Hakone is highly recommended if you’re spending a few days in Tokyo with very limited time to see the countryside.
A municipality in the Kanagawa Prefecture, Hakone is famous for Lake Ashi, onsen (hot spring), and as a spot from where to view Mt. Fuji. It is so popular that, according to the Wall Street Journal, 20 million tourists visit the destination every year!
To get there, purchase the Hakone Freepass in Shinjuku Station. This is a packaged, discounted roundtrip ticket via Odakyu line between Shinjuku and Hakone. It also includes transportation within the destination (bus, sightseeing cruise, ropeway, and cable car) and complimentary or discounted entrance to Hakone’s attractions.
For an extra fee (Y890), you can ride a faster Shinjuku-Hakone train called Romancecar. It takes around 1 hr 25 mins from Shinjuku to Hakone Yumoto using this express train.
If you’re not on a hurry, though, note that the ticket is valid for two days. You can stay for a night in Hakone and return to Shinjuku using the ticket the next day. (There is also a ticket valid for three days.) Hakone has several attractions spread out in various transport routes, perfect for travelers who prefer immersion in a destination.
Day tour of Hakone
Once you’ve arrived in Hakone-Yumoto station, you can choose how you’ll explore Hakone by following various routes.
We chose the itinerary mostly taken by tourists: Hakone-Yumoto to Motohakone-ko by bus, sightseeing cruise to Togendai-ko, ropeway to Sounzan, cable car to Gora, and a train ride back to Hakone-Yumoto. Here is a map of the possible itineraries you can take.
The bus going to Motohakone-ko takes about 40 minutes. From here we walked and passed by attractions like the Ancient Cedar Avenue and the historic Hakone Checkpoint. Mt. Fuji would have been a marvel in autumn, but it hid behind the clouds throughout the day.
Tip: If you’re unlucky as we were, you can see Mt. Fuji by touring Fuji Five Lakes and/or Mt. Fuji 5th Station.
Upon arriving in Hakone-Machi-ko pier (the pier right after Motohakone-ko), we rode the sightseeing cruise traversing Lake Ashi, a crater lake. While the ships look medieval, they were built with state-of-the-art capabilities that make them convenient to the general public. For instance, the Victory ship has its own elevator and fixed LCD screens which travelers can refer to track the ship’s path.
The sightseeing cruise is typically followed by the ropeway that begins in Togendai-ko. Unfortunately, only a part of the ropeway system is navigable since the rest has been closed due to volcanic activity. The facility’s management offers a regular bus transfer to Sounzan, which is supposedly the last station of the ropeway.
Here in Sounzan we met Gora-san, barista/owner of Cafe Ryusenkei, what could be the smallest cafe in Hakone. Gora-san was a music industry executive when he decided to brew coffee for a living.
Converting an old train car into a cafe, his shop occupies a space on a parking lot with a 180-degree view of Tokyo Bay. While you’d find some familiar favorites on his menu, he only sells a few specialty coffee items: one full-bodied and bitter, and a blend with bright acidity, clear and smooth.
An advantage of having the Hakone Freepass is complimentary entrance to some attractions such as the Hakone Gora Park. From Sounzan, we dropped off in one of the stations of the cable car to historic park — Japan’s first French-style garden.
Hakone transforms each season, and it is picturesque year-round. While autumn was just beginning in Tokyo when we arrived in mid-November, the trees were already in full orange bloom by the time we came to Hakone (autumn came much earlier in Mt. Fuji).
While Mt. Fuji hid behind the clouds, Hakone more than made up for it!