Known for its hot springs, sprawling nature, and majestic views of Mt. Fuji, Hakone is one of the most popular side trip options from Tokyo. Only an hour and a half ride by train, it is near enough for a day’s worth of excursion. However, the best way to consume its beauty is to wind down and appreciate it slowly. If you do decide to linger, it’s pretty easy to fill up your days with sightseeing and other interesting activities. To start, here are the 10 best things to do in the area:
1. Have a relaxing stay at an onsen ryokan
Stop time and relax at any of Hakone’s famous onsen ryokans, where the area’s mountainous regions serve as the setting for the most indulgent baths. The special water springing from under the earth is said to be therapeutic; and combined with verdant scenery and crisp mountain air, it makes for a pampering like no other. While an overnight stay is most recommended, there are onsen ryokans that also allow walk-in bathers for the day. Prices depend on the establishment, but you can easily find a listing that fits your budget.
2. Get on the Hakone sightseeing cruise at Lake Ashinoko
Lake Ashinoko is a scenic lake which has become the symbol of Hakone, along with Mt. Fuji. It teems with activity in and around its banks, and perhaps the most popular among visitors is the sightseeing tour on board its elaborately-decorated water vessels that look like warships. The cruise has three routes to choose from that takes passengers around the three docking ports situated along the different parts of the lake. Each port serves as an access point to the other attractions in the area such as the Hakone Shrine, Hakone Ropeway, Hakone Checkpoint, and popular hiking trails. On clear days, a lakeside view of Mt. Fuji stands magnificently in the background; though this is more of a rarity than a common occurrence. For the tickets, both one-way and round-trip fares are offered by tour operators. Choose what fits your itinerary best.
3. Visit the Hakone Shrine
The red torii gate floating on the banks alongside Lake Ashinoko’s Moto-Hakone Port area serve as the gateway to this shrine nestled on the hillside of Mt. Komagatake. From this unmissable marker, an uphill path flanked by lanterns cuts through a dense forest cover of giant cedar trees. This pavement then leads its visitors to the shrine’s main halls; structures that date back to as early as the Heian Period. A place steeped in history and nature, Hakone Shrine is one of those sites with a commanding aura. It possesses magnetic beauty and tranquility at any given time of the year.
Address: 80-1 Motohakone, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture
Website: http://hakonejinja.or.jp (Japanese only)
4. Try the black eggs at Owakudani and appreciate the view from Hakone Ropeway
There are many ways to get around Hakone, and if one with a bird’s-eye view appeals to you, then you must definitely hop on the Hakone Ropeway. The Hakone Ropeway is an aerial lift service that stretches from Sounzan Station near the town of Gora to Togendai Station located on the northern shores of Lake Ashinoko. The end-to-end journey takes about 30 minutes, which is as scenic as it can get when Mt. Fuji appears at a distance on days with good visibility.
On the other hand, a more regular highlight of this course is a stop at Owakudani Station, the site of an active volcanic valley of the same name. Its desolate landscape is a stark contrast to the lush vegetation of nearby mountains. Volcanic gasses escape from cracks on the earth and an odorous smell overwhelms the air. A ten-minute uphill walk from the ropeway station leads to the Owakudani Visitors Center. Aside from the landscape, be sure to immerse yourself in the local tradition of eating Kuro-Tamago. These are charcoal-black hard-boiled eggs cooked in Owakudani’s sulphur-rich hot springs. It is believed to have longevity effects on the body, where one egg is equivalent to about seven additional years to one’s lifespan.
Website – Hakone Ropeway: http://www.hakoneropeway.co.jp/foreign/en/
Website – Owakudani Kuro Tamago Kan: http://www.owakudani.com (Japanese only)
5. Get scenic mountain views while riding the Hakone Tozan Railway
One of the key aspects of touring around Hakone is to experience it through various modes of transportation. This list has already named sightseeing boats and aerial lifts, but this time around, a scenic train ride around and through mountains is the highlight. The Tozan Line actually starts from Odawara Station, which is the main point of access to trains bound for Tokyo, but it is from Hakone-Yumoto Station going further west is where things get interesting. This section is serviced by smaller vintage trains and travels through many bridges, tunnels, and gorgeous passing landscapes. It is especially beautiful in June and July when a portion of its tracks are lined with hydrangeas in full bloom. Autumn is likewise charming for its display of forest fall foliage. The Hakone Tozan Line Railway ends at Gora Station, where most travelers continue on their journey to Lake Ashinoko via the nearby Hakone Ropeway platform. The stations in between, on the other hand, serve as access points to other popular destinations like Hakone Gora Park and the Hakone Open-Air Museum.
