11-Days of Free & Easy: Japan (Hakone Highlights)

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This is Part#4 (Hakone Highlights) of my Jun-2015 Japan travel blog.
Refer to the list of contents below for the links to other parts of the blog. Happy reading! =)

 

Hakone Sightseeing cruise boat
Hakone Sightseeing cruise boat, with Hakone Shrine torii gate and Mt Fuji in background. Taken from foreshore beside Moto-Hakone Port @2015

Contents

 

 

Bonus : 4 Great Tips for your Japan Holiday

 

11-Days of Free & Easy in Japan: Hakone Highlights

Below are the Hakone highlights of my 11-Days of Free & Easy in Japan, June 2015. (chronologically listed)

 

Hakone Overview (map)

Hakone is a mountainous and scenic region approximately an hour (by train) east of Tokyo. It is renowned for its hot springs, panoramic settings, views of Mt Fuji and various mode of enthralling transports.

Its proximity to and easy accessibility from Tokyo help in cementing its popularity amongst locals and tourists alike. Though a huge region, it could be easily explored within 1-2 days via the various mode of unique transports within the region.

 

Hakone Round Course (info)

One of the most systematic and easiest ways to tour Hakone is via making a circular course of the region. Starting from Hakone-Yumoto, make a circuit of the region via travelling on 5 different modes of transport, before returning the starting point; hence the name “Hakone Round Course”.

 

Hakone Round Course (source: www.japan-guide.com) [Copyright of source]
Hakone Round Course (source: www.japan-guide.com)[Copyright of source]

The circuit could be done in clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. If done in anti-clockwise, below would be the sequence of travel:

  1. Hakone Tozan Railway (Odawara/Hakone-Yumoto to Gora)
  2. Hakone Tozan Cablecar (Gora to Sounzan)
  3. [Currently suspended] Hakone Ropeway (Sounzan to Togendai): See note below*
  4. Hakone Sightseeing Cruise (Togendai to Hakone-machi/Moto-Hakone)
  5. Hakone Tozan Bus (Hakone-machi/Moto-Hakone to Hakone-Yumoto)

*Important Note (accurate as of 25Aug2015): Due to potential volcanic activities, access to Owakudani area is restricted. Accordingly, Hakone Ropeway operation has been suspended. Refer to official website for further update. Other areas in Hakone is not affected. 

 

If you do not have much time to spare, the Hakone Round Course could be toured in a single day trip IF you are willing to explore only the highlights of the region. This was exactly what I did.

 

 

Hakone Freepass (info)

When attempting the Hakone Round Course, the most cost-effective way would be to purchase the Hakone Freepass. It offers unlimited rides on most of the transport modes found in Hakone (inclusive of the 5 transport modes mentioned above). In addition, the pass entitles the holder to entry discounts at a number of attractions/establishments in the region.

Interesting, the Hakone Freepass is only available in 2/3 days option; there is no 1-day pass. Nevertheless, one would already be saving money within a day if one travelled on all 5 modes of transport mentioned above. (below graphic is an example of the savings)

Hakone Round Course Map (Source: www.hakonenavi.jp) [Copyright of source]
Hakone Round Course Map (Source: www.hakonenavi.jp) [Copyright of source]

The Hakone Freepass could be purchased from a number of stations, including Shinjuku (Tokyo), Odawara and Hakone-Yumoto. The price varies depending on which station you purchased it from; the freepass includes the train fare starting from your respective station.

Odawara is the nearest JR station to Hakone. Since I had a valid JR Pass, I took the 35 minutes Shinkansen from Tokyo to Odawara; it is the same Kodama/Hikari trains serving the Tokyo-Osaka route. Once at Odawara, I purchased the Hakone Freepass from the tourist office and proceed to board the Hakone Tozan train to Hakone-Yumoto. My 1-day Hakone adventure would start here.

 

Part#1: Hakone Tozan Railway (info)

The Hakone Tozan Railway is Japan’s oldest mountain railway. It passes through scenic wooded gorges, antique bridges and tunnels, and is made up of 2 sections.

Section#1: The Odawara to Hakone-Yumoto section is served by rather mundane trains and the journey has no scenery to boast about.

 

Section#2: Once at Hakone-Yumoto, passengers will change to a smaller train which ply from Hakone-Yumoto to Gora station. This is the part of the railway which gave rise to its fame. As it gains elevation from 108m (Hakone-Yumoto) to 553m (Gora), it passes through fascinating gorges, bridges, tunnels and old-fashioned train stations deep within the mountain regions.   

