A first-timers guide to Hakone

Hakone stands as a testament to Japan's natural beauty and cultural richness. Located within the bounds of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, this mountainous area offers travelers a blend of scenic landscapes, hot springs, and a clear view of the iconic Mount Fuji on a cloudless day. As this blog unfolds, readers will be guided through Hakone's winding paths, from the historic Tokaido road, which samurai once traveled, to the modern-day transportation that weaves through the region, offering both convenience and panoramic views. Here, history and progress coexist, offering a travel experience that is as diverse as the landscape itself. Stay tuned as we explore the various routes and the gems that make Hakone a top destination for visitors to Japan.

 

Getting to Hakone

A painting of Hakone, Japan

Reaching Hakone is a seamless experience, thanks to Japan's efficient transportation network. The region is well-connected to Tokyo and other major cities by various modes of travel, catering to different preferences and budgets. For speed and convenience, the bullet train, or Shinkansen, is the preferred option for many, taking passengers to Odawara Station, the gateway to Hakone, in just over half an hour from Tokyo. From Odawara, travelers can transfer to local buses, trains, or even rental cars to continue their journey into the heart of Hakone.
For those looking for a more economical or immersive journey, buses direct to Hakone offer a blend of comfort and scenic views. Rental cars are available for visitors who value flexibility and wish to explore at their own pace. Several travel passes, such as the Hakone Kamakura Pass, Hakone 2-Day Free Pass, and Hakone 3-Day Free Pass, provide considerable savings and convenience for tourists. These passes cover various forms of transportation, including trains, buses, and cable cars, allowing for an unhindered exploration of the area.
Additionally, the Fuji Hakone Pass can be an excellent investment for those planning to explore wider areas, including Mount Fuji and the surrounding attractions. For extensive travelers in Japan, the Japan Rail Pass offers unlimited travel on most JR trains nationwide, which can be a cost-effective option for those traveling to Hakone via the Shinkansen.

 

Arriving at Hakone-Yumoto Station

A group of people in a shopping street near Hakone-Yumoto Station, Hakone, Japan

Upon arrival at Hakone-Yumoto Station, visitors will notice that the station is not just the primary entry point to the region; it is also a place where one can pause and gather resources for the upcoming adventure. The station boasts a range of facilities designed to cater to the needs of travelers. Here, one can purchase the various travel passes that provide access to the multitude of transportation options available in Hakone, which are invaluable for those looking to explore the area with ease and are readily available at ticket counters within the station.
Adjacent to the station is also a charming shopping street, inviting travelers to stroll and indulge in the local crafts and snacks.  In terms of services, the station is well-equipped with tourist information centers, luggage forwarding services, and lockers, making it convenient for visitors to navigate their travels and manage their belongings.

 

The Classic Hakone Loop: Perfect for First Timers

A cable car looking out on Mount Fuji in Hakone, Japan

As you embark on the Hakone Tozan Railway, the oldest mountain railway in Japan, the train zigzags through the dense forests and offers glimpses of rushing rivers. The train's timetable is well-organized, with departures every 15 minutes, and a one-way ticket to Gora costs around 400 yen. This is where you may consider the Hakone 2-Day or 3-Day Free Pass, ranging from approximately 5,000 to 5,500 yen, which covers all your transportation within Hakone, including your next leg on the Hakone Tozan Cable Car.
The cable car ride from Gora to Sounzan is a steep ascent, offering a different vantage point of Hakone's landscape. Once at Sounzan, you can change to the Hakone Ropeway, a remarkable transition from lush greenery to the steaming volcanic valley of Owakudani. Here, you can disembark to witness the area's active sulfuric vents and perhaps try the famous black eggs, boiled on-site in the naturally hot waters, which legend says will add seven years to your life.
Continuing on the ropeway, you will glide over the mountainous terrain to Togendai on the shores of Lake Ashi. This crater lake, formed over 3,000 years ago, is serene and offers a postcard-worthy view of Mount Fuji on clear days. A cruise on one of the ornate ships, included in your Hakone Free Pass, completes the loop, allowing for moments of reflection as you traverse the calm waters. Be sure to disembark and explore the revered Hakone Shrine, discreetly located among the trees at the lake's edge.

 

Alternative Explorations

Lake Ashi with Mount Fuji in the backdrop. Japan

Hakone, with its myriad of attractions, offers a rich tapestry of experiences beyond the well-trodden Hakone Loop. For the return visitor seeking new vistas, alternative routes beckon. One such path leads to the secluded Hakone Shrine Mototsumiya, located at the summit of Mount Komagatake. Accessible via the Komagatake Ropeway, this less frequented site provides a sense of tranquility and a panoramic view of the surrounding national park.
Venture further to discover the Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands, where a collection of marshland flora awaits. The garden offers a peaceful retreat with its boardwalks meandering through lush greenery and ponds, a sharp contrast to Hakone‚Äôs volcanic landscapes. For those fascinated by history, the Hakone Sekisho (checkpoint) is a reconstruction of a crucial Edo-period border control, providing insight into the region's past governance. 

