Hakone is famous for its many onsen, ryokan and gardens. As the nearest nature spot accessible from Tokyo, Hakone is a worthwhile option for tourists visiting the capital city. It is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, the most popular nature travel destination in Japan. Since my return from Hakone, multiple friends have asked for tips for when traveling to the area. I’ve decided to write a full guide for Hakone, together with more exclusive photos from our trip that were previously unreleased.
Hakone is located in the Kanagawa Prefecture near the eastern coast of the Sagami Nada Sea about 100 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. The vast volcanic mountain region is less than 30km from the base of Mount Fuji.
Hakone is accessible from Tokyo by taking a train from Shinjuku station. JR East railways services the journey there but the most cost effective means to get to Hakone is via Odakyu lines instead.
The Odakyu Electric Railway is one of the major train companies in Japan. The company runs many of the local transport at popular sightseeing destinations and as a result, they are able to offer many all inclusive travel passes from Tokyo to Mount Fuji, Enoshima, Kamakura, Izu and Hakone among other areas.
The Hakone Free Pass covers a two way trip from Tokyo to Hakone and free unlimited transport within the region, for the duration of the pass.
A 2-day pass costs 5000 yen and a 3-day pass costs 5500 yen. Children need only pay 1500 yen and 1750 yen respectively. For even just a one day round trip, purchasing the pass will save an adult 1330 yen and a child (1690 yen).
You can purchase the Hakone Free Pass from the main counter at the Shinjuku Odakyu station. You can also purchase the pass from any other Odakyu station in the country and the fare will be adjusted to reflect the distance from Hakone.
Tip: The Hakone Free Pass is basically a normal train ticket, that isn’t “eaten” by the barriers upon arriving at your destination. You will be able to ride freely at any transport within Hakone (up to Odawara and Gotemba) by presenting the stub. The ticket will only be kept by the train barriers on your return to Tokyo. Be sure to keep the ticket safe and not to give it to anyone before that.
Also note note that some of the information on the English Odakyu page (and thus any travel site which derived their information from there) may be wrong. According to the English site, you can actually save some money from purchasing the Free Pass with a one way trip to Tokyo from Odawara. However this is grossly inaccurate. The official Hakone site has the most accurate data so refer to there instead.
The only benefit to purchasing the Hakone Free Pass from within the Hakone area is if you came from somewhere else and Tokyo is your next destination.
The most confusing part about the Odakyu line to Hakone, is that there are actually 3 different train services on the same line, they are named Express, Rapid Express and Limited Express.
Despite the name, the Limited Express is actually the fastest of all 3 trains. It is the means of transport most publicized to tourists and is commonly referred to as the Romance Car. The Limited Express Romance Car will take you all the way to Hakone Yumoto (the main stop in Hakone) in only 85 minutes. However, to ride the Romance Car you will need a normal ticket plus a 850 yen boarding charge (1700 yen two way). This additional charge is not covered in tickets or the Hakone Free Pass and you will be charged if you board the train.
Tip: Unless 15 minutes of your time is worth the 850 yen surcharge, I would suggest taking the Rapid Express train instead.
Express and Rapid Express
With just your train ticket or Hakone Free Pass, you are able to ride the Express and Rapid Express trains. Both of these are identical trains that run on the same line, but the Rapid Express ignores the last few stations thus reaching about 13 minutes earlier. The Express is identifiable from its red sign and the Rapid Express is orange. Both of these trains only go as far as the adjacent city of Odawara. The Express takes 85 minutes to reach Odawara and the Rapid Express takes 72 minutes. You will have to take an additional local train to Hakone Yumoto (15 minutes).
Your first from Tokyo will either be Odawara or Hakone Yumoto. You may skip this section if you came by Romance Car.
Odawara is one of the oldest cities in Japan. As the closest city area to Hakone, it serves as a transit point to the region. Odawara station is built adjacent to some of the city’s shopping streets so you can easily drop here for refreshments if you wish. The Odawara Castle is also located just beside the station. Unless you are staying overnight at Hakone though, you probably won’t have much time to spend at Odawara on the way to Hakone.
