Approximately 90km west of Tokyo is Hakone – an area on the shore of Lake Ashi (Ashino-ko) with several pretty towns and villages, as well as picturesque views over the lake to Mount Fuji and onsen hot spring baths. The area can be visited in day, but an overnight stay makes for a more relaxing trip – the perfect antidote to the frenetic energy of Tokyo. The tourist route around the area includes boats, buses, cable cars and funicular railways, and a pass can purchased giving you unlimited travel on all of these.
Trains leave Tokyo via Shinjuku to Odawara, where you can change to a local train to Hakone. The Hakone pass can be purchased from Shinjuku station and includes the train to Odawara. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, it might be worth getting on the train at Shinagawa and taking the shinkansen bullet train to Odawara. Odawara can also be easily accessed from Kyoto and Osaka if you are travelling from the west of Japan.
Passes can be purchased at Odawara station that do not include travel to and from Tokyo, which makes them slightly cheaper. Look for the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Centre at the west exit of Shinjuku station or the tourist office on the upper concourse of Odawara station. Both have English speaking staff.
The Hakone Freepass lasts for two or three days and includes unlimited travel on the following routes:
- Hakone-Tozan Railway
- Souzan Cable Car
- Souzan-Gora Funicular Railway
- Lake Ashi Sightseeing Boats
- Local Bus Routes
Buying individual tickets for each of these would easily exceed the cost of the pass (a 2 day pass from Odawara costs ¥3900, while individual tickets would cost ¥6300) so if you plan to do the whole circuit a pass is great value. It also gives you discounted entrance to some of the attractions in the area.
Things to Do in Hakone
The main attraction in Hakone is the scenery (particularly the view across the lake to Mount Fuji) and the hot spring baths. However there are several other things to do around the route should you get bored of relaxing.
Hakone Open Air Museum
A few minutes walk from the Chokoku-no-Mori train station is the Hakone Open Air Museum, a large sculpture park with works by several notable artists. It also includes a large pavilion exhibiting work by Picasso. There is a cafe and foot onsen as well as interactive sculptures for children.
Halfway along the cable car route between Souzan and Lake Ashi is Owakudani. The area was formed by a volcanic eruption in around 1000 BC and there are several lava formations that make the area resemble a moonscape. The other attraction is the sulphur pools where eggs are boiled until black and then sold as a snack. Although they look off-putting, the eggs taste totally normal once the black shell is peeled away.
Pola Museum of Art
A short bus ride from Gora, this museum has an impressive collection of mainly Western art, although there are some pieces from Japanese artists. The building itself is part of the attraction, as the modern gallery sits comfortably in the woodland.
Sovereign of the Seas
Forming part of the Freepass are the Lake Ashi sightseeing cruises. The boats are modelled on a 17th century galleon and cross the lake between Togendai, Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone. Again this is a good place to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji.
Hakone was once a major stopping point on the route between Tokyo and Kyoto, and travel around the country was strictly controlled. This reproduction of the checkpoint near Hakone-machi doesn’t have much for English visitors but is worth a look.
In the 1600s hundreds of cyprus trees were planted along the the route between Tokyo and Kyoto; providing shade in summer and protection from the worst of the snow in the winter. Around 1km of the original path survives and is an atmospheric route between Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone
This picturesque shrine (once frequented by samurai) includes a torii gate in the waters of Lake Ashi. The view from Moto-Hakone with the gate, the lake and Mount Fuji is featured on postcards as well as traditional prints.
There are several hiking trails in the area, and although it is unlikely they will be crowded, the more popular trails can get busy at weekends and during the Japanese holiday seasons. The trails on the Western shore of the lake (accessed from Togendai and Hakone-machi) cover around 8km and are much more peaceful.
The volcanic activity in Hakone means this area has a large number of natural hot springs. These are piped in to bathing houses known as onsen. The water is exceptionally hot and great for soaking away any aches and pains from a day’s worth of hiking.
There are several public onsen in Hakone-Yumoto, including outdoor baths. Many ryokan will also have onsen baths, with more upmarket ryokan even having private baths or personal ones in each room.
For more information about how to visit a Japanese bath read our article on onsen etiquette