Last week I had a chance to really get out of the house and see a region not too far away from Tokyo famous for hot springs, mountains, a great view of Mount Fuji and a choice of different kinds of transport to take you about the place. Hakone is not only very popular with Japanese people, but there were plenty of foreigners out and about. It was a worthwhile trip with just one drawback. Once again it was a cloudy day, and once again I missed out on getting the perfect photography of Mount Fuji! If you’ve followed my life in the last three years you’ll know that one thing I’ve never managed is a good photo of Mount Fuji. It still alludes me with two weeks left in Japan.
So anyways, Hakone! To get to this adventure playground you have to take a train from (presuming you are in Tokyo) Shinjuku, or another station. From Shinjuku you can pay just over 5000 yen ($50) for a ‘free pass’ which will get you there and back and give you transport on all the different kinds of transport there are at Hakone. I went from Shin-Sugita, and bought the free-pass at Odawara station. This free-pass is 4000 yen and includes all the transport but not to Tokyo, just to and from Odawara station. Either way you save a fair bit of money.
The circuit is well worn and easy to pick up, and if you are a little lost it’s not likely to be for long because there are so many people doing the circuit – just follow the crowd. This here below is the map of the region, from the tourist website http://www.hakonenavi.jp/english/
This is a pretty good summary of what you do.
You take another train to Hakone-Yumoto, included in both passes, and then transfer to another railway where you’re on a sort of two or three carriage train. You go up the mountain on this, including a couple of switch backs – where the train comes to a stop and starts going in the opposite direction. I alighted at the station before the end of the line, which was handy for the Hakone Open Air Museum. It was a Wednesday, in the middle of a full working week, and I was very surprised by the amount of people in the carriage here – it was absolutely packed!
This is regarded as a highlight of Hakone, the open air museum felt kitsch at first, but actually it’s a really lovely place, full of gardens and sculptures and galleries, including a Picasso gallery and a tall tower that allows a great view of the surrounding area, whilst being a little hairy to be honest. The circular tower’s exterior is covered in beautiful stain glass windows, and inside is a spiral staircase to the top. I thought it looked rather cool so I set off up the spiral staircase, and after two levels with about four or five remaining, I suddenly realised I was getting out of my comfort zone! I made it to the top alright but coming down was a little stressful to be honest!
It’s really interesting, the Open Air Museum, although to be fair it’s more of an Art Gallery than a museum. It also had a pretty decent buffet restaurant where you can eat your fill for just under $20. The train took me to Gora where I changed conveyances to a dramatic cable car ride up a very steep hill. It moved very slowly up the hill, with stations only 100 metres or so apart. From there it was another transfer to a rope way, you know, when you are dangling in a cabin from a cable. We continued up until we’d reached about as far up as we could go, and then the ride took us over what looked like a mining area, but was in fact a whole bunch of hot underground springs.
Well, that done the train took us to the end of the Hakone Tozan line at Gora. The cable car line starts there, at the same station but pointed straight up a pretty steep hill. The cable car itself is diagonal in shape, and it was a short wait before one came, and we were off again up the steep slope to Sounzan.
Once at Sounzan – the ride had taken about 20 minutes – it was another change of conveyance, onto a ‘rope-way’, you know, it’s a cabin connected to a thankfully strong cable, not a rope. I guess they started out that way. There were plenty of cabins, about 8-10 people could fit inside, so it was a bit more roomy this time. Away we went, ten metres, twenty metres maybe more above the mountains.We got off at the first station in an area full of springs, Owakudani. Smoke billowed from holes on the side of the mountain. The most impressive part was coming in to Owakudani, looking down at the smoke and the pipes and buildings.
They tap the springs and pipe the hot water to the many onsens in the Hakone area. It’s what Hakone is most famous for locally. Love and onsen here, and that’s the truth. The area had that sulphur/egg smell from the steam and smoke.
Once at Owakundani, you walk up a hill to where there is a pool of water and a place where they boil eggs in the special water.The eggs turn out black on the outside (the shell) and people love to buy them. My mother in law bought a bag of five for 500 yen, and we ate them that night. And no, they didn’t taste more ‘egg’ than eggs! Actually they tasted just like your standard boiled egg.
If you want to learn more about the area and the way they pump the water, you can check out the Geothermal Museum, although to be honest there wasn’t much there of interest. This museum, and several others (including the Open Air Museum) offer a small discount if you are a free pass holder.
The rope way continued to the next stop which is supposed to be a good lookout for Mount Fuji, but with too many clouds in the part of the sky, it could not be seen. The final stop of the rope way ended at Lake Ashi, the stop called Togendai, where we transferred onto a ship that was a little bit like a pirate ship. You could even pose with people dressed up in ye olde getup!
The ship took around 40-45 minutes to get to its destination at the far end of the lake, the views were beautiful but Mount Fuji was just a little too far to be seen with the clouds around. I walked to Moto-Hakone via the old highway which is surrounded by beautiful, tall cedar trees. There a bus took us back to Odawara. It was after 5pm by now, it had been quite a day, and it was time to head home. There was a lot of fun in taking so many different forms of transport, although it seemed a bit of an anti-climax to finish on a local bus. I was pretty tired.
Consider Hakone if you come to Japan, with the free pass it’s a good day trip from Tokyo. If you’re mostly seeing the cities in Japan, it’s a great option to get away from that for a day, although it is very popular – don’t even think about going on a weekend or public holiday. It’s not really that expensive when you consider what you get, especially from Shinjuku because the train fare from Shin-Sugita to Odawara was 862 yen one way, and that’s not even half the distance that Shinagawa is from Odawara.
For more writings on Japan, why not check my ebook on Amazon? Short Journeys: Japan