Among the top weekend getaways from Tokyo is to Hakone, some 100 kilometers southwest of the Japanese capital. Hakone may not be as historically packed as other day trip favorites like the former shogunate capital Kamakura or world heritage town Nikkō, but Hakone compensates by having gorgeous views of Japan’s tallest and most revered mountain, Mount Fuji. Add a picturesque lake and a touristy mix of transportation modes, and you get a fantastic destination that makes an excellent day trip (or two) from Tokyo.
The Hakone Round Course
The Hakone Round Course is a round trip through Hakone using a mix of mountain railway, cable car, ropeway, sightseeing cruise ship, and bus. The loop begins and ends in Hakone-Yumoto, the terminal station of the Odakyu Odawara line from Shinjuku. While the usual sequence is to do the Hakone loop in a counterclockwise direction, our group decided to do a clockwise loop to take advantage of good weather in Lake Ashi in the morning. As I have experienced in a previous Hakone trip, fickle mountain weather makes all the difference between a successful Fuji sighting and a failed one.
I would recommend getting a 2-day Hakone Free Pass (JPY 5,140 from Shinjuku, can also be purchased anywhere on the Odakyu line for less) by Odakyu railways when doing the Hakone round course to eliminate the hassle of paying for every ride. The ticket covers one round trip to and from Tokyo’s Shinjuku station to Hakone, and unlimited rides on the Hakone Tozan Railway, Sounzan Cablecar, Hakone Ropeway, Hakone Sightseeing Boat, and Odakyu-affiliated buses within the Hakone area. There are discounts on some attractions in the Hakone area as well. The 2-day pass will still pay off when visiting Hakone in one day.
Hakone-machi, or simply Hakone (machi means town), on the shores of Lake Ashi, is our first stop. We arrived at Hakone-machi on a bus from Hakone-Yumoto. Low-hanging dark clouds obstructed our view of Mount Fuji at first, but as the sun rose higher in the sky the cloud cover gradually gave way to a breathtaking panorama of snow-capped Mount Fuji.
As seen from Hakone-machi, Fuji’s snow cap is just beginning to form (this was early November) and is more pronounced on its north face. On closer look, we could actually see the trails leading up to the peak of the mountain.
We lingered in Hakone-machi a bit longer and went to two attractions in the area: the Hakone Detached Palace and the Hakone Checkpoint.
The Hakone Checkpoint is a recreation of the Edo period outpost which controlled access to and from the Tokugawa shogunate’s new capital Edo (present-day Tokyo). Hakone was on the old Tokaido highway linking Kyoto and Edo, and the checkpoint was used to prevent weapons from being brought to Edo.
The Hakone Detached Palace used to be a summer villa of the Japanese Imperial family. Today the palace grounds is open to the public. Its well-manicured grounds have a nice view of Lake Ashi and Hakone Shrine’s torii, and since it was a fine day, Mount Fuji was present in the background.
Hakone-machi to Togendai to Sounzan
We then crossed Lake Ashi from Hakone-machi to Togendai on the Hakone Sightseeing Boat. The lake crossing takes around 30 minutes on the un-Japanese-looking pirate ship boats. The deck is spacious enough for photo-ops but after some time our faces felt numb from the cold wind and we scurried to the lower deck.
From Lake Ashi’s shores at Togendai, the Hakone Ropeway takes visitors 300 meters up to Ōwakudani (elevation 1,044 m), then down to Sounzan. On fine weather, the ropeway provides a scenic vista into the mountains.
On not-so-fine weather when visibility is not good, the Hakone Ropeway becomes a thrilling ride into the unknown. This photo was taken on a previous Hakone trip (late March) when we did not check the weather forecast beforehand. Result: visibility was poor, we did not see Mount Fuji, and we were underdressed for snow!
At Ōwakudani, ropeway passengers need to get off and transfer to the descending leg. Before transferring, we went outside the station to take a look at Ōwakudani – the “Great Boiling Valley”. This is a volcanic valley with sulphuric vents and hot springs. Eggs that are cooked in the Ōwakudani hot springs turn black — hence the name kuro-tamago (black eggs) — and eating an egg is said to prolong one’s life by seven years. Aha… are these eggs the secret to Japanese longevity? Eating three or more, however, is considered greedy (probably a subtle way of preventing cholesterol-related diseases).
Sounzan to Gora to Hakone-Yumoto
The Hakone Tozan Cablecar traverses 1.2 kilometers between Sounzan and Gora. The trip take 10 minutes to ascend/descend the altitude difference of 214 meters between terminal stations. In November, the mountainside autumn hues make the cable car ride more scenic.
Finally, the last transportation mode to complete the Hakone round course is the Hakone Tozan Railway (This is the first ride from Hakone-Yumoto for those on the counterclockwise loop). The Hakone Tozan Railway traverses the 445-meter altitude difference between Gora (553m asl) and Hakone-Yumoto (108m asl) in about 40 minutes. On the wooded mountainside, the terrain is so steep that the train reverses three times on switchbacks (like zigzag mountain roads).
The Hakone round course is an excellent way to sample the sights of the Hakone region. On an early start, one could also drop by the other recommended sights which are within walking distance of stations such as the Open-Air Museum (Chokoku No Mori Station, Hakone Tozan Railway) and the Museum of Art (Koenkami Station, Hakone Tozan Cablecar) and still finish within the day.
The Gotemba Premium Outlets, Japan’s largest outlet mall, is also nearby but we did not include this in our itinerary due to lack of time (and shopping money?). The mall is reachable by bus from either Togendai or Gora.