 

The Onsen Experience

An onsen (hot spring) in Hakone, Japan

Hakone's hot springs, or onsens, are a cornerstone of the region's allure. These thermal baths, fed by geothermal waters, provide a sanctuary for relaxation and reflection. Public onsens offer a communal soaking experience, often with views of Hakone's mountainous landscapes, while private ryokans feature exclusive onsen facilities for those seeking solitude. Among the numerous options, Hakone Yuryo and Tenzan Onsen stand out for their picturesque settings and traditional ambiance.
When partaking in the onsen experience, it is important to adhere to local customs. This includes washing thoroughly before entering the baths, keeping towels out of the water, and ensuring a quiet, serene environment for all guests.

 

Hakone's Culinary Scene

Kaiseki dinner in Hakone, Japan

The region is renowned for its Kaiseki cuisine, a multi-course meal that emphasizes seasonal ingredients and meticulous presentation. Visitors can indulge in this traditional fare at many ryokans, where the experience is complemented by the establishment's serene atmosphere. Local specialties reflect the region's natural bounty, with freshwater fish like trout and char being featured prominently in the local diet. These are often prepared as salt-grilled, a simple yet delicious method that allows the natural flavors to shine. Another must-try is the 'onsen tamago', eggs slow-cooked in the hot spring waters, yielding a delicate texture that is unique to this cooking method. For those with a sweet tooth, Hakone offers 'yuba', a skin that forms on the surface of boiled soy milk, which can be served sweet or savory.

 

Workshops and Historical Sites

Hakone Venetian Glass Museum, Japan

Hakone offers a tapestry of cultural experiences that allow visitors to engage with the region's rich heritage. Participating in a traditional tea ceremony provides insight into the meticulous art form that is central to Japanese culture. Many tea houses in Hakone offer sessions where you can partake in this.
For the hands-on traveler, craft workshops dot the landscape of Hakone. From blowing your own glass creations in the Hakone Glass Forest to molding intricate pottery pieces at various ceramic studios, these workshops offer a chance to create your own souvenirs while learning about traditional crafts. 
A visit to the Hakone Sekisho is indispensable for history enthusiasts. This restored Edo-period checkpoint once controlled traffic along the Tokaido road, the highway that linked Tokyo with Kyoto. The site now serves as a museum, showcasing historical artifacts and offering a glimpse into the travel conditions of the past.
Art lovers should not miss the Hakone Museum of Art, where you can immerse yourself in the works of Japanese masters, with a focus on ceramics and paintings. The museum's advance coupon can be obtained through the sponsored link provided and is a convenient way to ensure access to special exhibitions and collections.

 

When to Visit Hakone

A cable car at Hakone, Japan

Determining the best time to visit Hakone largely depends on personal preferences and the kind of experience one is seeking. Each season in Hakone has its unique events and natural displays that can enhance a visit. Spring in Hakone is synonymous with cherry blossoms, and there are few sights as iconic as sakura trees in full bloom against the backdrop of the mountains. The area celebrates this time with festivals and 'hanami' parties, where locals and tourists alike gather under the blossoms for picnics and merriment.
Summer brings lush greenery and the celebration of traditional festivals such as the Hakone Gora Summer Festival, where fireworks light up the night sky. The warmth of summer is also an ideal time for exploring the many outdoor attractions of Hakone without the chill that can accompany other seasons.
Autumn is a favorite for many, as the landscape transforms with vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow. This is the time for the Hakone Daimyo Gyoretsu, a parade that reenacts the processions of feudal lords and their retinues. The cooler temperatures make it comfortable for visitors to enjoy long walks through the Hakone countryside.
Winter, while colder, offers clear days with the most spectacular views of Mount Fuji, especially after a fresh snowfall. The hot springs are particularly inviting during this season, offering a warm respite from the crisp air.

 

Accommodations

A ryokan in Hakone, Japan

Hakone's range of accommodations caters to a spectrum of travelers. Luxury ryokans are at the pinnacle of this variety, offering not just a place to stay but a complete cultural experience. These traditional inns boast exquisite craftsmanship, tatami mat rooms, and often include an onsen facility on the premises, allowing guests to enjoy hot spring baths in privacy. Ryokans typically offer rooms with views that may include serene gardens or the majestic Mount Fuji, making the stay a visual treat as well.
For those seeking a middle ground, comfortable hotels and guesthouses are plentiful, providing modern amenities and a cozy atmosphere. Many of these options still offer access to onsen facilities, ensuring visitors can partake in this quintessential Hakone experience. Budget-conscious travelers are not left out, with hostels and budget inns offering clean and efficient accommodations. These are often well-located, providing easy access to public transportation and local attractions.
When booking accommodations in Hakone, especially ryokans, it is advisable to book well in advance, particularly during peak seasons when the cherry blossoms bloom or the autumn leaves are at their most colorful. Rooms with views of Mount Fuji are highly sought after and typically command a higher price, so early reservations are essential.

 

Conclusion

Hakone appeals to every kind of traveler. Whether it's meandering through the historic trails, unwinding in the warmth of an onsen, engaging in the delicate art of a tea ceremony, or simply savoring the traditional cuisine. Hakone invites you to explore at your own pace, with the assurance that each visit can be as unique as the last. With a landscape that changes its palette with the seasons, from the delicate pinks of spring to the fiery hues of autumn, Hakone is not just a trip to another destination; it's a journey through the heart of Japan's natural and cultural splendor. Whether you seek relaxation, adventure, or cultural immersion, your Hakone adventure is poised to begin.