Hakone is in the Kanagawa prefecture; about an hour and a half from central Tokyo. To get the most out of the day you should set off early in the morning – you’ll need to make several train changes before arriving at Miyanoshita.
It’s quite surreal; stepping off of the crowded carriage to a deserted train platform which is surrounded by forest. The station itself is charming. I visited in Autumn and there was a flurry of dried leaves on the train tracks giving an abandoned air to the place. The Hakone Free Pass ticket is a must for any serious tourists– a two-day pass for under 900 Yen gives you free travel on all the transport in Hakone.
Miyanoshita was a mere whisper of a town, with little more than a scattering of swanky hotels, the Hakone Shrine, the location of Basil Hall Chamberlain’s ‘000 Library’ and some quaint cafes with Onsen foot baths. But regardless of the lack of entertainment it was very picturesque. Autumnal colours filled my camera lens – colours as if the hills were on fire. Those famous Japanese Maples leaves were stunningly beautiful – Hakone is no doubt a delight all year round, but there was something quite special about that hillside in late Autumn.
A few more stops down the train line and you will arrive at Gora. Much nicer than the previous place, especially owing to Gora Park; free entry using the Hakone Free Pass. The park offers panoramic views of the surrounding forests, perfect spots for photo opportunities amongst the flowers by the pond, and humid greenhouses that smell sweet and earthy.
The last part of the journey is a bus to Sengokuhara, winding wildly along twisting country roads. A population of 4,000 people in this charming little town seems rather small given how touristy it is – there are so many things to do up there in Sengokuhara. If you like museums you’ll be kept busy for several days at least: The Little Prince and Saint-Exupéry Museum, Hakone Venetian Glass Museum, the Pola Museum of Art and the Lalique Museum.
If you fancy staying overnight (and I recommend you do!) the Fuji-Hakone Guest House is a great choice, as ranks number one of B&Bs in Hakone-machi. Use of the indoor onsen is free with room rental. The water originates from the Owakudani Volcano. Geothermally heated, the onsen contains lots of minerals – the smell is overpowering and the heat is intense. If your onsen experience leaves you needing sustenance, I recommend the nearby China House restaurant which specialises in delicious dumplings that are a cross between the Chinese Jiǎozi and the Japanese Gyōza.
Day Two in Hakone began for us with a bus back down to Gora, then getting the funicular tram up to Sounzan. Reaching Sounzan you will be greeted with a dramatic view before mounting the cable car. The experience of floating above the hills through mountainous terrain is peacefully magical. Mount Fuji will be in perfect view so have your camera ready. Owakudani is famous for its steamy atmosphere, caused by an ancient volcanic eruption. Geothermally heated waters of malodorous pools are where eggs are boiled black – a popular tourist snack and souvenir.
The cable car back down the hill goes to Togendai at the northern edge of Lake Ashi. The Hakone Sightseeing Cruise boats are modelled on the seventeenth-century man-o’-war. Half an hour crossing the lake takes you to Hakone-machi and then Moto-Hakone which is where we departed to reach the Sukumo River Nature Trail. The hike was steep going up at the start and then steep going down later on. A pleasantly quiet passage through the dark forest; walk as far as you like – the pathway runs parallel to a bus route that you can get when you are tired.
Hakone is a magical, beautiful, charming place – there is so much to see and do that a day trip would be a waste. Several days would buy you enough time to truly enjoy it’s wonders.