If you’re searching for a romantic destination for you and your partner, Hakone is the perfect choice. This picturesque location boasts breathtaking views of Mount Fuji, soothing hot springs, and a variety of activities to enjoy together. Whether you’re looking for a peaceful retreat or an adventurous getaway, Hakone has something for every couple. Paulene and Trevor Joslin recently visited Hakone and share their tips with you here.
When planning our trip to Japan, one hope we shared was to see Mount Fuji. However, because the mountain is often shrouded in cloud (only adding to its mystique), we stayed realistic about our chances. We chose the town of Hakone for its proximity to Mount Fuji and the interesting sights and experiences available should the mountain be ‘hiding’.
Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park and less than 100 kilometres from Tokyo, this area is famous for its hot springs and traditional ryokan (guesthouse) accommodation, natural beauty, vivid autumn leaves, and so much more (history, world-class museums and galleries, shrines, nature walks…).
But, like us, many come here with fingers crossed, hoping to glimpse Mount Fuji’s iconic peak.
We left Tokyo early in the morning, heading 40 minutes south on the Shinkansen (bullet train), on the Tokaido line to Odawara. From there we caught a local train to Hakone, just 15 minutes away. Sure, we could have taken the Romancecar (train) that directly links Tokyo and Hakone. But this would have meant leaving from Shinjuku Station, said to be the busiest railway station in the world! We preferred to ease into our mountain-spotting sojourn.
While picking up a few helpful tips and information (in English) at the Odawara Station Tourist Information Centre, we also each purchased a Hakone Freepass. These were really worthwhile, providing unlimited transport options in the Hakone area — trains, cable car, ropeway (gondola), cruises on Lake Ashinoko, local buses, and also discounts vouchers for 80 locations. At 4000 JPY (about 45 AUD) for two days, or 5640 JPY for three, it was perfect for us.
We chose to stay in a traditional ryokan, the Onsen & Garden – Asante Inn, in the Gora onsen (hot spring) district. On arrival, we traded our shoes for slippers (provided), and relaxed over green tea in our room, sun pouring in, admiring the view of surrounding hills and forests. Even though we’re both in our 70s, the futons (mattresses) on the tatami mat floor were very comfortable. A pleasant surprise! Our best decision was booking a daily private onsen experience. Each evening, we clad ourselves in yukata robes and slipped out through the freezing winter air to a steamy and welcoming hot spring bath.
The inn’s delicious breakfasts and dinners, from a mixed Japanese and Western menu, were also a treat and we soaked up the warmth of the roaring fire in the communal area which overlooks a traditional Japanese garden. The staff were friendly, helpful and spoke good English. This inn is located outside the main township of Hakone, but local buses were plentiful and easy to negotiate.
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Discover the Beauty of Hakone’s Nature
On the first afternoon, armed with our Hakone Freepass, we commenced exploring the region, which is mountainous, heavily forested, tumbling streams in abundance — stunning sights and sounds. We passed through picturesque dark-timbered villages that felt old yet with modern amenities. It took a little while to adjust from the fast pace of Tokyo and slow down, as travelling on small buses along winding roads necessitates.
We arrived at the scenic Lake Ashinoko, hoping for that famous view of Mount Fuji (Fuji-san in Japanese) from across the lake. No such luck. Heavy clouds forbade it. However, the cruise on a rather bizarre pirate ship across this picturesque lake was rewarding, as were the commanding scarlet Torii gates at the Hakone-jinja shrine, a Shinto shrine originally built in 757 on the lake shore.
We fossicked through fascinating little shops around the lake edge, and stopped by the Hakone Checkpoint, an authentic reconstruction of a former checkpoint on the major road between Kyoto and Tokyo. Between 1603 and 1868 this checkpoint was tightly controlled, and taxes collected. Now it is an interesting historical site.
We returned to Hakone by bus, rounding out another huge day in Japan with tempura prawns at one of the town’s lovely restaurants.
The following morning we started early in the township of Gora, heading skyward via the Hokane Tozan Railway up a steep hill covered with stunning masses of hydrangeas in their flowering season. After exiting the train, a ‘ropeway’ gondola catapulted us high up to Owakudani, a dramatic geothermal zone. We looked down on the volcanic area below— boiling hot springs and sulphurous clouds drifting through the valley.
As we were whisked over the top of one hill there was a collective gasp from the passengers. Right in front of us, a misty scarf of cloud across its shoulders, was Mount Fuji. The atmosphere in the gondola was palpable — so many had come hoping to see just this … and there it was.
At Owakudani we lingered over the views of the geothermal area and mountains, enjoying ice-cream from one of several restaurants. Ice-cream seems to be a prerequisite for locals, even with snow dotting the ground. A second ropeway then took us back down to Lake Ashino-ko, skimming over the tops of towering beech and laurel trees.
Explore the Art Museums and Galleries
We discovered that, fo couples who appreciate art and culture, Hakone has plenty to offer. An unexpected highlight was our last stop, the Hakone Open-Air Museum. Works by Picasso are housed in the Picasso Pavilion Hall and over 1000 modern and contemporary sculptures are displayed in indoor exhibitions and a tranquil garden area. There is even a naturally fed hot-spring foot bath for guests. Well worth the trip.
The Pola Museum of Art is another popular attraction, showcasing a collection of over 10,000 works of art, including paintings, ceramics, and glassware. And for those interested in traditional Japanese art, the Narukawa Art Museum is a great choice, with a focus on Japanese paintings and ceramics.
Our final day in Hakone dawned with perfectly clear skies, so we decided to travel to Fuji Five Lakes, a region at the base of Mount Fuji. We had read that it’s one of the best places to view Mount Fuji, so reluctantly sacrificed a last precious day in Hakone to make the journey. We caught a local bus to Gotemba, a town in the Hakone region renowned throughout Japan for its Premium Outlet mall. People were pouring in — clearly a very popular shopping experience.
We then changed buses and travelled a little over an hour to Lake Kawaguchi. And we were in luck because there were amazing views of Mount Fuji along the way. No scarf of clouds around its shoulders. Just breathtaking. Mt Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, and certainly lives up to its reputation with its graceful conical form, the sacred symbol of Japan. We felt very fortunate to have realised our dream in such a splendid manner.
Lake Kawaguchi is a popular tourist destination, with many people coming directly from Tokyo. There are plentiful sightseeing buses, but we chose to walk around part of the lake. We took the ropeway to the Fuji Viewing Platform for a spectacular panoramic view and cruised the lake in a sightseeing boat.
The next morning, we slipped out of town early to catch the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. Hakone certainly proved to be a delightful interlude in our Japan holiday. And Mount Fuji? Unforgettable.
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