If you are planning a trip to Japan, one of the things that you must see is Mt. Fuji (lovingly referred to as Fuji-san). While you can see Fuji from Tokyo on a clear day, I would really recommend taking a day to visit Hakone. The day after our arrival in Tokyo, my brother and I set off early to Odawara, dropped our things off at our hostel, and set off to Hakone to see Fuji in all its glory. I should mention that we got really lucky in seeing Mt. Fuji. He is notoriously illusive and likes to hide behind thick fog on most days, so even if you are in Hakone, you may not see him very well, if at all.
Hakone Free Pass
The Hakone Free Pass really is going to be the best way to see Hakone on a budget. We took a train from Tokyo to Odawara using our JR passes and then purchased our free passes at Odawara Station. You can also purchase them at Shinjuku Station, but it will cost a bit more. The free pass can be purchased for two or three days. We only used it for one day, but that was still cheaper than buying our own tickets for the day. The passes are ¥4000 at Odawara station for a 2-day pass, coupons for different temples and museums in the area, and pair of lovely chopsticks. You have some options as to where you want to go, but the attendant who sells you the pass can give you some advice if you are unsure. They were very helpful to us. Once we received our passes and maps(in Spanish, because they ran out of English), we headed to our first train in anticipation of what we were soon to behold.
After obtaining the Hakone Free Pass, we boarded our train at Odawara Station and traveled to Gora. This was just a quick stop for us. We grabbed some sandwiches and warm drinks and waited to get on the cable car to Sounzan. It gets colder as you go up in elevation, so plan accordingly. From Sounzan, board the Hakone Ropeway to Owakudani. Owakudani is also known as the Great Boiling Valley. This is due to the sulfuric geysers leading up to the hot springs. Once you arrive, you have to try the hard boiled eggs (Kuro-tamago). These eggs are boiled in the hot sulfur spring, and are black in color. Legend has it, that each egg you eat will add seven years to your life. However, they do not recommend eating more than two, because we aren’t meant to live that long and it may be unlucky. The Owakudani Valley was formed 3000 years ago due to the Hakone Volcano erupting. There are walking trails in the area, however, many of them have been closed, or are closed at certain times due to the hazards of the steam vents.
There is a shop and restaurant at Owakudani. However, what you really want to see from here is the magnificence of Mt. Fuji. The country’s tallest peak, Fuji-san is one of Japan’s three sacred mountains. If you are a hiker, you should absolutely hike to its summit. Fuji-san has been a popular pilgrimage site for centuries. We were in no shape to be hiking up mountains, so we simply enjoyed the view of this iconic mountain, before moving on.
After Owakudani, we took the Hakone Ropeway to Togendai. From here, you will obtain your ticket to the boat that will take you across Lake Ashi. I say boat, but it is actually an awesome pirate ship. The Japanese sure have some flair(or know how to bring in tourists)! Once you board the boat, you will have the option to sit inside, or stay out on deck. We stayed outside as long as possible in the cold winds. Watching the mountains and small towns flow by makes the cold air slightly more bearable. By this point, you can only see Fuji-san’s white cap peaking out over the mountains and trees. The ship took us to Hakone-machi where we disembarked. If you wanted, you could stay on the boat and get off at Moto-Hakone-Ko. It just depends on what you want to do!
There is plenty to do in this area. The Hakone Ekiden Museum and the Natural Museum are close to this port. However, we decided to walk to the Hakone Checkpoint. This was an important checkpoint along the Tokaido Road, which connected Kyoto and Edo(now Tokyo). The historical purpose of this checkpoint was to prevent large quantities of weapons coming into, and to prevent women hostages from escaping Edo. Not the best. The original checkpoint, along with many others, was taken down in 1868 by the Meiji government, however, it was reconstructed in 2007 for its historical value. You can pass through for free, but if you want to see inside the checkpoint buildings and museum, you will need to purchase a ticket for a mere ¥500.
From the checkpoint, we headed to Onshi Hakone Park. This park was originally a summer retreat for the imperial family. However, it was destroyed due to multiple earthquakes and never rebuilt. The land was given to Kanagawa Prefecture and turned into a public park in 1989. It is a beautiful park with impressive landscapes and a lakeside view. Visit the Lakeside Observation Building and have a cup of tea and snack as you gaze out over Lake Ashi. Inside the building, you can view documents and other items related to the construction of the Hakone Palace. A walk around this park is so lovely and serene. I love being surrounded by gardens and nature. The flora is so well cared for that it just feels like a special place.
End of the Road
From here we hopped on a bus to head back to Gora. We had hoped to visit the Hakone Open Air Museum, but it was already near closing, so we just wandered around for a while and then headed back to Odawara. We visited the Odawara Castle grounds that evening. Japan is so lovely in the spring. People gather on the grounds, having picnics and just enjoying the cherry blossoms. We wandered around until we found a place to have a small meal of chicken fried rice, shrimp tempura, and miso crab soup served in its shell. Very tasty!
We stayed in hostels all but one of the nights while we were in Japan. In Odawara, we stayed at Plum Hostel, which was perfectly comfortable. Hostels aren’t for everyone, but they are a great way to meet other travelers along the way. We crossed paths with some travelers in multiple locations. If you are a solo traveler, I would recommend hostels, as they frequently plan events and outings for the people staying there to get to know each other.
So ends our time in Hakone. We had an awesome adventure almost as soon as we arrived in Japan. This set the pace for the rest of our trip. If you are planning a trip to Japan, you should absolutely consider spending a day or more in Hakone. It gets you out of the big city and into the stunning mountains of Japan. If you are planning on traveling by train, read my post about transportation in Japan here. Next stop, Hiroshima!
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