We decided that a trip to Hakone had to be included on our winter trip when we woke up one morning in Tokyo, flung open the curtains of our room at the Hotel New Otani and were greeted with an amazing view of Mt Fuji set against a clear blue sky. A few days later on another super clear morning we jumped on an early bullet train and half an hour later we were in Odawara. We stopped into the information centre and picked up the ‘Hakone Free Pass’ and were on our way.
This pass was great value for us and there are a couple of versions to suit your travel needs. If you don’t have the JR Pass you can get the version that starts at Shinjuku in Tokyo, otherwise jump on the Shinkensen at Tokyo or Shinagawa stations and you’ll get there faster and save a couple of dollars. The base pass is for 2 days but it’s still great value for a day trip, then there’s a 3 day version if you’re staying a couple of nights. The ticket we purchased was Y4000 (just over $43 Australian dollars). It covers all the transport you’ll need, the Tozan train and cable car, the Hakone ropeway, a sightseeing cruise on Lake Ashi and a variety of buses between locations too. You can use all of them multiple time and in either direction. You also get discounts from dozens of museums, restaurants, onsen and other attractions by showing the pass.
I’ll link up another article here to give more information and to help you decide whether the Hakone Freepass is good value and if it might work well for you.
The variety of transport on this circuit and the amazing views they provide are a big part of this trip. We did the course anti-clockwise and if we did it again we would probably have double back after exploring the attractions at the southern end of the lake to enjoy the ropeway a second time. The bus was a faster way back to Odawara from Motohakone-ko but didn’t add much to the trip for us.
Hakone Tozan Train
From Odawara station where we’d arrived on the shinkensen we took the train on the Odakyu line through to Gora. It’s a pretty standard older style train but very clean and comfortable as you come to expect in Japan. There are plenty of windows and we sat on the left hand side which gave some gorgeous views as it meandered along its 40 minute route.
The train is built to climb the steep mountain slopes through the heavily planted area and over the 43 metre high Deyama Bridge. I would imagine this route would be stunning in all seasons.
How gorgeous is the snow – probably not so much if you live with it all the time but for someone from the sub-tropics it is definitely photo worthy. I had expected snow up the top of the rope-way but seeing it along the route was a definite bonus. The clear blue winter sky really makes it extra special.
Hakone Tozan Cable Car
From the train station in the onsen town of Gora you walk to the adjacent cable car station. It looked a pretty town and I’d have liked more time in our schedule to explore a little on foot. Once on the cable car it’s only a 9 minute ride up the hill and the views along the way are stunning, make sure you get a seat by one of the huge windows. Then at the top of the cable car is the first rope-way station.
The ropeway was amazing, each carriage has huge windows that provide amazing views of the mountain and the valley below. The full ropeway from Sounzan to Lake Ashi takes 30 minutes but you’ll get off in the middle to explore Owakudani.
Three thousand years ago Mount Hakone erupted leaving a crater that is known today as Owakudani. The area remains an active volcanic region with hot rivers and springs and the ever present smell from the sulphur fumes. It’s sometimes called Hell Valley which may be a throw back to the name O-Jigoku meaning ‘great hell’ which the area was known as around 150 years ago.
You can walk up to see the the kuro-tamago (black eggs) being boiled in the natural springs, the minerals turn the shell black but inside it still looks like a normal boiled egg. Legend says eating one will extend your life 7 years but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, I hate everything about boiled eggs. There are plenty of weird and wonderful things I’ll eat on my travels but a boiled egg, well heck no! Incidentally legend also says you should eat no more than 2 so don’t go trying to make yourself immortal.
The view of Mt Fuji were unbelievably good from up here but I believe it does depend on the day so if you can pick a clear one it’s best, otherwise Fuji-san might be off hiding in the clouds and you’ll never know it’s there.
I also loved this small Buddhist alter near the entry to the walk up to the hot springs. The Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi who founded the Shingon sect in Japan visited this spot 1000 years ago, he prayed for those suffering in the hell realms and placed a statue of the Bodhisattva Jizo. Today the Enmei Jizouson Temple stands here.
Hakone Sightseeing Cruise
From Togendai the pirate boat cruises the length of lake Ashi to Moto-Hakone-Ko. The views of Mt Fuji are also pretty stunning from the lake but the day was starting to cloud over as the afternoon progressed. I would imagine in other seasons the hillsides would be really pretty but with just a dusting of winter snow they were quite brown and bare.
At the southern end of Lake Ashi is the Hakone Checkpoint. During the Edo period this was an important checkpoint on the Tokaido highway that linked Tokyo and Kyoto. Recent work has restored it to a structure consistent with that time with gates, fencing, a lookout, prison and housing for the officers and soldiers.
Also further on from here is the cedar walk, a segment of the old Tokaido highway. There was a good covering of snow on the ground so it wasn’t possible to tell on the day we went but I believe some of the original highway stone paving is visible here during most of the year.
A bit further on again you’ll come to the Hakone Jinja (Shinto shrine). It’s set into the forest but you’ll see the torii gates as you approach from the Moto-Hakone road. Once inside walk down to the lake and you’ll see a ‘floating’ torii, it’s much smaller but a similar concept to the one at Miyajima island.
We pretty much called it a day from here and headed back using the local bus service which was also covered by the pass. With a day trip unless you’re fast travellers it’s difficult to fit much more in although we did spend longer than we planned at Owakudani and had lunch there as the views out to Mt Fuji were just so good. If I was back in the area again I’d definitely add the Hakone Open Air Museum (art gallery) which we had planned to loop back to at the end of the day if time hadn’t run out. Also an overnight trip would allow you to make use of the hot spring onsens that the area is renowned for, several of the hotels have these available for guests.
There’s free Wifi too!
You might have noticed that free Wifi isn’t as easily available in Japan as it is in many western countries. This was a surprise to me given how technologically advanced Japan is. There are personal wifi options for travellers and some free connections available if you know where to look.
This day trip however will make it easy for you to look up information or Instagram gorgeous pictures of your day using the Odakyu Free Wifi for international travellers. There are blue signs with the international wifi symbol showing where it’s available but it’s at the various stations, ports and on the boat as you go around the course.
Have you visited the Hakone area either on a day trip or longer stay? Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts on your experience and your favourite spots in the area.