Hakone: A Japanese Weekend Getaway

Hakone, Japan - September 21, 2013: The red torii gate which stands on the shore of Lake Ashi near Hakone Shrine. The shrine is a popular Shinto temple near Mount Fuji.

Tokyo is unmistakably iconic with its hyper-eccentric, electric Akihabara district; or the quirky artisan boutiques and streets of high-fashion Harajuku; or even the upmarket posh and glam of Ginza. Wherever you go, it’s easy to get lost among the avenues of towering department stores and office complexes, often heavily clad in flashing neon and airbrushed beauty adverts. Sometimes it feels magical and otherworldly, like walking into a movie set or video game. Other times it feels like a sensory overload, with everything seeming to move at double speed.

For those who seek a blissful escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city, look no further than Hakone! It’s the perfect weekend getaway destination.

Haya River from Hakone Yumoto Station by Lisa Cheung

View of Haya River from Hakone Yumoto Station. Photo: Lisa Cheung

Less than two hours away from central Tokyo, the town of Hakone has made a name for itself for its exceptional natural beauty, soothing hot springs, and exquisite art museums that are sure to impress visitors of all ages. Travellers coming from Tokyo can take the rail and arrive at Odawara, where the beautifully preserved Odawara Castle is definitely worth your while. From Odawara Station, it’s best to pick up a Hakone Pass from Odakyu Railway, which will save you precious time and yen for the duration of your getaway. There are one- and two-day passes available and they grant you unlimited use of selected trains, cable cars, ropeways, ferries and buses in the Hakone area.

Most of the accommodation in Hakone are ryokan (Japanese inn) style, with traditional furnishings and tatami flooring. Many have incredible views of the mountainsides, and occasionally you may even get a glimpse of the holy Mount Fuji. There are some ryokans that have private indoor or outdoor onsen (hot springs) for you to soak in after a day of vigorous sightseeing.

One of the best places to kick off your adventure is Hakone Shrine, which stands at the foot of Mount Hakone and Lake Ashi. Accessible by bus, the site entrance is marked by a series of torii gates and lanterns that lead to a generous stair climb through the forest. When you reach the Shrine be sure to take a moment to appreciate the simple symmetry, the vivid red, and the ornate nine-headed dragon fountain that is said to represent the beast that once lived at the bottom of Lake Ashi.

Gora Hanaougi Madoka No Mori, a ryokan in Hakone

Upon descending, you will find the most famous torii gate in Hakone facing the lake. Notice how it perfectly frames the Onshi-Hakone Park, your next destination.

If by this point you’re itching for a drink and a bite, Bakery and Table offers a delectable selection of sweet and savoury pastries and cafe beverages to fill your heart’s desire. Located right at the edge of the lake, this is the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the scenery before you. Upstairs they have seating that faces Lake Ashi, but on a day with good weather it’s worthwhile to set up a little picnic by the pier and take in that mountain view.

Lake Ashi offers some incredible views of Mount Fuji, but nothing quite compares to the viewing spots from Onshi-Hakone Park. This place used to be the Emperor’s summer retreat, where he would invite and entertain his guests. The former imperial villa is occasionally open to visitors and serves as a historical reminder for the park. Take your time navigating through the garden landscape, which is beautiful curated, with gentle hills and vibrant colours that are enjoyable in every season.

Onshi-Hakone Park (photo: courtesy of Odakyu Electric Railway)

The Hakone ferry will take you to the other side of the lake to Togendai where the ropeway begins. Bound for Owakudani Valley, the cable car climbs more than a thousand meters to the top of the crater that formed over 3000 years ago, during the last eruption of Mount Hakone. A short walk from the station will take you to the volcanic zone where you can experience bubbling hot springs, hot rivers, and sulphurous fumes. You can learn all about the geological history of the place at the interactive Hakone Geomuseum nearby. Be warned that the volcanic valley can get quite smelly, and on some days the volcanic gas levels may reach levels that require you to exercise necessary caution.

Be sure to try kuro-tamago (black eggs), a famous delicacy from hot and steamy Mount Hakone. These eggs promise good health and longevity when eaten.

There’s an abundance of high quality art museums in Hakone, which include the Hakone Museum of Art, Okada Museum of Art, Pola Art Museum, Narukawa Art Museum, Hakone Venetian Glass Museum, and even the Hakone Little Prince Museum. Perhaps the most outstanding is the Hakone Open Air Museum. It presents itself as an intersection of nature and art, with an impressive collection of permanent outdoor sculptures that sit gracefully amongst backdrops of valleys and mountains.

Woods of Net Playground Hakone Open Air Museum (photo: courtesy of Tokyo Weekender)

Don’t miss the Picasso Exhibition Hall, which holds an impressive collection of the Spanish artist’s paintings, sculptures and ceramics. There are also large scale installations that are specifically designed for children to wonder at and play in. Be sure to explore every garden to find all the sculptures scattered across the site. There is also a foot bath area in case you feel the need to slow down and relax, Hakone style.

Your day isn’t complete without a full onsen experience, and Tenzan Onsen is the chillest place to unwind. These hot springs are in the traditional style, but foreigner friendly, equipped with everything you would possibly need to enjoy the classic onsen. There’s even a relaxation area to take a nap after bathing, so if you need some down time this is definitely the place to sit around and do nothing but laze.

So why not take a ride next time you’ve got a spare day in Tokyo? Whether you are in need of some art, nature, or a nice hot bath, there is something for everyone in Hakone.

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