A town of steaming onsen hot springs, ancient teahouses and world-class art galleries, presided over by spectacular Mount Fuji and reflected in the mirror-like surface of Lake Ashi, Hakone has it all. What’s more, it’s easily accessible on a daytrip from Shinjuku, Tokyo, a train journey of about eighty minutes on Odakyu Electric Railway's Romoncecar. There are many good reasons to catch the Tokyo to Hakone train – read on for some of the best.
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As a volcanic archipelago, Japan is home to many mighty mountains – but none are greater than Mount Fuji. The highest peak in Japan, Mount Fuji stands at 3776m (12,388ft) tall, and its photogenic cone, covered in snow for half the year, is an instantly recognisable symbol of the country. Countless artists, poets, and writers have drawn inspiration from “Fujisan”, including Hokusai (1760–1849), whose woodblock series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is among the most famous Japanese artworks.
Mount Fuji dominates the landscape around Hakone. Views of the famous mountain are best enjoyed from Lake Ashi, a mirror-like sliver of beautiful blue which hugs the southwestern edge of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park's Hakone Area. Your first port of call on the lakeshore should be Hakone-jinja shrine, the most famous Shinto shrine in Hakone and one of the most picturesque in all of Japan. With the lake on one side and the forest on the other, the entrance to the shrine is heralded by a vermilion torii gate, its base submerged in the waters of the lake. Head up the steps and into the forest and you’ll reach the shrine itself, an atmospheric group of small pavilion-style buildings which date back to 1667.
Having taken in the serene atmosphere of Hakone-jinja shrine, get exploring Lake Ashi itself. There’s no better way to tour the lake than on the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise, run on a trio of luxurious wooden recreations of famous boats. Take your pick from the Royal II, a replica of the French gunship Royal Louis; the Victory, modelled on the famous British vessel of the same name; or the Queen Ashinoko, a beautiful gilded vessel which is the most opulent of the lot. Whichever boat you choose, you’ll spend most of your time gawping at the views of Mount Fuji, and of the beautiful forests which line the shores of Lake Ashi. Be sure to have your camera at the ready for the brief moment during the cruise when Mount Fuji, the surface of the lake, and Hakone-jinja shrine’s torii gate all align, to beautiful effect.
Hakone’s beauty is not only found in its natural landscapes. Its position on the historic Tokyo to Kyoto road has long lent it an important status, and the town’s Edo-period architecture, much of it beautifully preserved or restored, pays homage to that time. Today it’s possible to walk along some of the old route, known as the Kyu-kaido or Tokaido, with the original stone cobbles protruding from the mossy ground. On the way, you can stop for refreshments at the atmospheric Amazake-Chaya, a historic teahouse which dates back some four hundred years. After thirteen generations, this place is still run by the same family, who have carefully preserved its clay-and-beam walls and thatched roof. Step into the dimly lit interior and order the house speciality, the eponymous amazake. This hot, sweet, non-alcoholic rice wine goes down a treat with a mochi, a cake made of glutinous rice.
Suitably refreshed, exit Amazake-Chaya and continue on foot, following the road south for around fifty minutes to find the Hakone Checkpoint. Alternatively, catch a bus – the journey will take around thirty minutes. In the Edo period, this was where travellers and their possessions were inspected before being allowed into and out of Hakone. Officials were partly on the lookout for weaponry that was being brought into the city, but much of their energy was focused on keeping the families of the feudal lords, who did not have freedom of movement, within the city limits. In 2007, the checkpoint was restored to its former glory, and now looks exactly as it would have done when it was a working checkpoint. Impressive entrance gates lead on to soldiers’ quarters, a prison cell and a watchtower. Museum exhibits of guns and pottery, and reconstructions of everyday scenes using life-size mannequins of people and animals, give a feel of what life would have been like here when the checkpoint was originally established in the 1600s.
Mount Fuji and Lake Ashi understandably get most of the attention in Hakone, but they are not the only sites of natural beauty in the area. Owakudani is a volcanic valley in the north of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park's Hakone Area. There are many fumaroles here, emitting clouds of steam, and the surrounding rocks have turned yellow with sulphur crystals. There’s a desolate, otherworldly beauty to the valley which contrasts with the lush forests which surround most of Hakone. The best way to experience it is from above, by riding the Hakone Ropeway from Togendai station, on the north shore of Lake Ashi. Disembark at Owakudani and you can buy kuro-tamago (black eggs), eggs boiled in the hot springs. While these taste just like normal eggs, the sulphur in the water turns their shells jet black; it’s even said, perhaps a touch optimistically, that eating one adds seven years to your life. While Owakudani’s springs are far too hot to bathe in, Hakone has plenty of onsen where you can go for a relaxing dip. The best-known is Hotel Hatsuhana, a Japanese-style hotel with both private rooms with private baths and open-air baths, looking out over waterfall-dotted gardens.
For a cultural fix in Hakone, check out the town’s acclaimed art museums. The Hakone Open-Air Museum sits on a grassy hillside in the east of town, dotted with sculptures by world-famous artists including Rodin and Henry Moore; there’s also a permanent indoor exhibition of works by Pablo Picasso. Nearby, the Okada Museum of Art houses a spectacular display of art from Japan and across East Asia, while the Pola Museum of Art contains works by Matisse and Van Gogh.
If you're visiting Hakone, it is worth purchasing the Hakone Freepass. The pass includes eight rides, including the Hakone Mountain Bus, the Hakone Sightseeing Boat and the Hakone Ropeway, as well as discounted entry to 70+ facilities in the area, such as the museums.
Header image: Mount Fuji landscape © Odakyu Group