We knew we wanted to kick our Japan trip with an extended stay in Tokyo, and research brought us to our second destination, Hakone.
Hakone (pronounced ha-kone-eh) was a unique experience. It’s great for the adventure-seeking-mildly-outdoorsy-types. My style? Retrospectively speaking, probably not. But, hey, it’s good to try new things, right?
To put it in the simplest terms: Hakone just felt like a lot and mildly exhausting. Not to mention, it poured the first evening, the Airbnb was outside of the immediate area in a town called Odawara (which was rather interesting as it was my first experience both sleeping on a shikibuton (a traditional floor mattress) and trying soba noods) and I couldn’t see Mt. Fuji because of the weather, which was one thing I was looking forward to.
Don’t let me discourage you, though. Hakone does have a lot to offer. There are few main attractions that draw people to the area, and all of them are unlimitedly accessible using the Hakone Free Pass. We opted for a 2-day pass, as we were only there for one full day and two nights. We got to Hakone via the JR pass, on board the Shinkansen (otherwise known as the ‘bullet train’) which was absolutely WILD.
The Hakone Shrine
One of the main attractions in the area is the Hakone Shrine, which was astoundingly beautiful (and at which I made a total arse of myself because I yelled at a couple that rowed their boat in between the columns of the shrine, thus disrupting my pictures.) You will have to wait in a line to get your clear, undisrupted shot of the gate. It’s worth it, both for the view in person and the latergram.
In addition to the torii (or, gate) just off the shore of Lake Ashinoko, there’s an actual temple nestled in the forest and at the top of the stairs across from the gate.
Getting around + Other things to see in Hakone
The town of Hakone has a hub around the train station, where there are a few restaurants and shops, and from which you have a few options. I took a train from Odawara to Hakone, where I boarded a bus (I genuinely cannot remember what line we took, so please please, please ask when you arrive if you plan on going). The bus took the group to the top of the mountain, which is where you’ll find both the lake and the shrine. It’s a winding, scaling road, so if you suffer from motion sickness, beware.
You’ll also find a phenomenal waterfront with some restaurants at Lake Ashi, along with a 7/11 to get some pork buns and a road beer, and the Hakone Sightseeing Boat. The boat looks like a modern-day pirate ship, and is another main sightseeing activity in Hakone. I took the boat across the river to the cable car, and it was truly a very pleasant ride and offered incredible views of the shrine and the mountains in the background. You would have an INCREDIBLE view of Mt. Fuji on a clear day, so the clouds were a ~bUzZkIlLl.~
The boat ride bought me to the next activity: the Hakone Ropeway. This is where things got slightly more interesting. Another main draw to Hakone are the black boiled eggs, otherwise known as Owakudani eggs. The hard-boiled eggs have black shells thanks to being boiled in the Owakundani volcanic hot sulfur springs. You can get your hands on these “lucky” eggs by taking the cable car up the side of the mountain and to the peak, where you’d ideally get a fantastic view of Mt. Fuji, and where you’ll find the *smelly* active sulfuric geysers. There’s also a huge commercial area at the peak, so you can grab your eggs, a snack and check out an array of souvenirs (it’s where I got my dish towel from!) Scary looking? Yes. Oddly tasting? Not really. Did it add 7 years to my life? TBD – will update.
I boarded the ropeway for the second time to head back down the mountain on the other side, which brought me to the Hakone Tozen Cable Car. Following? My brain hurts writing this (maybe it’s from trying to remember the route, or maybe it’s the red wine.)
Regardless, I boarded the cable car to head down the mountain via a steep descent, and eventually ended up in Gora. Gora is another small hub where I was able to draw yet another “ordinary luck” fortune (gee, thanks!), and find some gyozas (so, nobody got hurt.) The station in Gora was a short walk to the Hakone Open Air Museum, which is another neat attraction in Hakone.
T’was art, they said.
The Hakone Open Air Museum offers a few different exhibits (think: Picasso), but it’s essentially a massive sculpture park with some incredibly unique pieces of art. Despite the chilly mist, I generally enjoyed the leisurely stroll through the park and even saw a single cherry blossom. Reflecting on all of the artwork we saw, I was particularly entertained by the Symphonic Sculpture, which feels like a clock tower encased by stained glass. The views of the open air museum from the top are fantastic, but inside is simply amazing.
After the museum, I closed off the giant loop by jumping on the Hakone Tozan Railway, and finally the train back to Odawara. It was an interesting day, but consisted of lot of traveling. Regarding timing: I want to say our group set out around 8 AM, and made it to the Open Air Museum by ~4 PM. You can find all of these spots online, but I’ve linked them on a google map here. All of the activities are essentially a part of a loop, so it’s quite easy to get from one part of the journey to the next once you head up the mountain from the Hakone-Yumoto station. The blue dots with the white squares indicate the different points along the way.
We ended up grabbing food at a tiny restaurant near the train station called Kinosuke, where I had amazingly fresh grilled fish, sushi, and sake. There were a few other options nearby, as well. In Odawara, which is actually a rather large town, we ate dinner at a decent spot called Mori-Meshi, and it was the first time I encountered a table fee. We also ate soba at the ‘soba noodle shop’ on Nishiki Street behind the Odawara train station, which was fab. TBH, I can’t remember the name of the Gyoza place in Gora, but if you bop around, odds are you’ll find the ordering window on one of the side streets. It’s not a large area by any means.
It’s worth noting that Onsens, or hot springs, are incredibly popular in Hakone, but because of the Golden Week crowds and the fact that some members in our group had tattoos, options were limited and lines were long. Tattoos are frowned upon in the onsens, and only one in the area allegedly allowed people with tattoos to enter.
Here’s the map showing the loop:
That’s all I’ve got for Hakone. So, would I recommend? I’m sure you’ve been picking up on my mixed signals throughout this post. The truth is: it depends on the type of travel you’re into. I will say that the nature aspect really balanced out the urban metropolis that is Tokyo. In all, if you’re looking for a bit of adventure that’s beyond sightseeing in a concrete jungle, this could be for you!
Stay tuned, as Kyoto awaits!