I love to have friends visit, and showing people around is one of my favourite things. Even after over twenty years in Japan I still enjoy being a tourist and having a visitor is the perfect excuse. In April I had a houseguest who used to live in Japan and still comes back to visit. We decided to spend a day in Hakone.
The usually circuit of Hakone, I suppose, is the Romancecar down from Shinjuku to Hakone, then a trip up through Gora to Owakudani, down to and across Lake Ashi and then the bus back to Hakone. The main problem with that is, it’s what everyone else does, and so the childish fun to be had on a succession of forms of transport is interspersed with tedious queues.
What if you visited Hakone . . . backwards?
While the Romancecar is the obvious route down from Tokyo, if you’re not starting from the Shinjuku area then it’s not the cheapest or the fastest.
Plan B: start from Shinagawa. The Shonan Shinjuku line stops at Shinagawa, takes about 80 minutes, and costs ¥1320. Don’t even think of going all the way down to Hakone-Yumoto. Take the train to Odawara, then buy a Hakone Freepass (¥4,000) and start from there. Once you have your Freepass you don’t have to pay for anything else.
Various Landscapes Along The Way!
Take the bus from stop #3 outside the station. It takes about an hour to Hakonemachi. When the bus stops at Hakone-Yumoto there will be crowds of tourists waiting to get on. From your seat on the bus you’ll see their faces fall as they realise they’ll have to wait for the next bus, or the next one, while you are already on your speedy way. The bus ride is quite scenic; it winds up the mountainside and past the Fujiya Hotel; you’ll be back here in a couple of hours for afternoon tea.
When you get off at Hakonemachi you’ll see Lake Ashi in front of you, with your first exciting mode of transport:
Well, what were you expecting? Isn’t this the best way to start your adventure in earnest? A pirate ship seems perfectly reasonable to me.
Breathtaking View From The Ship!
The trip across the lake can be a little chilly, and doesn’t take long at all, but you can stand on the deck, look at the views and if you’re lucky get your first good views of Mount Fuji. Of course, that depends on the season, and in the summer months it is often hazy and you won’t know there’s a huge mountain right there in front of you. From late autumn through to spring you should be luckier. You will also see Hakone Jinja just after you set off.
Sightseeing From Midair!
At the other end of the lake is Togendai, where you disembark and walk up into the terminus building for what Hakone calls a ropeway, but I would call a cable car.
From the capsules (which are quite large) you can get some wonderful views of Mount Fuji. I also have fond memories of the time a cable car coming in the opposite direction was full of sumo rikishi in yukata. Anyway, this is the kind of view you get (and this was on a fairly hazy day):
The cable car continues to Owakudani (where you can get out and wander around among sulphurous fumes if the fancy takes you). Otherwise you get on the next leg of the ropeway to Sounzan.
Even if you don’t want to wander about you have to get out of the cable car, and walk through the building to the next leg of the journey.
You may see long lines of people waiting to travel in the opposite direction. From here the ropeway goes down the other side of the mountain to Sounzan and on the way you’ll catch your last views of Mount Fuji.
Straight Ahead We Go!
Tired of the ropeway? Wanting a change of transport? Next up is the funicular railway, or, apparently, the cable car.
When it arrives at Sounzan hordes of people disembark from the crowded train; on the way down there is a lot more space, and views of cherry blossoms, hydrangeas, other blossoms or autumn colours, depending on when you go. This is a short trip, and when you get off it is only a few metres from the platform through to the platform for the train which goes all the way down to Hakone-Yumoto.
Down The Mountain We Go!
While this is the most conventional of all the modes of transport so far, it is still only a small, clanking train, a lot like the Enoden line in Kamakura. From here you can go straight down to the end of the line, but I recommend a stop in Miyanoshita, and a visit to the Fujiya Hotel, built in 1891 and one-time holiday destination of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Now, before you go to the Fujiya, I don’t want you to get your hopes up and expect anything too luxurious. I have stayed there and also popped in for afternoon tea, and I would describe it as faded glory. The service and food are all right, but really it’s just a lovely place to break your journey. A piece of history. A nice cup of tea and some cinnamon toast while you look out at the landscaped garden and watch some frozen bride being directed through a succession of photos posed against the foliage. If all that doesn’t tempt you, then maybe the traffic cones will:
From the Fujiya, return to Miyanoshita station and take the train down to Hakone-Yumoto. From there transfer onto the local train and return to Odawara.
From Odawara it’s easy to take a train back to Tokyo, and you have visited Hakone backwards! The same lovely views, same variety of transport, but without all the waiting in line! Now, wasn’t that worth it?