To get to Hakone Yumoto from Odawara, hop onto an adjacent line in the station. The local train service and the Hakone Tozan Line both travel between Odawara and Hakone Yumoto.
The Hakone Tozan is a small two carriage train is identifiable by its traditional look and bright red color. Hakone Yumoto is 4 stops down and 15 minutes away. The journey usually costs 300 yen but like all other transport in the region, is covered by the Free Pass.
Hakone Yumoto is the main town in Hakone. You can stop here for refreshments and to check out the souvenirs. Many Ryokan inns also make Hakone Yumoto their home.
Most of the restaurants here specialize in Soba but there also also a few shops selling warm or packed snacks. There are also grocery stores catering to the locals.
As the first stop for most people visiting Hakone, Hakone Yumoto also has the widest selection of tourist shops in the area. The souvenirs here tend to be more expensive than normal but still cheaper than further stops in Hakone. The locals specialize in wood crafts like Yosegi and Kokeshi.
Due the the mountainous terrain, travel in Hakone is complicated beyond Hakone Yumoto. To get to Gora from Odawara or Hakone Yumoto, you will need to take the previously mentioned Hakone Tozan Line. Gora is the last stop on this line. Without the Free Pass the price of a ticket from Hakone Yumoto or Odawara costs 350 or 650 yen respectively.
The line scales the forested mountain slowly after Hakone Yumoto station. To minimize the impact on the environment, the train has to stop and switchback 3 times. Despite being only 15 kilometers away, the trip to Gora from Hakone Yumoto takes 40 minutes.
Gora is the next hub in Hakone after Hakone Yumoto and is famous for its greenery. The Hakone Open Air Museum, Hakone Museum of Art (MOA) and Gora Park are located here. Admission fees are required for all 3 gardens.
The wine and ramen hot springs that caught the internet’s attention back in 2007 can also be found here. They also offer green tea, coffee and sake baths.
Some of the most luxurious hotels in Hakone are located around Gora. There are also various gourmet cafe and restaurants in the area. These cafes carry specialty desserts that are available in quantities of as little as 10 a day.
Gora is 553 meters above sea level.
Stops past Gora have to be accessed by the Hakone Tozan Cable Car. Despite its name though, the Hakone Tozan Cable Car is really a inclined electric railway. The small two car vehicle services 4 stations from Gora before stopping at the peak of Sounzan. The journey from Gora to Souzan takes only 9 minutes in the modern vehicle. It is free with the Free Pass but costs 410 yen otherwise.
The Pola Museum of Art is accessible from the 2nd and 3rd stops. Those visiting the other museums in Gora are better off walking from the main Gora station.
Sounzan is populated by local residences and more inns. It has little to offer beyond serving as the terminal for the Hakone Ropeway. There is a large car park here that also serves as an open air viewing spot. You can stop here to admire the spectacular view from 767 meters above sea level.
To get to Owakudani, you will have to switch to the Hakone Ropeway at Sounzan station. The Hakone Ropeway is a series of three gondolas linking Sounzan all the way to Lake Ashi. Owakudani is the first stop on the line. The trip lasts about 5 minutes. A single trip usually costs about a thousand yen but is once again covered by the Free Pass.
The Hakone Ropeway holds the Guinness Record for the busiest gondola lift in the world.
Literally translated, Owakudani means “Big Boiling Valley”. This active volcanic zone is one of the key destinations in Hakone. The first sight of Owakudani is a large sulfur mine. The gas is emitted from natural and man-made vents, filling the entire area with a pungent smell.
Hot springs pools are scattered along the side of the mountain but these are not for bathing. Due to the close proximity to volcanic activity, the water reaches a boiling temperature, shrouding the mountain in steam.
Tip: The gases here are poisonous and it can lead to breathing difficulties when coupled with the high altitude.
