An absolutely serene getaway from the action-packed capital, Hakone is scenic, slower paced and far more relaxed than Tokyo. It is famous basically for three things: Mt Fuji and its surrounding landscape, onsen and art museums. And our interests sat in that order. Getting there was easy, with our JR passes we could get a free shinkansen to Odawara station and then transfer (via bus or train) to Hakone Yumoto, or it is possible to book a Romance Car which goes direct. Either way, I would definitely recommend the Hakone Free Pass (which we bought from Shinjuku Station, but I’m sure could be done at most train stations in Tokyo, or at least the main ones). It cost us ¥4000 each, and gave us unlimited transport in Hakone for 2 days (we thought it was still worth getting the pass, even though we were only there for one day). Getting around in Hakone was also easy – there are an abundance of buses, as well as a cable car, gondola and boat – which all link together to form a loop track around Hakone. Hakone Yumoto is essentially the gateway into Hakone. There is a very informative tourist information centre across the road from the train station entrance, where they speak good English and are very helpful.
We decided to do the Hakone loop in a counter clockwise direction. This would enable us to do our ‘touristing’ earlier on, hopefully leaving us enough time to visit an onsen in the afternoon. We caught a bus from Hakone Yumoto to Moto-Hakone. During this hilly, scenic bus trip we first noted that the weather was worse than we hoped – very cold and extremely windy. We walked along to Hakone-jinja (about 5 minutes), a big shrine with beautiful torii (gates). There was a water gate which was a cool photo spot, but really emphasised how windy it was because the water from the lake was spraying up and hitting us! From here we walked 15 minutes through the wee township (Bakery & Table looked like a great café) and along the waterfront to Cedar Avenue. We then entered the nearby park, with low expectations of seeing Mt Fuji due to the weather. We were in luck though – the clouds cleared just as we arrived and we managed some pretty beautiful snaps. My GOD, it was STUNNING!
From here, we walked through the Hakone Checkpoint (we didn’t pay the fee required to explore the area, rather we just used the path through) and found ourselves on the wharf, where we were informed that zero boats were running due to the bad weather. We were a bit disappointed, because what the idea of a boat trip had sounded super fun. Instead, we had to jump back on a bus, transferring at Yunessun (an onsen amusement park) to Gora Station. Further disappointment awaited: due to high winds, the 4km long gondola (which goes over the volcanic crater of Owakudani) was also not running. Noooooooo! All we could do was catch the cable car to the top… and then turn around and catch it back down again. Nevertheless, that is what we did (and it was warm and comfortable in the gondola, unlike the cutting wind outside). The view from the top of the car stretched so far, I can only imagine the glorious views we would have had if we had been able to ride the gondola.
Apparently you can get off the gondola to take a closer look at Owakudani. On some days, increased volcanic activity means that the gondola doesn’t operate (a far more exciting for not being able to ride than high wind!). Eggs that have been boiled in the volcanic waters are for sale around the area, they are black (!!) but supposedly fine to eat.
We arrived back at Gora Station just in time to make the train heading back to Hakone Yumoto. We got off a stop early and walked to Hakone Yuryo, a day onsen just a few minutes’ walk from the main train station (and with a free shuttle bus). Our bad luck hadn’t finished; no private onsen were currently available, and none would be available for at least a couple of hours. So we headed back to the station, where we visited the information centre for other onsen recommendations.
I think that being from beautiful New Zealand (where there are hot springs galore) and being on a budget led us to the decision of not having an onsen in Hakone. We didn’t want to pay $50 for a hot tub in a room, nor did we want to naked spa in separate facilities (i.e. a public onsen. We both would have if we’d been with friends of the same sex, but we just had little desire to do it by ourselves). We would continue to search for a private onsen experience elsewhere. I would still recommend Hakone Yuryo though, just make sure you make a booking in advance if you want a private experience (conveniently, their website is in English). If I could go back I would, I would probably choose to stay overnight just to allow for bad weather interfering with transport, and also to explore the area a little further. I would also make sure I booked my onsen in advance! The area is super beautiful and if you are someone who loves the outdoors, I would absolutely recommend it. It is a very relaxing spot. Unfortunately, Hakone was probably the low point of our trip in terms of successfully seeing what we set out to do, but it is definitely a fond memory!