6. View Mt. Fuji from different vantage points
There are many places in Hakone from which to view Mt. Fuji. In and around Lake Ashinoko alone, there are four areas designated as prime viewing spots for Japan’s most famous peak. Hakone Ropeway is another popular alternative, but besides these two, there are actually a number of remaining options. You might want to consider the view from Mt. Daikan though – in particular, near the Tozan Bus’ Daikanzan bus stop. It is especially pretty because of its multiple summits view. There’s Fuji, of course. And on top of that, Mt. Komagatake, Mt. Kamiyama, and Japan’s Southern Alps are likewise picture perfect.
7. Go on an easy hike along the ancient highway Hakone Kyukaido
There’s no better way to appreciate Hakone’s natural gifts than to walk and be in the midst of it. Those who are up for a good exercise won’t get disappointed with the abundance of trail options. Most interesting one would have to be Hakone Kyukaido – a section of the ancient Tokaido highway that connected Tokyo to Kyoto during the distant time of the feudal lords and samurais. Back then, Hakone was the site of an important checkpoint and its reconstructed replica near the Hakone-machi pier now marks the start of the present-day Kyukaido trail. Following this preserved stone pavement leads to as far as Hatajuku, and in between, hikers can pass by Amazake Chaya – a historic teahouse that had been serving Tokaido travelers for over three centuries. It usually takes about 2 hours to complete the course, a relatively easy walk under the shade of trees.
Address: Hatajuku Hakone, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture
Website: http://www.hakone.or.jp/midokoro/ishidatami.html (Japanese only)
8. Check out an art museum or two
Perhaps it’s the abundance of nature that inspired so much art in this rural town. Hakone is surprisingly home to a good number of museums and galleries, and the thoughtful use of sprawling space to engage in art makes the experience even more richer. The best example for this is the Hakone Open-Air Museum – an outdoor exhibition of numerous larger-than-life art installations across a 70,000 square meter park. Likewise amusing is the made-up world of Petit Prince Museum based on the popular book by Antoine De Saint-Exupery.
Hakone Ope Air Museum
Address: 1121 Ninotaira Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture
Petit Prince Museum
Address: 909 Sengokuhara, Hakone, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture
9. See the Susuki grass fields of Sengokuhara in autumn
Sengokuhara lies in the northern part of Hakone and is known for its hot spring resorts, art museums, and stunning landscapes. Unique to the area are its massive fields of susuki or pampas grass that cover the western slopes of Mt. Hakone. These plants turn from green to golden as the autumn months approach, and walking in its midst is truly a sight to behold and a surreal experience. Imagine a golden sea that goes on for miles. Anyone who gets to see it will surely be captivated by its beauty.
Address: Sengokuhara Hakone, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture
Website: http://www.sengokuhara.net (Japanese only)
10. Spend a luxurious night at Fujiya Hotel, one of Japan’s oldest Western hotels
Hakone offers a lot of options for accommodations, but if you want luxury and a piece of history combined in one place, there’s no better hotel to check-in to than at Fujiya Hotel. This is one of Japan’s oldest and grandest hotels. Founded in 1878, it is now a complex of five buildings, each featuring its own design aesthetic with four of its five properties registered as important cultural assets. Experience-wise, it offers a touch of both Japanese and Western hospitality. And on top of all these, guests can enjoy private onsen bathing in the comfort of their own rooms. Many notable personalities have stayed at Fujiya Hotel over the course of its more than a hundred year’s existence. Book a night’s stay and have something in common with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, John Lennon, and royalties from the world over.
Address: 359 Miyanoshita, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture
Thumbnail image is from Flickr.