Tokyo Day Trips - Hakone
Hakone – Where Samurai Meet Picasso
What does Picasso have in common with Japanese Samurai? An odd answer to an odd question is Hakone. In the tourist resort area southwest of Tokyo, a visitor can enjoy both Picasso masterpieces and Samurai history in the same day. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate four hundred years ago, Hakone was an official checkpoint along the Tōkaidō (East Sea Road). At the checkpoint, officials stopped all travelers entering and leaving Edo (old name for Tokyo) to examine travel permits and baggage. Today, the checkpoint is a sightseeing spot on Lake Ashi, not far from another popular tourist stop, the Picasso Pavilion in the Hakone Open-Air Museum.
Hakone has been an alluring travel destination for centuries. Its Samurai Era history adds enchantment to the famous hot springs, mountainous terrain and views of Fuji. Although Hakone is about two hours outside of Tokyo, it is still a doable destination for a memorable day trip. If time and money permit, though, it would be worth turning the excursion into several days. The Hakone Free Pass ticket offers discounts for the Odakyu trains, buses, cable car and boat. It is also good for discount admission into several museums, most notably the Hakone Open-Air Art Museum with the Picasso Pavilion. The pass is good for unlimited usage of the Hakone Tozan Railway (Odawara-Gora), the Souzan Cable Car and Hakone Ropeway between Gora to Togendai, the Hakone Sightseeing Boats on Lake Ashi, Hakone Tozan Buses within the free area and Numazu Tozan Tokai Buses between Mishima and Moto-Hakone.
Hakone Free Pass Rates
From Shinjuku Station
Purchased at Odawara Station
Reduced rates (almost 75%) apply for children.
2016 Japanese Calendars
Hakone Free Pass Route
Using the Hakone Free Pass, it is easy to make a relaxing circle of the main sites in six to eight hours. The route begins at Odawara Station with a slow uphill train ride to Gora Station. Although the ride is over fifty minutes, most visitors make a stop along the way to visit the Open-Air Museum. From Gora, there is cable car that makes a ten-minute climb to Sounzan Station at 761 meters. From there, a ropeway carries tourists over the trees and down the mountain to Lake Ashi. However, in recent months the ropeway has been closed due to volcanic activity in the area. Therefore, visitors need to take a bus to the lake where they can ride a boat across to the Hakone Checkpoint.
From the checkpoint, it is possible to walk along the old Tokai road that samurai walked along hundreds of years ago. From Moto-Hakone to Hatajuku (75-100 minutes), some of the original stone pavement remains, and the best preserved section leads trekkers past the Amazake tea house that serves tea as well as amazake (hot, sweet rice wine) and various Japanese style snacks.
Hakone Tozan Railway
Hakone Tozan Railway (箱根登山電車)
This is Japan’s oldest mountain railway. The single-track railway winds through mountainsides so steep that the train needs to make three switchbacks. As the train climbs to an altitude of 553 meters, passengers can enjoy amazing scenery that changes with the seasons.
Passengers need to disembark and change trains at Hakone-Yumoto Station. From that point to Gora, the ride is magical. The thousands of lavender, blue, white and even chartreuse hydrangea that bloom in June and July make the ride extra special in early summer. Likewise, the autumn leaves and a touch of winter snow add a special romance to riding the rails through the mountains from October to February. And in spring, well, it would not be Japan without some cherry blossoms to view.
The tracks are even illuminated during the evenings in June and July to accent the colors of the blooming flowers. However, since there are only a couple of trains in each direction, reservations are necessary for evening viewing of the hydrangea.
Hakone Open-Air Museum
Chokokunomori Station is the stop for the Hakone Open-Air Museum. It might also be a good place to stop for lunch as there are several traditional soba noodle shops and a not-so-traditional trendy hamburger restaurant along the short road to the museum.
The museum itself is a one-of-a-kind collection of sculptures that harmonically blend with the natural beauty of the Hakone hills. The spacious grounds are home to thousands of sculptures and works of art. Visitors can enjoy a relaxing stroll along the paths while surrounded by the beautiful views of Hakone’s valleys and mountains.
