Hakone day trip & Hakone Free Pass Explained
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Whenever I hear of someone traveling Japan, one of the places I highly recommend visiting is Hakone. Situated in the mountainous region of Kanagawa Prefecture, this place is a beautiful haven. It is a perfect day trip from Tokyo or go all in & book a relaxing week away.
GETTING TO HAKONE
Getting to Hakone is pretty easy from Tokyo. Firstly I would recommend obtaining a “Hakone Free Pass”. You can purchase these tickets online ahead of time, at the automated ticketing machines in train stations or at Odakyu sightseeing service centers (if you need help just ask the friendly station staff, they will know what you mean). In conjunction with this pass, you can also obtain other passes for area’s close to Tokyo, like Kamakura.
The Hakone Free pass is valid for 2-3 days, it will cost you about $55 (AUD) & it comes with heaps of perks! You can have unlimited rides on the Hakone Ropeway, Hakone Tozan bus/trains/cable car & sightseeing cruises. You will also get slight discounts from retailers & restaurants. For more information click here.
Using the Hakone Free Pass you can make a trip from Shinjuku station on the Odakyu line to Odawara. Alternatively, if you possess a JR pass (for more information about this pass click here) you can catch the Shinkansen from Shinjuku Station to Odawara station. From Odawara station, you can then either catch the train to Gora station or the bus up the mountain through Hakone. As you make your way through Hakone by bus you have the option of hopping on & off to see the local attractions.
HAKONE SHRINE ITINERARY
Hakone town reminds me of a small Dutch town. The scenery of Hakone & Gora is beautiful all times of the year. There are crystal clear rivers & streams running down the mountain through the town, modest Japanese houses speckled in the hills & cobblestone paths.
When people visit Hakone, they usually start at Gora station, taking the Hakone Ropeway & then end their trip with Hakone Shrine. I, however, like to do the pilgrimage counterclockwise. You are more likely to beat the crowds this way. I would advise an early start (9am) to your trip otherwise this method is counterintuitive.
From Odawara station take the Hakone Tozan bus to Hakone Shrine. Google maps is your best friend in this situation as it will advise you which bus to take & from where. Use your Hakone Free Pass (without the free pass this bus ride will cost you $15). You will be on the bus for about an hour so pack some headphones & settle in for the amazing scenery.
Similarly, you can take a different Tozan bus from Odawara station to Togendai at Lake Ashi, near the Hakone Ropeway ($15 bus fare/ $0 with Free Pass). From there you can either walk to Hakone Shrine (bring some hiking shoes like we did, as you will be walking 1/3 of the circumference of the lake), rent a bike at the nearby information centre or take the famed pirate ship ($10 fare/ $0 with Free Pass) to the other side of Lake Ashi where Hakone Shrine lies.
Once you complete either journey you will arrive at The Hakone Torii Gate. Its orange colour is a stark contrast against the deep blue of Lake Ashi. Hidden in the forest covered mountain just behind it lies Hakone Shrine (箱根神社). It is a culturally significant Shinto Shrine so be sure to visit it more closely & learn some of it’s history. Many stairs are imminent.
From here you can take the boat back to the other side of Lake Ashi to start the second leg of your Hakone tour. It’s time to buckle up because you’re about to take the gondola up to Owakudani Mountain.
THE HAKONE ROPEWAY
From Togendai take the ropeway to Mount Owakudani. I'm not sure the exact cost but if you invest in the Hakone Free Pass it will surely pay itself off & more!
Owakudani Mountain is famous for three things in my opinion. Its spectacular views of Mt. Fuji, it’s unique black eggs & ice cream & its ability to create copious amounts of fart jokes, no matter your creed or culture.
Owakudani is an active volcanic valley, speckled with many sulphuric hot springs & teeming with steam. It was created from an eruption by Mt. Hakone some 3000 years ago & it’s been the center of every fart joke since.
From here you can take in the majestic beauty of Mt. Fuji, eat some famous black eggs (cooked in the hot springs) & then take a lick of some delicious black sesame ice cream. You can purchase the black eggs in groups of 5 from the main arena. There will be black egg sculptures & chairs out the front for you to sit on while you eat. If you go on a holiday or weekend you may see lots of older Japanese men & women enjoying their day out eating the famed eggs.