Owakudani is famous for its variety of Onsen Tamago (hot spring eggs) that it calls Kuro Tamago (black eggs). The Kuro Tamago are hard boiled eggs cooked inside the hot springs. The egg shells turn black due to the high sulfur content of the springs but are otherwise identical to normal hard boiled eggs.
According to the shop sign eating each of these eggs adds 7 years to your life. It is unknown where this fable is derived from and I found no evidence to suggest that this was anything more than a gimmick by the shop. Seeing as how it only costs 500 yen for a pack of 5 eggs, there is no harm in trying them out.
You can purchase the eggs directly from the shop on the far side of the mountain or at the canteen near the station. The eggs are ferried over by a cable contraption down to the nearer eateries. For the full experience though, you will have to make the climb.
Those seeking a more unique culinary experience should try the truly black Chinese Century Eggs (Pei Dan) instead. If you are in Japan, you can find them over at Yokohama’s Chinatown.
The canteen at Owakudani sells ramen together with the spring eggs. The shop also sells soft serve ice cream made from the milk of Hakone cows. The canteen as well as the shops at Owakudani station, sell various boxed snacks but at marked up prices.
Tips: There are some snacks unique to Hakone but others can be bought from Tokyo Tower for half the cost.
Owakudani is the highest point at Hakone at more than 1044 meters above sea level.
A separate section of the Hakone Ropeway continues from Owakudani to Ubako and then Togendai.
Ubako is a slightly smaller mountain (878 meters tall) a couple of kilometers from Owakudani, some hotels and onsen are located here but most of the land is occupied by residences and trees.
Those continuing to Togendai need not leave the cable car.
Togendai station is the northernmost terminus for the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise. Odakyu operates ships to ferry passengers between 3 points of the Lake Ashi. The ships are disguised as gaudy pirate ships.
Lake Ashi is a giant crater lake formed by the collapsed volcano. At 740 meters above ground, the tour is reputed for its beautiful view of Mount Fuji (though you can easily see Fuji from the higher Owakudani).
If you intend to take a full round trip, take note of the time the last ships leave each port. For most of the year, the last ships leave Hakonemachi, Moto Hakone and Togendai at 4.20, 4.30 and 5.00 pm respectively. During winter, the ships cease operation an hour earlier.
The journey between the adjacent Hakonemachi and Moto Hakone takes only 10 minutes but the other two trips take 25 minutes. For a full round trip, you will need to set aside at least an hour and make sure that the service doesn’t end at any point.
A round trip will usually cost you 1780 yen but is covered by the pass. The second floor “first-class cabin” costs an additional 490 yen but is hardly worth it since the deck is open to all.
The cruise will pass by a few landmarks, including an iconic red torii gate on the lake. Mount Fuji will be visible from the lake but only during clear weather.
Tip: Transportation at Hakone will take up a good portion of your time so it is essential that you arrive in Hakone early if you intend to catch a ferry ride later in the day.
Where to go from here?
Staying overnight at Hakone will mean that you will able to move about more leisurely at Hakone. Most of the accommodations in Hakone charge premiums for the location but there are some affordable alternatives.
Tip: It is not necessarily a good idea to stay in Hakone overnight if you intend to head for Fuji the next day as the bus from Hakone to Fuji takes longer than a the train from Tokyo.
For those that do not have the fortune of staying, there are buses from all 3 lake terminals that will take you back to Hakone Yumoto or Gotemba. Note though that many shops around Hakone start closing from 4 pm. Those at Hakone Yumoto open till 5 or 6 pm. If you still are in the region after hours, you will have to rely on the more urban adjacent cities of Gotemba or Odawara.
Tip: Note though that some of the bus services in Hakone do not run during Winter due to the heavy snowfall in the Hakone mountains. The Hakone Ropeway ceases operation at 5 pm so be sure to head back earlier during this season.
For more pictures of Hakone, you can refer to my previous phototour here.Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.