Hakone is a peaceful, mountainous region about two and a half hours from Tokyo. We knew we wanted to explore the Japanese countryside and many people recommended this tranquil spot, a weekend getaway for many Tokyoites. The area is famous for its ryokans (Japanese B&Bs), onsens (hot springs) and Mt. Fuji views, all of which we wanted to experience. It’s also still volcanically active, which the boys thought was pretty cool.
Before traveling we purchased Japan Rail Passes through Experience Japan. These passes allow visitors to use almost any of the JR lines to travel the country. There are a few restrictions, but you can take the Shinkansen (bullet trains) and other speedy services. Aside from queuing to ‘activate’ our 14-day passes, these were a breeze to use.
Leaving Tokyo with four kids and six suitcases in tow wasn’t so breezy. Wheeling our way through the busy streets of Shibuya and the even busier corridors and escalators of Shibuya station was stressful. Turns out this is why ‘luggage forwarding’ services are so popular in Japan. Most people send their luggage via companies like Yamato Transport Co. who deliver it to their destination within 24 hours. Everyone here swears by them. Next time…
We boarded a ‘rapid’ service to Odawara, where we connected to the charming, red carriages of the local, private railway. This trip is a sightseeing adventure in itself, offering great views as the small trains carefully ascend the vertiginous faces of the lush, green mountainsides. (Admittedly I was suffering from motion sickness, so I couldn’t look out the windows – but I could hear the kids pointing out rivers and waterfalls from our train car.)
We booked accommodation in a place that was somewhere between a hotel and a ryokan. They had an onsen, served meals and provided the traditional garb to wear around the premises — but it felt more like a hotel than a B&B. We would have liked to stay somewhere smaller, but the size of our group meant more traditional ryokans, which charge per person and typically include breakfast and/or dinner, were prohibitively expensive. We also ended up in the tiny town of Gora. It’s a peaceful, albeit sleepy place. Aside from its proximity to the Open Air Museum, we wouldn’t recommend staying here. Towns like Moto-Hakone on Lake Ashi are much more charming and have more activities nearby.
Our first full day was spent in the lovely Open Air Museum, which we walked to after coaxing the girls to take off their yukatas (Ivy wanted to spend the rest of our trip in hers). It was a warm and sunny spring day—the ideal time to visit this hilly, green sculpture garden. In addition to lots of great sculpture, the garden itself is beautiful and we were lucky to find some sakura (cherry blossoms) still on the trees. There are also indoor exhibits (an impressive exhibit of Picasso’s paintings and pottery) and a couple of areas designed for kids to climb all over–ours never wanted to leave the ‘curved space,’ a climbing structure made up of big, plastic cubes. We spent about 3 hours at the museum, then stumbled upon a lovely little Soba restaurant for lunch on our way back to Gora. After enjoying the onsen in the afternoon our day was finished off with sushi at a quiet little spot called, Yamahiko. The sushi chef and staff could not have been kinder and we enjoyed several courses before being driven back up the hill to our hotel by the proprietor. Now that’s service!
We were lucky to awake to clear blue skies the next day, the perfect weather to view Mt. Fuji. We were picked up at the hotel by Shin Kaneko from Explore-Hakone tours. Shin is a friend of our friend Phil, and offered us a tour of his hometown, Moto-Hakone, and his exceptional family home. His mother, a famous Japanese actress, built their family home by purchasing traditional homes from all over Japan and using the materials to construct their own unique home overlooking Lake Ashi.
Shin began our tour at Hakone Shrine, which sits on a hillside just above Lake Ashi. Legend has it that the townspeople of this area were terrorized by a dragon that lived in Lake Ashi until a priest, traveling through the area, spent a day praying by the lakeside, summoning the dragon to come out. When the dragon did, the priest bound him to a tree, whereupon he was transformed into a nine-headed dragon that became the area’s protector. This legend can be seen in the iconography and sculpture around the shrine. Most impressive though is the giant red ‘Torre’ that sits in Lake Ashi at the place where the dragon supposedly left the water.
After enjoying tea and delicious matcha & white chocolate biscuits in Shin’s traditional, Japanese kitchen, we headed off for a walking tour. We visited the old checkpoint along the Takaido way (the historic route between Kyoto and Edo) and the Japanese gardens along the lake that have spectacular views of Mt. Fuji beyond. We stopped for lunch at La Terrazza, an Italian restaurant and pizzeria near to the boat terminals for cruises across Lake Ashi. No longer surprised to find great pizza in Japan, we enjoyed some authentic Neapolitan style pies and gelato. We then headed to the boats for a cruise across the pretty lake to the Komagatake Ropeway (referred to as gondolas in American mountain resorts). This seven-minute trip climbing nearly 700 vertical metres of Mt. Komagatake brought us to a mountain top trail with a 360-degree view of the area. Though the skies had become hazy, we still had extraordinary views of Mt. Fuji, the Pacific coast and the towns below. Like the previous day, we concluded this especially great one with an onsen followed by a sushi dinner.
After 3-nights and 3 visits to the onsen, we left Hakone completely relaxed and ready to schlepp ourselves and our baggage off to our next destination, Kyoto.