I noticed the first snow of the season on the alps near us this week. Winter is fast approaching and while that does mean cold, there are some definite positives to travelling in Japan during this season, such as the aforementioned snow either to ski on or admire, illuminations and light ups go into overdrive and there’s nothing quite like an onsen to warm up at the end of a long day. Due to the crisp, cold air, winter is also known as one of the best times to spot Mt Fuji and one of the best places to do this is around the Hakone area. There is plenty to see and do in Hakone to justify an overnight stay but if you are short on time, here is your 1 Day Winter Hakone Itinerary!
Getting to Hakone
I’m going to use Shinjuku, Tokyo as a starting point for this day trip first and foremost because with the purchase of the Hakone Free Pass, one round trip on the Odakyu line between Shinjuku and Odawara station, the ‘gateway’ to Hakone is included. In addition the pass allows unlimited travel on most of the many modes of transport around Hakone. Also, for those really wanting to save time, with the payment of the limited express surcharge you can ride the Limited Express Romance Car from Shinjuku which knocks about half an hour off the trip. If you plan to travel a different route to Hakone, make your way to Hakone Yumoto and start the itinerary from there. In winter, I recommend an early start to make the most of the shorter daylight hours.
Aim to catch either the Limited Express Romance Car from Shinjuku (weekdays, 7:27, or weekends and holidays, 7:30) to arrive in Hakone Yumoto at approximately 9:00. On regular trains, depart a little earlier at around 7:00 to arrive at the same time.
Hakone Yumoto - Gora
Transfer at Hakone Yumoto station and ride the Hakone Tozan line to Gora. This ride takes approximately 40 minutes as the train makes its way through the mountainous land you’ll notice at times you start heading back the way you came. Don’t panic, the switchbacks help the train manage the grade, you are still headed in the right direction.
Ride the cablecar from Gora and the ropeway to the shores of Lake Ashi
A trip along this route will give picture perfect views of not only Mt Fuji (should the weather be cooperating) but also of the surrounding alps. Start the journey with a 7 minute ride in the cable car which takes you to the Souzan Station and then transfer onto the ropeway.
After 10 minutes you’ll arrive at Owakidani. There are great views of Fuji to be had here and it's an interesting place for a brief stop to look at the ‘hell valley’ where plumes of steam and gas rise from the mountainside. This is a volcanically active area and particularly so at the moment. Depending on the wind and gas levels this may not be a good place to hang around and you should consider this warning before visiting. This is also the place to extend your life by eating an egg or two. Yes, that’s right. Eating Owakidani’s famed black eggs (cooked in the….) is said to lengthen your life by 7 years.
Board the Ropeway again bound for Tougendai-Ko, on the shores of Lake Ashi and then bring your best talk like a pirate day ‘arrr matey’ as you board the pirate ship cruise across the lake to Motohakone-Ko.
By now it will be close to lunchtime so stop in at the popular Bakery and Table, just a short walk from the pier and enjoy lunch with an amazing view over the lake.
After lunch looking over the lake and the iconic red torii just off the shore, it's time to take a 20 minute stroll along the lake and visit the shrine itself. The shrine and surrounds are a picturesque and peaceful combination of towering cedars and vermillion buildings and torii gates.
By now you may well need to warm up again, so catch the K bus for Hakone Yumoto from the Hakone Jinja iriguchi bus stop but get off just 5 minutes up the road at Amazake Chaya. The bus passes this stop each hour at 05 and 35. Amazake-Chaya has been in business for more than 350 years and once served it's thick sweet Amazake and toasted mochi cakes to travellers on the Old Tokaido Road which linked Tokyo and Kyoto.
Now it's time to experience the onsen Hakone is famous for. From Amazake-Chaya board the bus for Hakone Yumoto again (it departs hourly at 10 and 40) and alight at Okuyumoto iriguchi. A short walk downhill brings you to the entrance of Tenzan onsen. Tenzan onsen is highly recommended for the variety of baths and for the fact that on an individual basis, tattoos are accepted (they do reserve the right to refuse entry to groups of tattooed guests). Spend an hour or so relaxing here before catching the bus again or grabbing a taxi into Hakone Yumoto station.
Wander the shops around the station area, shop for souvenirs and taste some Hakone specialties, steamed manju (sweet bean filled cakes) and kamaboko (fish cake). Most of the shops in this area close between 5 and 6pm. So if you feel like grabbing dinner before the train trip back, wander off the main street to find either Haikara Chinese Nisshintei which serves warm, comforting bowls of handmade ramen noodles or Hatsuhana Soba, which as the name suggests, sells another of Hakone’s specialties, soba noodles.
Finally, bid farewell to the area and depart on the Limited Express Romance Car bound for Shinjuku at 19:24 weekdays, 19:10 weekends and holidays. A regular train departs Hakone Yumoto at 19:12 weekdays, 19:23 weekends/holidays and requires a transfer at Odawara.
If you can't or don't want to travel via the cable car and Ropeway due to bad weather or concerns over the volcanic gases at Owakidani, a suggested alternate route goes as follows.
From Hakone Yumoto, take the bus H directly to Hakone machi on the shores of Lake Ashi. This ride takes around 45 minutes so should see you arriving at about 10am. In good weather you will see Mt Fuji from here. Visit the Hakone checkpoint museum to learn about the history and significance of the area then walk via the Hakone Cedars to the Motohakone area. Stop in at Bakery and Table to warm up and for an early lunch overlooking the lake. From here, follow the same itinerary as set out above.
If you are not quite ready for the fully unclothed onsen experience, from Amazake-Chaya, take the bus back to Hakone-jinja iriguchi and transfer onto the H line, alighting at Yunessun Mae or Kowakien. Here, you can visit Yunessun, a hot spring resort with traditional (unclothed) and non-traditional mixed, clothed bathing options. Wine bath anyone? How about coffee? Or waterslides with hot water. It is certainly a unique experience. To return to Hakone Yumoto station afterwards, catch the H bus again at the same stand you arrived at.
The Hakone Free Pass is available in 2 and 3 day versions. For a day trip where you are planning to complete the loop over the mountains, around the lake and home again, the 2 day pass is still good value for one day. If you are traveling with a JR pass, take JR trains to Odawara where you can pick up the Freepass (at a cheaper rate than travelling from Shinjuku) before transferring to the Odakyu line into Hakone Yumoto. See all the details here.
However, if you are planning to follow the alternative route here, simply paying for the bus as you go along will be slightly cheaper (using the routes above, it will cost around Y2000 in bus fares for the day). Of course, train tickets to and from Hakone Yumoto will need to be purchased seperately as well.
Whichever route you decide to take, enjoy exploring this beautiful and historically significant part of Japan!