Hakone is a mountainous area to the west of Tokyo. Besides its close proximity to Mount Fuji, it is also famous for the many onsen (hot springs) with over 290 hot spring sources. There are reviews on the internet commenting that onsen in Hakone is overrated, and some even mentioned “it feels like you have arrived twenty years too late”.
I agree there’s nothing much to do besides the oversold touristic attractions. However, we had a truly pleasant short stay, appreciating the quiet and slow pace of the town (after dawn when the day tourists left town). And we also discovered some very intricate and honestly, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) traditional crafts.
We visitied Hakone as part of our 2 weeks Japan trip beginning of this year. It was sort of our winter holiday. We covered Tokyo, Kyoto (and Kobe), and Hakone.
Getting in and around
Since we had planned to travel to a few cities, we got the 7 day Whole Japan JR pass.
Tip: If you are doing return Tokyo – Kyoto, plus one more other trip, it is cheaper to get the Whole Japan JR pass, as opposed to buying single tickets. Return Tokyo – Kyoto shinkansen costs 28,220 Yen, while the 7D Whole Japan JR pass costs just a little bit more at 29,110 Yen. Get your 7D Whole Japan JR pass from Klook at lower price. And if it is your first time using Klook, use my referral link for extra travel credits!
So, we took the Tokaido shinkansen from Kyoto to Odawara. From Odawara main station, be sure to stop by the Tourist Information centre. The staffs over there are well conversant in English, and they can advise you with all your Odawara and/or Hakone travel plans.
We bought the 3 days Hakone free pass. From Odawara station, it is 4,500 Yen (40 USD), which includes unlimited rides on 8 transportations, and discounts to tourist attractions within Odawara and Hakone. The 8 transportations include,
- Hakone Tozan train : Train connecting Odawara to the rest of Hakone
- Hakone Tozan cable car : Connecting Gora (541 m elevation) to Sounzan (750 m elevation)
- Hakone Ropeway : Connecting Sounzan and Togendai-ko to Owakudani, the volcanic valley (1044 m elevation)
- Hakone Sightseeing Cruise : Onboard a pirate ship
- Hakone Tozan bus : connecting different parts of Hakone,
- and other buses connecting nearby towns, e.g. Gotemba
Check out the many other benefits and freebies from the Hakone Free Pass!
Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels and home stay accommodations in Hakone. We wanted to try out Ryokan, traditional Japanese inn, and set out to finding one with private onsen.
We found this quaint Ryokan near Naka Gora station (between Gora and Sounzan on the Hakone Tozan cable car route), Hakone Gora Kanon.
In Ryokan, you don’t get beds like those you expect from a hotel. Instead, you are provided with tatami (Japanese mattress), and you need to set them up yourself. It was quite a fun experience having to manoeuvre the table, tatami and our things throughout the day.
Check out the Ryokan we stayed on Airbnb. They have larger family rooms which can fit more people. The Ryokan has two private onsen, which are free to use. You just need to leave a sign at the door to indicate it is being used.
Tip: Be considerate and don’t hog the onsen for too long, as other guests may be waiting.
CAUTION: Be mindful of the last cable car from Gora station, i.e. 1905 hrs. If you missed it, there are only two options to get up, i.e. taxi (about 800 Yen), or walking (about 900 m – not so fun during winter).
What to do
Of course, we had to do the usual tourist attractions of Hakone. From our Ryokan, we took the cable car followed by bus to Owakudani volcanic valley. However, it was too cold to do the trail, let alone staying outdoor. So, we just tried the black eggs (hard boiled in hot springs), which are supposed to be good for health. But, it is not appetising at all!
From Owakudani, we took the Hakone Ropeway to Togendai-ko, from where we boarded the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise, which is included in our Hakone Free Pass. Onboard the pirate ship, we cruised around Lake Ashi, which is this massive lake around the caldera of Mount Hakone, situated 724 m above sea level!
From the cruise, you can also see the infamous Hakone Shrine.
We didn’t bother to visit the Hakone Shrine. We didn’t think we would be impressed again after our visit to Fushimi Inari.
We disembarked the pirate ship at Hakone Machi-ko station. And from here, we walked through Cedar Avenue, which is this pathway lined by 30 m high cedar trees of more than 350 years old! There are only about 400 trees left, which is why there are signages warning people from hurting the trees.
We walked all the way to Moto Hakone-ko. And from there, we took the Hakone Tozan bus to Tenzan Tohji-kyo, the largest public onsen in Hakone. To get there, take the K bus from Moto Hakone-ko and alight at Oku Yumoto Iriguchi. Bus map in link.
At Tenzan Tohji-kyo, you need to first buy an entrance ticket from the vending machine outside the premise. The entrance fee is 1200 Yen for adult, 630 Yen for child. After you got your ticket, move inside, and you’ll find lockers to keep your shoes. You then present your ticket to the staff at the counter, and buy a small towel (if you didn’t bring your own), before they direct you to the onsen access.
The men and women are separated. Some basic etiquettes to using public onsen,
- In the dry room, take off your clothes, and store them in the many lockers provided.
- It may feel awkward if it is your first time, but just let loose, and after awhile, the awkwardness will go away, it almost feels like in that slight moment, everyone is equal.
- DO NOT stare at others’ junks. You don’t need to make someone else feel uncomfortable.
- From the dry room, you move over to the shower station, which is a row of stools and shower heads. Clean yourself thoroughly before you enter the pool.
- When inside the pool, don’t play and make loud noises. You can chat, but softly. The onsen is place for people to come and relax.
- DO NOT bring your towel with you into the pool as it is not hygienic.
- If you feel giddy, get out of the pool and take a rest on the bench (if you plan to do more).
- After your onsen session, you may want to shower off again at the shower station.
- Make sure to dry yourself before entering the dry room again.
Tenzan Tohji-kyo has 6 pools, some indoor and some outdoor, and all with different water temperature. You want to start with the lowest temperature first, so you don’t thermal shock your body. If you are there during winter, you really must try soaking in one of the outdoor pools, under the snow! It is out of this world!
After a nice hour we spent at Tenzen Tohji-kyo, we headed home, taking the K bus again to Hakone Yumoto, followed by the Hakone Tozan train to Gora. We reached Gora past 1905 hrs, so we had to walk the 900 m back to our Ryokan.
During our stay, we were amazed by some of the traditional crafts. First is the Yosegi, which is traditional Hakone marquetry. This is some serious OCD craftsmanship at work! It takes different coloured wood, glued together to form intricate patterns, and lastly shaved thinly to be glued onto other surfaces. Check out the steps in link.
Another Hakone traditional craft we discovered by accident is Karakuri. We were walking towards the Hakone Tokaido checkpoint, and saw this shop that we assumed sells souvenirs. We went in and bought a few more Yosegi coasters. And after paying for it, the owner gave us two complimentary tickets to the Sekisho Karakuri museum, which we had no idea is inside the said shop.
She led us to the first puzzle, which is a door, that we couldn’t open even by force. And then she showed us the trick to open it, and we were fascinated! We went on inside to “try” and decipher a few of the other Karakuri. It was fun, we spent more than an hour inside! You should totally check out this “underrated” museum!
What to eat
As for food, we didn’t particular had any memorable dining experiences in Hakone. However, when at Odawara, you MUST try this Michelin guide Chirashi don (chopped sashimi on rice).
The restaurant doesn’t have an English name. You have to try your best to find it using this, 小田原魚河岸でん. Google maps location in link.
Coming out of Odawara main train station, you want to keep left, until you reach a little alley. You should be able to identify 7-Eleven. The restaurant is directly opposite 7-Eleven.