Hakone (箱根) is a mountain resort area about 90 minutes from Tokyo. It is famed for its onsen; the views of Mt Fuji from Lake Ashi; volcanic activity that occasionally shuts down hiking trails; and, in summer, its cooler temperatures.
Where is Hakone?
Hakone is about 80km (50 miles) southwest of Tokyo, in Kanagawa prefecture. It is part of the non-contiguous Fuji–Hakone–Izu National Park.
Emphasis on the non-contiguous — it is not particularly convenient to get from Hakone to Mt Fuji by public transport (Izu is easier). The best way to visit Hakone and Mt Fuji together in one day is via an organized tour.
What is Hakone known for?
First and foremost, Hakone is known for onsen. Hot springs are everywhere here: in day spas; in the baths at hotels, ryokan, and even youth hostels; and flowing freely in ashi-yu (foot baths). This is the #1 reason people visit Hakone.
The south shore of Lake Ashi, a caldera lake formed by an eruption of Mt Hakone some 3000 years ago, is considered one of the best locations for Fuji-spotting. Hakone Shrine’s vermilion torii gate, which appears to rise from the water, is picturesque, too. Some of you might recognize it from Neon Genesis Evangelion, which is set in a futuristic Hakone.
In the Edo period, Hakone was one of the 53 check points on the Tōkaidō, the old route that connected Tokyo with Kyoto. A small part of the Tōkaidō has been preserved and is used now as a hiking trail.
Later, during the Meiji period, Hakone (like Karuizawa) was developed into a summer resort — in the model of a colonial era hill station — for wealthy Tokyoites and the foreign community in Yokohama. Hakone’s landmark Fujiya Hotel dates from this era, as does Hakone’s bourgeois cachet.
What is Hakone like?
Hakone, with its lake and forested mountains is a breath of fresh air — literally, if you are coming from Tokyo. (Except for around Ōwakudani where the volcanic gasses are occasionally so overpowering access is restricted). But Hakone is also emphatically a tourist destination, and feels like it: there will be tour buses, souvenir shops, and some kitsch. The upside of this is that it is easy to get around, as there is plenty of English signage.
Towns within Hakone
Hakone covers a wide area and encompasses several distinct towns and settlements. The entry point for most visitors to Hakone is the town of Hakone-Yumoto (箱根湯本), which has amenities like a tourist information center and a luggage forwarding service, plus lodgings, restaurants, and souvenir shops. There are several nice onsen day spas around Hakone-Yumoto.
There is also a small tourist village in Moto-Hakone (元箱根), on the southern shore of Lake Ashi.
What to see and do in Hakone
There is a lot to do in Hakone. There are hot springs, which you can experience at day spas like Tenzan (which is tattoo-friendly); at “onsen amusement park” Yunessun (tattoos okay if covered); or at ryokan and hotels that offer “higaeri-yu” (day-time use of the communal baths for non-staying guests — a great way to experience luxury hotels for little yen).
Then there are the natural attractions: Lake Ashi, which you can admire from the shore or from the deck of a mock pirate ship (seriously); and Ōwakudani (literally “Great Boiling Valley”), a volcanic landscape of sulfur-stained rocks and billowing steam clouds. There are hiking trails around Ōwakudani, and elsewhere in the mountains of Hakone.
A note about Ōwakudani
Mt Hakone is an active volcano. Though it has not erupted in thousands of years — and the current alert level is set at 1, the lowest possible threat — fumaroles (volcanic vents) in Ōwakudani do emit noxious sulfuric gasses that sometimes result in access being restricted. Ōwakudani is currently open, but people with asthma or other respiratory conditions are advised to be cautious of visiting. (Outside of Ōwakudani, volcanic gasses are generally not a concern). Hiking trails in and around Ōwakudani are currently closed except for the short nature trail loop; however, you have to reserve a time slot in advance online (in Japanese).
Where and what to eat in Hakone
Hakone has a variety of restaurants and cafes; you can sit down for a formal Japanese or French meal or subsist on snacks and budget-friendly teishoku (set meals). Most restaurants are in either Hakone-Yumoto or Gōra; there are also some spots on the shore of Lake Ashi in Moto-Hakone. Note that many restaurants close around 4 p.m., as most overnight visitors eat at their accommodations.
Some local specialities include: kuro-tamago (“black eggs” that have been hard boiled by onsen waters — the sulfur turns the shell black), which are sold at Ōwakudani; and soba in Hakone-Yumoto. Also the 400-year-old teahouse Amazake-chaya is a special place.
