South of Mount Fuji and 90km west of Tokyo is the lakeland, mountain and onsen area known as Hakone (箱根), always busy at weekends and holidays. Most visitors follow the well-established day-trip route, which is good fun and combines rides on several trains or buses, a funicular, a cable car and a sightseeing ship, styled as a seventeenth-century galleon, across the lake, Ashino-ko. However, the scenery is so pretty, and there’s so much else to do – such as seeing great art at the Hakone Open-Air Museum and the Pola Museum of Art, not to mention soaking in numerous onsen – that an overnight stay is encouraged. Weather permitting, you’ll also get great views of nearby Mount Fuji.
The traditional day-trip itinerary, described below, runs anticlockwise from Hakone-Yumoto, gateway to the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, then over Mount Sōun, across the length of Ashino-ko to Moto-Hakone, and back to the start. Approaching Hakone from the west, you can follow a similar route clockwise from Hakone-machi, on the southern shore of Ashino-ko, to Hakone-Yumoto.
From Tōgendai (桃原台), a shoreline trail winds along the western side of Ashino-ko (芦ノ湖) to the small resort of Hakone-machi some 8km south, taking around three hours to cover. The western lakeshore, forming part of the Prince empire of hotels and resorts, is not covered by the Hakone Free Pass and so is somewhat marginalized – and all the more peaceful for it. However, most visitors hop straight from the cable car on to one of the colourful sightseeing ships modelled after the seventeenth-century man o’ war The Sovereign of the Seas, that regularly sail the length of the lake in around thirty minutes. Boats also run from Tōgendai to the Prince hotel resort at Hakone-en, midway down the east side of the lake, where there’s a cable car up the 1357m Komaga-take (駒ヶ岳), from where there’s a fabulous view.
A cluster of upmarket hotels and ryokan can be found at Hakone-machi, where the sightseeing boats dock. This is also the location of the Hakone Barrier (箱根関所) through which all traffic on the Tōkaidō, the ancient road linking Kyoto and Edo, once had to pass. What stands here today is a reproduction, enlivened by waxwork displays which provide the historical background. There’s nothing much to keep you here, though; instead, stroll north of the barrier around the wooded promontory, past the bland reconstruction of the Emperor Meiji’s Hakone Detached Palace, and take in the views of the lake.
Part of the Tōkaidō, shaded by 420 lofty cryptomeria trees planted in 1618, and now designated “Natural Treasures”, runs for around 1km beside the road leading from the Hakone Barrier to the lakeside Moto-Hakone (元箱根) tourist village. The prettiest spot around here is the vermilion torii gate, standing in the water just north of Moto-Hakone – a scene celebrated in many an ukiyo-e print and modern postcard. The gate belongs to the Hakone Gongen (箱根権現) and is the best thing about this small Shinto shrine, set back in the trees, where samurai once came to pray. From either Hakone-machi or Moto-Hakone you can take a bus back to Hakone-Yumoto or Odawara.
Hakone-Yumoto (箱根湯元), the small town nestling in the valley at the gateway to the national park, is marred by scores of concrete-block hotels and bessō, vacation villas for company workers – not to mention the usual cacophony of souvenir shops. It does, however, have some good onsen which are ideal for unwinding after a day’s sightseeing around the park. Up the hill from the station is the Kappa Tengoku Notemburo (かっぱ天国野天風呂), a small, traditional outdoor onsen, which can get crowded. More stylish is Tenzan Notemburo (天山野天風呂), a luxurious public onsen complex at Oku-Yumoto, 2km southwest of town.
Rising up into the mountains, the Hakone-Tozan switchback railway zigzags for nearly 9km alongside a ravine from Hakone-Yumoto to the village of Gōra. There are small traditional inns and temples at several of the stations along the way, but the single best place to alight is the village onsen resort of Miyanoshita (宮ﾉ下). Interesting antique and craft shops are dotted along its main road, and there are several hiking routes up 804m Mount Sengen on the eastern flank of the railway – one path begins just beside the station. At the top you’ll get a great view of the gorge below. Back down in Miyanoshita is the historic Fujiya hotel, which opened for business in 1878 and is well worth a look.
Travelling two more stops on the Hakone-Tozan railway brings you to Chōkoku-no-Mori, where you should alight if you want to visit the nearby Hakone Open-Air Museum (彫刻の森美術館). This worthwhile museum is packed with sculptures, ranging from works by Rodin and Giacometti to Michelangelo reproductions and bizarre modern formations scattered across the landscaped grounds, which have lovely views across the mountains to the sea. You can rest between galleries at several restaurants or cafés, and there’s also a traditional Japanese teahouse here.
If volcanic activity and a cable car isn’t your thing, once you get to Gōra you can transfer to the bus bound for the splendid Pola Museum of Art (ポーラ美術館). This diverse and eclectic collection of Western art and glasswork (predominantly French Impressionists and Ecole de Paris artists) includes some outstanding pieces by the likes of Renoir, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gallé; there’s also a fine selection of Japanese paintings and ceramics. Everything is displayed in modern galleries in a stunning building that blends beautifully with the surrounding forest, with an on-site café and restaurant.
Continuing north on the same bus, you soon reach the pleasant village of Sengokuhara (仙石原), another possible place to stay the night. Several museums here aim to cater to the rarefied tastes of Japanese women. Perhaps the most interesting – and certainly the most beautifully situated – of these is the Lalique Museum Hakone (箱根ラリック美術館), dedicated to the delicate glass pieces of the French artist René Lalique.