Friday, February 13, 2009


The view of Mount-Fuji over Hakone Lake is one of the picture-postcards of Japan. As every tourist spot in the country, Hakone can get overcrowded. People who lined-up for two hours to board the cable card will indeed have a bad memory, especially if they were rewarded with a view on … the clouds in front of the famous volcano. However, outside of the busy period and if the weather is fine, Hakone will be an unforgettable trip only one hour away from Tokyo: the volcanic activity, outstanding views and pleasant hikes will make the perfect getaway to forget about Tokyo. Hakone is a nice place to spend a night. It should be part of any trip of Kanto (Tokyo region) that could also include Nikko, Kamakura, a trip in the mountains and the Izu peninsula.
There is plenty to see and do there, but the trip from Tokyo is also interesting in its own right. The “Romance Car”, a special service of the Odakyu company, offer a few panoramic seat with a direct view on the railroad (the driver’s cabin is elevated in order not to spoil the view). As the train goes through the whole Tokyo suburbs from the major urban center of Shinjuku, this is probably one of the best ways to get an overview of the city. High-rise buildings soon make the way for ordinary suburb condos, with a surprising number of detached houses even close from the city center. Near every station, the urban density increases, with more condos and commercial buildings. There are only a few rice or vegetables fields at first, but at some point, they occupy most of the land, and the typical Japanese countryside landscape appears: small rice fields and always some hours nearby. After crossing a few hills, the train crosses the small town of Matsuda (松田), and Odawara (小田原), before making its way through a narrow valley to Hakone Yumoto (箱根湯本).
Hakone Yumoto is a trendy hot spring (onsen) station from where the Hakone-Tozan (箱根当山) train starts. You may wish to enjoy the Fujiya “Classic Hotel” near Miyanoshita station (宮ノ下駅), which is also an outstanding place just to have a drink or a tea, and you may want to go there just to buy the “Curry Pans”, with a reputation as some of the bests in the country. This is a much quieter place than Hakone Yumoto. Gora station (強羅駅), the final station of the Hakone-Tozan line, is also a nice place to enjoy onsens. There are many isolated hamlets around with one of two onsen hotels for those of you who prefer to be surrounded by nature. If this was not enough for you hotspring-wise, the Izu Peninsula is only a few minutes train from Odawara, especially Atami station, which is now back in fashion.

Hakone is located in a collapsed crater of a volcano, and the famous lake is the lowest point of the resulting “caldeira”. The last eruption was 3000 years ago, and created the lake Ashinoko (芦ノ湖) and the Owakudani valley. Between Hakone Yumoto and Ashiko lake, Owakudani (大涌谷) looks like Hell's gate. Sulphurous smoke gets out from the ground, and there are numerous hot springs. This being Japan, a special souvenir food was created for the place: Black eggs « kurotamago » (黒玉子), are boiled in volcanic smoke. They are supposed to make life 7 years longer if eaten with moderation, a very convenient custom to increase sales. You can reach Owakudani from the cablecar and the ropeway from Gora.
The main reason to come to Hakone is for the outstanding views of Mount-Fuji. They are at their most impressive between the end of Autumn and the start of Spring, when the mountain is still covered with snow, and the weather clear enough to see he volcano. One of the most pleasant places is a garden located on the site of a former imperial residence (onshi-hakone, 恩賜箱根) in a small peninsula halfway between Moto-Hakone (元箱根) and Hakone-machi (箱根町). Following the standard tourist itinerary, Moto-Hakone can be reached from the boat starting near the cable car terminal at Togendai (桃源台). One should be prepared for a reproduction of a French ship of the line, or a Mississippi steam boat, and should remind that eclectics is a very important part of Japanese culture. Once in Moto-Hakone, the garden can be reached by a pleasant 15 minutes walk in a very pleasant alley bordered by old pine trees following the lake shores. This is a section of the historic Tokaido road. After visiting the garden, you can continue your walk on the road heading to Hakone-machi, and you will find the old custom gate of Hakone (HakoneSekisho, 箱根関所). This used to be the entry of the Kanto (literally meaning “east of the gates”) region, and could not be crossed without a special permit. The control of domestic travel was one of the bases of the power of the Tokugawa shogun, who ensured he always had hostages from all the warrior clans in the capital to guarantee internal peace.
From Moto-Hakone, a pleasant trip is the old Tokaido road, called Kyukaido (旧街道), which goes down the mountain to Hakone Yumoto. As may hikes in Japan, it is a pleasant way to enjoy the forest which covers this narrow valley. Hiking boots are compulsory. It can be surprising that the main road of ancient Japan was so narrow, but ancient roads, such as the famous Roman roads, were never actually used to move goods, as this was very costly: business was made by boats on rivers and sea, so roads were used only by travelers and by the army. After one hour of walk, you will come across Amasake-Chaya (甘酒茶屋) which offers welcome warm “sake”, and a small museum presenting the old Tokaido road. After 45 additional minutes, you will reach the small Hatajuku (幡宿) village, which is specialized in wooden boxes, of course sold in many souvenir shops. From the village, you can continue the walk down to Hakone Yumoto (which would take half a day in total), or take the bus to the village.

Practical Information

The Romance Car will set you back Yen 2020 from Shinjuku to Hakone Yumoto, there are approximately two trains per hours. A “free pass” is available to non-residents for Yen 5000 (38 Euros) for 2 days or Yen 5500 (42 Euros) for three days. The company site gives detailed information in English:

The classic tourist itinerary from Hakone Yumoto includes the Hakone Tozan train from Hakone-Yumoto to Gora (Yens 390 one-way), then the Hakone-Tozan train to Sounzan (早雲山), and the cable-car (Hakone Ropeway, 箱根ロープウェイ) to Togendai (桃源台) (Yen 1330 (10 Euros) one way, Yen 2340 (18 Euros) return).

Although the trains and cable cars are pleasant, the most convenient way to reach Moto-Hakone is the bus : 40 mintes from Hakone Yumoto (Yen 930 (7 Euros) one way).

Summer should be avoided, as Mount-Fuji will certainly be hidden by the mist. Official Japanese holidays will bring great crowds, so Hakone is also better avoided at that date: golden week from April 28th to May 5th and New years holidays around January 1st.

This map provided by the Japanese tourism Information Bureau is very convenient:

The « Secret Japan » site gives many useful tips on hot springs in the region:

The official Hakone site lists 17 onsen hot springs. (

The woodprint shown here is issues from the “53 stages of Tokaido” (東海道五十三次) series from Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重)

You may want to continue reading and organizing your trip with those stories about “Classic Hotels”, “Onsens” and the “Izu Peninsula”.

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