Planning your trip to Hakone
Check the status of Hakone’s many forms of transport at Odakyu’s Hakone Navi site. Note that volcanic activity occasionally shuts down the Hakone Ropeway to Ōwakudani.
When is the best time to visit Hakone?
In general, considering that Hakone is popular with locals too, it is best to visit Hakone on a weekday when it will be less crowded.
The most popular time to visit Hakone is in fall (late October to late November) when the leaves change color; however, you might want to avoid this time as it will be extra crowded and accommodations will be extra pricey.
Winter mornings are considered the best time for Fuji-spotting from Lake Ashi. Late spring is when the ajisai (hydrangeas) bloom alongside the tracks of Hakone’s cute mountain train (this is also very popular).
Summer is attractive for its cooler temperatures (compared to sweltering Tokyo), though perhaps still not cool enough for onsen to sound like a good idea.
What is the weather like in Hakone?
Hakone is usually a good five degrees (celcius) cooler than Tokyo. This can mean some chilly evenings, so come prepared. Snow is possible in winter.
What festivals take place in Hakone?
Hakone’s biggest annual event is its summer festival, which includes shrine rituals and fireworks over Lake Ashi, and culminates on the final day of Obon with a daimonji-yaki (a bonfire in the shape of a giant kanji, like in Kyoto) in the mountains of Gōra.
As with all major festivals, expect crowds and any remaining rooms at accommodations to be pricey.
How long do I need to see Hakone?
A full day gives you time for a good long hot spring soak and either some hiking or sightseeing.
With an extra day and a night, you can hit pretty much all the Hakone highlights and experience a night at a ryokan.
Is Hakone a good day trip from Tokyo?
Hakone is one of the most popular day trips from Tokyo, as it’s a top onsen resort and only 90 minutes by direct train from Shinjuku.
Is Hakone a good place to stay?
Yes and no. There are many (many!) ryokan here, pretty much all of which will have hot spring baths, so Hakone is a good place for visitors who are keen to try that experience. On the other hand, Hakone’s proximity to Tokyo and cachet with locals means it is at the pricier end of the spectrum. Still, you might be able to find a good deal on a random weekday.
If you’re not looking for a ryokan experience, Hakone does have a handful of budget accommodations, including hostels.
Getting to Hakone
There are several different ways to get from Tokyo to Hakone, including comfortable Ltd. Express trains, regular trains and buses.
Can I take the Shinkansen to Hakone?
You can take the Tokaidō Shinkansen as far as Odawara (about 35 minutes) and then transfer to an Odakyu train for Hakone-Yumoto (15 minutes; ¥320) or a bus to various destinations around Hakone. Note that only Kodama and some Hikari trains stop at Odawara.
What rail passes cover travel to Hakone?
No Japan Rail passes cover travel on the Odakyu line. You can use the country-wide JR Pass to travel as far as Odawara on the Tokaidō Shinkansen. With JR East passes, including the Tokyo Wide Pass, you can travel to Odawara on regular Tokaidō Main Line trains (80 minutes).
Odakyu’s Hakone Free Pass is the best pass for visiting Hakone as a day or overnight trip from Tokyo. It covers rail transport from Shinjuku (but not the limited express surcharge for the Romance Car, which is an extra ¥1,110), Hakone area trains and buses (including the Hakone Tozan line), the Hakone Tozan Cable Car and Hakone Ropeway (for getting to Ōwakudani), and the pirate ship cruise boat that crosses Lake Ashi.
There’s also the option of a 3-day Fuji–Hakone Pass, which covers additional bus travel between Gotemba and the Fuji Five Lakes. Or a 3-day Hakone–Kamakura Pass for exploring both those destinations (even though Odakyu lines are not the most efficient way of getting between the two, the pass should save you money).
Getting around Hakone
Public transportation can take you everywhere you need to go in Hakone. In fact, you actively don’t want to drive here unless traffic and squeezing past buses on narrow mountain roads is your thing. Or you are keen to act out your IRL Initial D fantasy of racing down the Hakone Turnpike (just kidding; this will almost certainly result in a hefty speeding ticket).
The Hakone Free Pass makes getting around a breeze — no need to worry about coughing up cash for every train, bus, ropeway, or boat required to get to the next attraction.
What’s near Hakone?
Hakone, being in the mountains and at the end of a rail line, isn’t exactly on the way to anything else. From Gōra, you can catch a bus to the Gotemba Premium Outlets or Gotemba Station, from where you can get a bus onwards to Mt Fuji. The journey to Gotemba, which is covered by the Hakone Free Pass, is about 45 minutes (to either destination) on a mountain road.