About two hours out of Tokyo lies Hakone (箱根); a collection of sleepy little villages and townships, clustered around the magnificent and massive Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖). As a getaway from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, the close proximity of Hakone, as well as the numerous things to do, makes it a popular weekend retreat for locals… and every traveler worth his or her salt knows that the only way to travel is to do what the locals are doing.
To get to, and around, Hakone, the best thing to do is buy a Hakone Free Pass, which allows you unlimited use of the many transportation options that will take you from one destination to the next. Traveling around and seeing everything that Hakone offers requires the use of train, bus, ferry, ropeway, and cable car, and can be very expensive if you buy individual tickets. The Hakone Free Pass, meanwhile, costs just ¥5,140 (about US$45) per person, for a two-day ticket, and these can be purchased at Shinjuku train station (新宿駅) on your way to Hakone.
What to do in Hakone
Once you’re there, the range of activities is unlimited. Below you’ll find five of the best, but it’s by no means an exhaustive list - indeed, you could easily spend a week traveling around Hakone alone and experiencing a very different kind of Japanese lifestyle.
1: Get some history into you; visit Hakone Sekisho
Hakone Sekisho (箱根関所; “Hakone Checkpoint”) served as the gateway to Edo (江戸) (modern day Tokyo) through the Tokugawa era (徳川時代) of Japanese history. Under Japanese law at the time, warlords from around the country were required to make frequent pilgrimages to Edo, and would have to pass through this checkpoint along the way, making it one of the first customs-style gateways in Japan.
Warlords were also required to house their wives and first-born sons in Edo, effectively as hostages, to ensure that they don’t rebel. The Sekisho was therefore also there to make sure the women were not able to escape the city. While the original Sekisho was destroyed after being decommissioned during the Meiji period, the recreation is a completely accurate recreation of the buildings, and gives you a real insight to the way Japan was administered in those years.
2: Add seven years to your life; eat a black egg from Ōwakudani volcano (大涌谷)
Hakone mountain is an active volcano that’s spitting out a great deal of sulfur (so don’t take this trip if suffering health complications). The cable car that will get you high up the mountain isn’t always running, but if it is, you’re in for a treat with the black eggs they sell up there. Boiled in the hot springs in a particular way to gain their black look, these eggs are perfectly healthy to eat. So healthy, in fact, that it’s said that to eat one is to add seven years to your life. A good bargain at a couple of hundred yen each, that’s for sure.
3: Enjoy culture with a mountain view; visit the Hakone Open-Air Museum
The Hakone Open-Air Museum (箱根 彫刻の森美術館; Hakone Chōkoku no Mori Bijutsukan) contains some of the finest works of sculpture from Japan and around the world, and located as it is, with the mountains surrounding the museum, it’s also one of the most visually-spectacular walks in Hakone. To further delight art fans, the Museum also has a large, permanent gallery of 300 of Picasso’s paintings and clayworks, providing visitors one of the best cross-sections of the great man’s prolific career.
4: Enjoy pastries and a foot bath at Bakery And Table
One of the main settlements in the area is Moto-Hakone Port. You’ll jump on a ferry here to travel across Lake Ashi, but before you do, be sure to check out a delightful little patisserie called Bakery And Table. Part of a chain that has been around since 1937, this cafe is a seriously popular place to stop for a snack during the day, and offers a gorgeous view of the mountains and lake. If you’re really lucky you’ll also be able to grab a seat that has a spring water foot bath too… and there’s simply no better way to eat pastries and drink beer than with your feet soaking in one of those.
5: Jump on a pirate ship. No, really
You can get a regular ferry to take you across Lake Ashi, but why you would want to when you can go by pirate ship instead is anyone’s guess. The lake is serviced by two replica pirate ships, which are just plain good fun to sit in while taking in the views. The Hakone Free Pass covers entry onto the ships as well, and there’s a bar on-board too. So if you want you can simply enjoy a couple of trips back and forth, breathing in the deep, fresh air of the lake while sipping on a beer.
Bonus: Stay in luxury while at Hakone
Fujiya Hotel (富士屋ホテル) is one of the oldest western-style resort hotels in Japan. Operating since 1878, this hotel has played host to foreign dignitaries, royalty, and celebrities including Helen Keller, John Lennon, and Charlie Chaplin, and it’s easy to understand why. The service is absolutely impeccable, even by Japanese standard. Additionally, not only does the restaurant offer the best beef curry you’ll ever eat (seriously, this curry is famous across the country for how good it is), but the bar is stocked with very good alcohol… including a fine 21-year-old Hibiki old scotch, which is not good for the wallet, but very good for the taste buds.
The real winner is the hotel room baths which purvey natural spring water. It’s not often you get to relax in your own personal hot spring, but Fujiya has you covered.
For people who are interested in the history of the hotel there’s also a small museum filled with artifacts from over the years. There’s a library stocked with old books and comfortable chairs to relax in, a cafe with food themed after its famous guests (see the Charlie Chaplin pudding picture), and a large Japanese garden to walk around.
Most tourists go for ryokan inns for the luxury hotel experience in Japan. Fujiya is a very different five-star experience, but is every bit as historically Japanese.
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