Hakone, a day of respite from relentless Tokyo

Hakone

Sitting perched in the mountains to the North East of Tokyo is a town famed for it’s views of the iconic Mount Fuji. It’s name is Hakone, and not only can you view Mount Fuji from here, at least in theory, it’s also well known for it’s hot spring baths (onsen) and is home to Hakone Shrine which falls within the Shinto sect of Buddhism. Naturally, as someone who identifies himself as Buddhist (although not the Shinto sect) this appealed to me. We didn’t do the hot spring baths though – you’re only allowed in them if you’re naked. Public nudity isn’t our thing.

All photos, as with elsewhere on my site, were taken by me with my simple little Panasonic point-and-shoot camera.

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Hakone

Hakone is the perfect place to visit to escape the madness of Tokyo for a day. Picturesque scenery and far fewer people make it the perfect escape. It’s where my fiancée and I decided to head on the second day of our trip to Japan.

Arriving at Hakone

There are many possible ways to travel around Hakone. My fiancée and I chose to go with the one recommended in a guide book, which was supplied with the Hakone Freepass tickets (details available at end of blog).

We took the local train service there from Shinjuku to save ourselves some money. The journey took around 90 minutes in total. We were relieved to find that having arrived in plenty of time there was an abundance of seating available. The one change required on route is really easy, just walk a bit further up the same platform and there was the connecting train waiting to take us. Perfect! Again, seating wasn’t an issue. I don’t suppose many people like it, but I really don’t like standing on trains. I can tolerate a few stops on a Metro having to stand, but anything other than a short journey and I want the comfort of a seat.

Getting off the train we grabbed a quick snack of fried potato, from a large bakery type cafe within the station. I guess it was like a Japanese version of Greggs. The fried potato snack had for some reason had a little German flag sticking out it. I never really associated the Germans with fried potato, but there we have it. Anyway, we crossed the road from the train station to the bus stop and happily munched away on our German snack. Really tasty, hit the spot!

Bus

We got on the H route bus and stayed on it for about 40 minutes. We got off the bus at Moto Hakone, a short walk from the Hakone Shrine. Around this area there were little shops selling food, groceries, souvenirs and the likes. It actually reminded me of the sort of small town you would find driving along the Deutsche Alpenstrasse (a wonderfully scenic tourist road through the Bavarian Alps with town after town of picture postcard locations).

Shrine

Having taken in the Shrine we walked along back through Moto Hakone aside the lake. The lush green scenery and warm, humid but clean air was a welcome break from the bright lights, noise and busyness of Tokyo. We walked through ‘Cedar Avenue’ (a tree lined footpath) and boarded the river boat at Hakone Machi.

Boat

There are a couple of riverboats, ferrys, that leave from here. The one included in the Hakone Freepass looks like a big pirate ship. Yes, it sounds a bit tacky but actually looked really nice. There were inside seating areas, a covered exterior seating area and two uncovered standing decks.

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Cruise on a pirate ship in Japan? Why not!

We cruised across the river and enjoyed some wonderful views. The views would have been even better were it not for the incoming cloud cover. Unfortunately there was too much of the cloud to see Mt Fuji – something we had both really wanted to see. On hearing a French couple speaking though we seized the opportunity to ask one of them to take a photograph of us together – they happily obliged.

Ropeway

The boat docked at Togendai to connect with what the Japanese call the ‘ropeway’. You or I would better know it as a cable car, you know…those little cars that hang from steel cable and take you up a mountain. From the cable car it is possible to see Mt Fuji on a clear day. Unfortunately the cloud, which had come in rapidly, scuppered this view point for us too.

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Ropeway, Hakone

A word of caution on the ropeway, travellers with allergic asthma, respiratory problems or heart problems are strongly advised against using it. The reason for this is it goes directly over an active volcano, from which volcanic gasses still spew. There are signs in Japanese and English advising travellers of this. It was a little disconcerting, but we pressed on.

As the cable car rose away from sea level there were some lovely views of the lake and surrounding area. The higher it climbed, the closer to the volcano we got and the stronger the aroma of sulphuric gasses became.

By the time we reached the second cable car station, Owakudani, where passengers are directed onto another cable car for the next part of the climb, the air was pungent with the smell of sulphur. If you’re not sure what that smells like, thing of a cross between a match that has just been struck and rotten eggs. Such was the strength of the volcanic gasses that staff at this station hand out medical cloths, which act as a rudimentary sort of gas mask. We didn’t bother using ours as we didn’t feel the need, but quite a few people did.

Climbing out the second cable car station the cable car passes directly over the volcano, which by the way is still active.

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Volcano, a birds eye view. That’s not cloud, it’s volcanic gasses.

The last eruption warning was issued in 2015. The cable car provides a perfect birds eye view of the volcanic gasses, which rise steadily without pause from what looks like miniature steel chimneys. Presumably, though I could be wrong, they have been built into the volcano to allow the pressure to be released steadily so it doesn’t build up and erupt.

The cable car rides, despite the cloud, were great fun. They only put around 6-8 people maximum in each one and everyone gets a seat. There are so many of them running you shouldn’t have long to wait for one either.

The cable cars usually run until around 4pm, however may close early due to bad weather or dangerous levels of volcanic gasses.

Cable Car

Reaching the highest point, I think at Sounzan, we then transferred onto, apologies for the confusion here, what the Japanese call the ‘cable car.’ Or, what you and I might call a mountain railway. A little train that goes up or down a very steep hill.

This is a pleasant and reasonably short journey to Gora, where we got transferred onto a regular railway service, which took us down some twisty hills back to Hakone Station.

Having spent much of the day on our feet in temperatures of 30C+ and 75%+ humidity we decided to go to the “Fare Adjustment” office at Hakone station and upgrade our tickets to the Romancecar for the return journey. It was definitely worth it for the added comfort. The seats recline and were so comfortable that my fiancée was asleep within minutes – allowing me the time to sip on an ice cold Asahi beer from the on board refreshment trolley and type a few notes for my blog…without being anti-social!

The Hakone adventure took up pretty much a full day, offering wonderful views and a memorable experience despite the fast changing weather.

It is for those reasons that I believe the Hakone Freepass offers excellent value for money and is definitely a trip worth taking if you’re visiting Tokyo.

Getting There

There are a couple of options for getting there, both of which involve the railways.

JJ Travel Tip: The best value way of getting there is the Hakone Freepass, which can be bought within Shinjuku Station (and other large Tokyo stations I would expect). There are a couple of places selling the Freepass within the station.

The Hakone Freepass includes return rail tickets from Shinjuku to Hakone. Once there it includes bus travel, ropeway, cable car and a river cruise. The pass costs around 5100 yen at the time of writing.

For around an additional 890 yen the tickets can be upgraded to the ‘Romancecar.’ Essentially the Romance car is a more comfortable train with regular, all-reserved, seating and refreshments are served on board (at extra cost).

The local train included in the basic price is a busy commuter train with more regular stops and bench type seating. During peak periods you may not get a seat. You also need to make one easy change of train using the local service.

JJ Travel Tip: If you’re not travelling on a budget I definitely recommend taking the Romancecar for it’s comfort and convenience.

Enjoy Hakone.

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