If you happen to catch the gondola back down to Gora with a group of them, watch out; they know how to have a good time (three words “one cup sake”)! If you decide to go up to Owakudani in the late afternoon be advised that the Gondola home stops at 5 PM sharp.
Taking the gondola further down the mountain you will end up at the cable car. Again your Hakone Free Pass covers this fair all the way down to Gora station.
During my last visit to Hakone 2 years ago I stayed in Gora at one of the Guest Houses & it was amazing. They had their own Onsen, that is supplied with the sulphuric water from Mount Owakudani. Gora & Hakone respectively are famed for their Onsen’s. Almost every house has their own Onsen. Take advantage of this & spend a day Onsen hopping your way through Gora & Hakone. Even better, stay a few days in Gora or Hakone.
When I stayed in Gora some years ago, I realized very quickly that it was a one-horse town. Upon arriving at 4 PM I was faced with the harsh reality that every food store was closed (don't let this deter you from staying here, its a truly magical place). As I lay on my tatami mat late one night, I decided to find a 7/11 for sustenance.
On google maps, I was presented with two options. One was 900m away the other was 950m away. Being the lazy sod that I am, I opted for the 900m one. Little did I know, this was 900m down the face of a mountain. I followed the trail which led me to a very, very steep set of stairs. I started climbing down thinking I’d be there in no time. Some 15 minutes later I was only halfway. As I clambered down, I noticed many pipelines tied together, precariously balanced between rocks & tree roots; going off in every direction. Some of them had burst spraying hot water on the path, but it was clear what they were for. Every pipe came from the mountain & led into someones home, for their own personal onsen. WOW.
Fast forward to the next day ( the climb back home was really awful), I found the other 7/11. It was a nice leisurely 950m walk down the road. F**K
From Gora, you can take the local train down the mountain ( Sorry the Hakone Free Pass doesn’t cover this trip.). Along the way, you can stop at many of the major attractions. My favorite being the Hakone Open Air Museum. To pay for this trip from Gora station read here about prepaid IC cards.
OPEN AIR MUSEUM
I spent about 90 minutes trying to find this damn art museum. Don’t make the same mistakes I did. I don’t know how to warn against my mistakes as the directions to this place are all very confusing. Maybe trekking through someone's backyard, a mini rainforest & crossing two creeks had something to do with the confusion. Either way, just use the public transportation provided on the main roads. Don’t be Dora the Explorer.
If you decided to go to the Open Air Museum make sure you have enough time (3hrs+). Maybe make the trip to the Museum on the second day of your Free Pass, as you will not be able to do all the above mentioned activities AND the Open Air Museum. Well….anything is possible but you’ll be super tired.
If you show your Hakone Free Pass at the ticket booth you get a slight discount. This art museum is family friendly as some of the sculptures in the grounds can be climbed on/in. Inside the grounds is also a Picasso exhibition which was thoroughly enjoyable. I went when it was raining & it was still a truly awesome experience….once I found it.
Once leaving the Open Air Museum you can make your way down towards Hakone Town on the local train. This train is also a highlight for a very unique reason. The train zigzags down the side of a mountain, and in doing so there is only one train track (up & down). Thus, once entering each station the train driver has to exit his carriage & walk to the other end of the train in order to continue zigging & zagging. You may also have to wait until the train coming the opposite way arrives at the station before you can continue your journey. As you make your way down, feel free to hop off at any station as there are many nice stores & eateries in the town.
If the train doesn’t take your fancy you can always catch one of the many Tozan Bus lines that wind their way through Hakone at a much faster rate. Also feel free to hop on & off to enjoy the same delights, using your Hakone Free Pass.
I wasn’t sure If I should include this in my blog because its a negative but I thought it might save some people the same disappointment I had. The glass museum was at the top of my itinerary, however, after paying $15 entrance I would have been less disappointed had I spent $15 on eBay & the item not show up.
I hope you enjoyed my post about Hakone & obtaining the Hakone Free Pass. If you found this useful please feel free to share or leave a comment!