A visit to the museum includes the Picasso Pavilion which displays an enormous collection of the great artist’s works spanning his long career. The exhibition covers all stages of the artist’s life by thematically grouping his works. This allows the visitor to view Picasso’s unwavering stance towards social and political issues throughout the 20th Century.
Entrance is slightly expensive. It cost ￥1,400 with the Hakone Free Pass discount. There are discounts for university students and kids are half price.
After the museum, it is back on the train to Gora. There is a park at Gora, but most visitors quickly transfer to the cable car for the ride up to the ropeway. The park is only a five-minute walk from the station. It has a French-styled landscape with a large fountain, rose garden and two greenhouses. One greenhouse has a tropical botanical garden while the other contains a flower garden. Near the park there is a cozy restaurant overlooking the main fountain and the Hakuun-do Chaen teahouse. Both are great places to rest before getting on the cable car
Cable Car and Ropeway
The Hakone Tozan Cable Car ride is a slow thrill. Kids love it, so do adults. It only takes about ten minutes to the top. Once at the top, the ropeway down is the next trek of the journey. Unfortunately, the ropeway has been closed due to volcanic activity in 2015. However, if you visit when the ropeway reopens, you will want to stop at Owakudani. This is the area around a crater created during the last eruption of Mount Hakone some 3000 years ago. Today, evidence of the eruption still smolders in the sulfurous fumes, hot springs and hot rivers that amuse visitors. Although it is usually foggy in this area, on a clear day visitors can adore the picturesque view of Mt. Fuji.
When the area is open, there is a short walking trail from the ropeway station into the volcanic zone with a number of steam vents and bubbling pools. The adventurous tourist can purchase eggs cooked in the naturally hot water with shells blackened by the sulfur. These eggs are said to prolong life by seven years.
For the energetic and adventurous, another hiking trail goes from the ropeway station to the peak of Mount Kamiyama and continues on to Mount Komagatake from where another ropeway goes down to Lake Ashi. That hike takes about 2 hours one way and can be challenging since the path is rocky and slippery. Warm clothes, good hiking shoes, snacks and preparation are needed for this hike.
However, since the ropeway is currently closed, visitors can take a bus down to Lake Ashi.
Lake Ashi from the Hakone Pass
Lake Ashi (a.k.a., Ashinoko) is part of Mt. Hakone’s caldera. The lake was formed after the volcano's last eruption 3000 years ago. Today, the lake and background with Mt. Fuji is a must-see and must-photograph view in Hakone. The lake's shores are spotted with a few small towns hiding among the trees in the east and north. This makes for a charming boat ride across the lake to Hakone town.
The best views of the lake with Mt. Fuji in the backdrop are from Moto-Hakone and from the sightseeing boats cruising the lake. Unfortunately, as Mt. Fuji is a shy mountain, it often hides under clouds. The visitor that has clear visibility is fortunate! Visibility is usually better in winter than in summer, and in the early morning or late afternoon.
Hakone Sightseeing Boats operate between Moto-Hakone and Hakone-machi at the lake's southern shores and Togendai and Kojiri at the lake's northern end. A boat cruise from one end of the lake to the other takes about 30 minutes. The fare is covered with the Hakone Free Pass on the boat that looks like a pirate ship from the Hakone Sightseeing Boat company but not on boats operated by the Izuhakone company.
Hakone-machi is a quaint town with street stalls selling roasted squid, traditional Japanese restaurants, shops and a museum that lends the visitors a feeling of old Japan. The Hakone Checkpoint and Detached Palace are also located nearby.
Buses leave from both Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone for Odawara Station. That completes a DIY day trip to Hakone; however, Hakone has much more for those that would like to stay longer or return for a second or third or fourth time. And for those that love onsens, well, Hakone is the place.
Age of Contentment
This book is not directly related to Hakone. However, two of the stories are set in Japan not far from Hakone. It is an easy, fun read. Good train reading for anyone that lives in Japan.