. Covered by the Hakone Free Pass, the full length of the ropeway takes a mere half hour and is an essential part of exploring Hakone. Pile in to a cable car ten people at a time and glide over the sulphuric hot springs of Owakudani Valley.
SNACK ON BLACK EGGS
Make a pit stop before arriving at Togendai at Owakudani which translates to Great Boiling Valley. Here you can find kuro-tamago (black eggs) that are ordinary eggs that have turned black from being boiled in the hot sulphur springs. The local legend says that consuming just one of these eggs can add 7 years to your life! At the very least, it’ll provide much needed energy to continue the rest of the journey.
pirate ship cruise
End your ropeway journey at Togendai and board a gaudy gold pirate ship that would look more at home in Las Vegas than moored on the shores of Lake Ashinoko (“Ashi” if you’re being cute). Touristy? Sure, but when in Hakone…why the hell not 🤷🏻♀️?
Sail across this 3,000 year-old body of water (preferably when it’s not frigid and rainy like when we were there) that was formed in the caldera of Mount Hakone after the volcano’s last eruption.
During the 30-minute trip, you’ll pass the vermillion gates of the Hakone Shrine partially submerged in the lake. If fortune (and sun) is smiling down on you, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the shy Mount Fuji that is usually shrouded in fog.
visit Hakone Shrine
Upon disembarking from the ship at the Motohakone Port, trek along the shores of Lake Ashi towards Hakone Shrine. Nestled amid a dense forest of towering trees, you are ushered into the jinja by massive, red torii gates. On a rainy day, you’ll be veiled in a heavy mist that will make you feel like you’ve wandered into a Studio Ghibli film.
Before you leave, scrawl your hopes and wishes on an ema board or draw a fortune written on white strips of paper. Known as o-mikuji, it translates literally to “sacred lot.” Don’t forget to leave it tied to the shrine if you get a bad fortune!
Dine on delicious food
No trip guide (especially one written by yours truly) is complete without mapping out the drool-worthy spots to dine at, even when restaurants are as spread apart as they were in Hakone.
For a refined and innovative menu crafted by world-class chef Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa, head to Gora Brewery and Grill. Relax at the chef’s table in the zen, minimalist space as the masters flip and slice meat with elegant precision in front of a floor-to-ceiling glass wall looking out into a landscaped garden.
Pair a flight of craft beers made in-house with crispy wagyu gyoza followed by succulent stone oven roasted chicken. Have a sweet end to the meal with a creamy, indulgent matcha tiramisu that you will dream about long after you polished off the last spoonful.
If you’re around Motohakone Port, head to Hakone Karaage Karatto for their lunch plate of crispy chicken served alongside a soup of the day, salad, bread and fruit. Craving western flavours? Box Burger has delicious burgers on fluffy brioche buns. The chicken burger was particularly juicy! For a traditional chirashi bowl or platter of fresh sashimi, head to Daimasa Honten.
Picasso Open Air Museum
Nestled in the mountains of Hakone is an open air museum sprawling across 70,000 square metres. To be honest, it didn’t sound all that exciting to me but when I exited the long tunnel that led to the entrance of the park, my breath caught in absolute wonder.
Mountains loom in the distance, providing a dramatic backdrop to over 1,000 massive sculptures and works of art that sprawl across 70,000 square metres of land.
Take a leisurely stroll along expertly manicured lawns, climb a stained glass tower right out of a fairytale, give your feet a break at the steaming foot baths and learn more about Picasso’s fascinating approach to art at The Picasso Exhibition Hall.
Sip tea at an ancient teahouse
In the middle of a secluded forest of Hakone is Amazake-chaya, an ancient 350-year old tea house. Enter the austere wooden structure where 17th century samurai would stop for sustenance along the old Tokkaido road from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo).
In the hushed atmosphere, sip the house specialty – amazake, a traditional drink made with fermented rice that is naturally sweet. Snack on mochi that’s been toasted over charcoal in 3 flavours – shoyu (soy sauce), soya bean and black sesame.
The tea house has been passed down through 13 generations and the recipe for this glutinous rice cake remains unchanged. You’re tasting the same mochi as the samurai once did!
Soak at an Onsen
A relaxing weekend in Hakone is not complete without the authentically Japanese experience of soaking in an onsen. These hot springs are pools of steaming-hot water are abundant with minerals that are said to be beneficial for the body and mind.
Shed your inhibitions along with ALL of your clothes at the gorgeous outdoor, gender-separated Tenzan Onsen. Admire the traditional Japanese style building set within verdant foliage before cycling through a collection of pools that range in temperature from scalding to ice cold. It’s very liberating once you get over the initial OMG I’M NAKED thing.
If strutting around strangers clad in only your birthday suit is not your thing – fair. Instead opt to stay at a ryokan that offers the use of private onsens.
Frolic in a Pampas Grass Field
It may sound like an odd activity to go look at some grass but the Sengokuhara Pampas Grass Field is a wondrous sight to behold. Expansive rolling fields of susuki (pampas grass) covers the west slope of Mount Hakone for hundreds of meters gently swaying in the wind as you stroll through the wide paths.
The ideal time to visit is in the autumn when the bright green pampas transitions to a brilliant silvery gold by early November. Bonus points for going at Golden hour! Just don’t get lost in the tall fields of grass at night 😱
How To Get To Hakone
Hakone is the perfect weekend getaway from Tokyo as it’s so close. There are 2 ways to get from Tokyo to Hakone:
+ Tokyo Station to Odawara / Odawara to Hakone-Yumoto Station (2 hour trip): This is the budget-friendly option that will require a little more effort and time. The good news is that you can make use of your expensive JR Pass by riding the JR Tokaido Shinkansen train from Tokyo Station to Odawara Station. At Odawara, transfer to the Hakone Tozan train that till take you to the main station in Hakone – Hakone-Yumoto.
+ Shinjuku Station to Hakone-Yumoto Station (75-minute trip): This is the faster and easier route but it’s also more costly. For an additional transportation fare (between 1,190 – 2,080¥) you can board the Odakyu Limited Express Romance Car at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. It will take you directly to Hakone-Yumoto Station, cutting out the transfer and waiting time. No muss, no fuss.
What Is the Hakone Free Pass?
It’s a discount pass that provides unlimited use of transportation – buses, trains, boats, cablecars and ropeways – affiliated with Odakyu Railways as well as discounted admission to selected tourist attractions in Hakone.
Depending on how long you plan on staying in the area, you can purchase a two or three-day pass (we got ours at Odawara Station).
If you’re on the fence about getting it, I must say it made getting around much easier. Instead of fishing around for exact change every time we boarded a bus or cablecar, we’d just flash the pass. Plus, when we’d inevitably board the wrong bus, at least we didn’t have to worry about wasted fare…just time.
Where to Stay in Hakone
+ Hotel Hakone Terrace Annex: Hop off the cable car at the second stop and take a short, scenic walk to this informal hotel amid an idyllic forest. Throw on the provided yukata robes to lounge in and set up camp in a spacious suite was filled with light, comfy beds and a serviceable kitchen.
+ Hakone Tent: A cozy and affordable spot that is accessible from Gora station, spend the night in traditional ryokan-style rooms with futons and tatami mats. In the evenings, unwind in the ancient hot springs located on site.
If you can spare the time, I highly recommend scheduling a quick weekend to Hakone into your itinerary, especially if you’re heading from Tokyo towards Kyoto. You will leave refreshed and rejuvenated after time spent reconnecting with nature.
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