You could spend a life time in Tokyo and still not see everything, which is why many visitors, especially first-timers, focus their time on experiencing everything the Japanese capital has to offer. But if you have a few days and are looking for a break from the hustle and bustle of one of the largest cities in the world, I have a recommendation for a great day trip from Tokyo: visit Hakone.
“What is Hakone”, You Ask?
Hakone is a town, located about 100 kilometers southwest of Tokyo and part of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. It is a popular vacation spot for both locals and foreign tourists. Hakone is most known for its numerous hot springs, striking views of Mt. Fuji, the beautiful and peaceful Lake Ashinoko and black sulphur eggs. There are other attractions as well. A lot of Japanese visit Hakone to experience blooming cherry blossom and azaleas in the Spring. The town is located only a bit more than one hour train ride from the city center, so easy to tackle as a day trip from Tokyo, although you could definitely spend a few days in the area.
Easiest Way to Get There
The easiest way to get to Hakone is by Odakyu Electric Railway. Its express train, called Romance Car, runs from Tokyo’s Shinjuku station to Hakone Yumote station via Odawara. If you are curious about the name like I was, let me explain that the name Romance Car comes from romance seats, meaning two-person seats without a separating armrest (when it was first introduced, one-person seats were the norm).
I know, a bit of a letdown, but you can still make your train ride super romantic by purchasing a bento box lunch (when in Japan…) to enjoy with your special somebody while admiring beautiful views of Mt. Fuji from the speeding train.
The Hakone Free Pass
If you are planning to stay in Hakone for more than one day, you will definitely want to purchase the Hakone Free Pass. This is a 2 or 3-day discount pass, provided by Odakyu Railways, which allows you unlimited use of Odakyu trains, buses, boats, cable car and ropeways. It also includes free admission to several attractions. Many tourists purchase it even if they are only planning a day trip because its convenience. If you are arriving to Hakone via the Romance Car, you will need to pay a slight surcharge, but it is worth it. You can read more about it here.
5 Cool Things to Experience in Hakone in a Day Trip from Tokyo
A quick search on the internet can give you a lot more information about visiting Hakone and everything you can do in the area. Here are five things I liked most during our visit:
Views of Mt. Fuji from the Zooming Train
You’ve seen it in hundreds of photos or paintings, but nothing beats seeing the real thing with your own eyes. Mt. Fuji with its top often surrounded by fluffy clouds is one of the most recognized symbols in all of Japan and quite magical. It was super cool when it came into our view from the flying bullet train for the first time. Definitely lots of oohs and aahs all around us. Have your camera ready because that train is faaast, although I have to say we were able to get surprisingly good shots through the glass windows of a speeding train. Hopefully the weather cooperates during your trip.
Smart Traveler Tip #1: Make sure you are sitting on the right side of the train, pun intended! Yes, this means on the RIGHT, coming from Tokyo. The opposite (left side) is obviously the case on the way back to the city though if you are going for a day trip, you will likely be returning when it is already dark.
Smart Traveler Tip #2: For an extra memorable trip, you can reserve a seat in an observation deck in the front or the back car. Just ask the friendly employees at the Odakyu counter. It does not cost extra, but those seats often book up quickly, especially on the weekends when many local tourists join foreigners to this popular destination.
Soaking in Onsen, the Japanese Hot Springs
Onsen is a Japanese hot spring and since Japan is a volcanic island, there are thousands of them all over the country. Visiting an onsen is one of the most popular weekend and holiday activities for the Japanese and a great cultural experience for foreign visitors.
There are too many to count in the Hakone area, ranging from traditional outdoor baths to modern ones with different themes. Where else but in Japan can one soak in red wine, sake, coffee or green tea? No matter what your pick, you cannot visit Hakone without experiencing at least one onsen. The ultimate onsen experience is spending a night in ryokan, a traditional Japanese style inn with hot spring baths on property. Highly recommend!
The Magic Black Eggs
OK, they are not really black, only their shells are, after being cooked in sulphur-rich boiling water pools. You can find them in Owakudani, Hakone’s famous volcanic valley with many active sulphur vents.
Apparently, eating the black eggs will extend your life for seven years. I’m not sure if those years add up if you have more than one, but you might as well, just in case. I don’t know if it was because we were starving or we believed in their magic, but those eggs were actually delicious.
Cruising on Lake Ashinoko
Lake Ashi as the Japanese lovingly refer to it, was formed after the last eruption of Mt. Hakone. It is yet another (and actually the best) place to take in magnificent views of Mt. Fuji, just hope that the weather cooperates. Seriously, thick clouds or bad weather often block the views of the mountain as was unfortunately the case on the day we were there. Just check out my picture below. This is good as it got. You should consider yourself very lucky if you are awarded bright blue skies and an unobstructed view.
Many tourists like to pile on somewhat comical pirate decorated ships that crisscross the lake in several directions. One of the most popular spots these mini cruises take you is the Hakone shrine (for some great tips on visiting temples and shrines in Japan, read here), but simply gliding down the beautiful and peaceful lake and, hopefully, admiring the views of Mt. Fuji is a lovely and relaxing experience.
Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony at Gora Park
A traditional Japanese tea ceremony is a special ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea, called matcha. It is normally served with traditional Japanese sweets to balance the taste of tea. You can experience it at many places and all over Japan, but there was something incredibly special about the little Haku-undo Tea House in beautifully landscaped Gora Park where the cherry trees just started to open their first blossoms during the time we were there. The experience was very interesting and intimate and the tea was delicious. Such a great way to start our day at Hakone after arriving on a brisk early Spring morning.
Free Private Guide Service
Here is something not every tourist knows about (you are welcome)! You can certainly tackle Hakone on your own, but the many attractions and different transportation options within Hakone can make planning a trip there somewhat confusing or overwhelming. You can sign up for one of the numerous tours available, but there are so many to choose from that this, in and of itself, can be a headache.
There is a cool third option: hire a free private guide. Yes, you read it right! Contact Odawara Hakone Goodwill Guide Club and they will match you with a volunteer Japanese guide who speaks English (or other languages). Here is their website or you can also get in touch via their facebook page. While the guide service is completely free, you are expected to cover any costs for your guide (such as entrance fees) and lunch. Tips are also greatly appreciated as your guide will typically spend a whole day touring around with you and helping you get to know his or her beautiful country.
I love travel, especially to international destinations. I get fired up by unique adventures, memorable experiences, and discovering other cultures. I enjoy sharing it all on my blog, along with my photography and travel tips.
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