“The small trains wind themselves through a narrow, densely wooded valley over many bridges and tunnels, stopping at small stations along the way and changing directions at three switchbacks.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)

To know what a switchback is, click here.

As the train wind its way around the mountain tracks, I do find the scenery to be great, though maybe not as magical as I expected it to be. There are plenty of hydrangea in bloom (pic below) along the tracks and around the stations, with the best time to view them usually in early July. During the blossom season of June-July, the train is also dubbed the “Hydrangea Train”.

En route, there are a few old-fashioned stations with inviting attractions (e.g. gardens, museums) which I did not attempt to visit.

One of the interesting aspects of the ride is observing how the train operator changes the direction of the train at the switchbacks. This is a sight that is not too common in normal rails.

 

Gora Station

After a 30 minutes ride from Hakone-Yumoto, the train pulls into the terminal station of Gora. Opened in 1919, Gora serves as the terminal station for both Hakone Tozan Railway and Hakone Cablecar.

“It is 15.0 rail kilometers from the Hakone Tozan Line’s southern terminus at Odawara Station. At an altitude of 533 metres (1,749 ft), it is the highest railway station in Kanagawa Prefecture.” (Source, Wikipedia: Gora Station)

Gora Station, Hakone @2015
Gora Station, Hakone @2015

Once at the Gora, I decided to make full use of my Hakone Freepass which offers free entry to the Gora Park.

 

Gora Park (info)

Gora Park is a short 7 minutes (550m) uphill walk from Gora station. Alternatively, one could take the cablecar from Gora Station and alight at Koenshimo (1 stop).

“Gora Park (強羅公園, Gōra Kōen) is a western style landscape park located on the steep slope above Gora Station. It is a relaxing place to unwind and enjoy the scenery and views of Hakone. Gora Park is primarily a French styled landscape park featuring a large fountain and a rose garden.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)

The park wasn’t large. Amenities in the park include an ice cream kiosk and teahouse.

I spent 30 minutes exploring the park and left feeling less than impressed. I felt that the floriculture wasn’t as exquisite as most other Japanese parks, or maybe the problem lies with me being not able to appreciate such finer form of art.

Upon leaving the park, I marched back to Gora station to continue my Hakone adventure.

 

Part#2: Hakone Tozan Cablecar (info)

Comprising of 6 stations, the lovely Hakone Tozan Cablecar climbs ~200m of altitude from Gora to arrive at the terminal station of Sounzan (altitude: 767m).

“This cable car links Gora Station to Sounzan Station, a distance of 1.2 kilometers, in 10 minutes. The cable car races effortlessly up the steep slope, and even the station platform at the top is sloping.” (Source: www.hakone-tozan.co.jp)

This cablecar ride reminds me of The Peak Tram in Hong Kong. Track distance is about the same, however, track gradient at The Peak Tram appears to be greater. Having said, both is as entertaining for a country pumpkin tourist like myself.

At Sounzan station, there is a large open area outside the station which offers the view of the surrounding mountains; though the views are nothing to shout about.

 

Sounzan station is also the terminal station for the Hakone Ropeway (Sounzan to Togendai).

 

Suspension of Hakone Ropeway and Closure of Owakudani

In normal circumstances, visitors arriving at Sounzan (via the cablecar) would transfer to the Hakone Ropeway as part of the Hakone Round Course. The Hakone Ropeway passes Owakudani en route to its terminal station at Togendai. Owakudani is an extremely popular volcanic area in Hakone where one could explore active volcanic zones and experience sulphur fumes and hot springs/rivers.

*Important Note (accurate as of 25Aug2015): Due to potential volcanic activities, access to Owakudani area is restricted. Accordingly, Hakone Ropeway operation has been suspended. Refer to official website for further update. Other areas in Hakone is not affected. 

With the suspension of the Hakone Ropeway and closure of Owakudani area, the transit between Sounzan and Togendai is replaced by a 30 minutes direct bus service (included in Hakone Freepass).

I had little choice but to skip Owakudani and proceed to Togendai via the bus service.

 

Part#3: Hakone Sightseeing Cruise (info)

Togendai station @2015
Togendai station @2015

Togendai station is located on the northern end of Lake Ashi. It is the terminal port/station of Hakone Sightseeing Cruise and Hakone Ropeway.

Once at Togendai, I promptly boarded the next departing cruise ship leaving for Hakone-machi port.

Hakone Sightseeing cruise is an interesting way of exploring Lake Ashi. It employs three beautifully designed pirate ships to ferry passengers across the lake. All three ships are modelled after famous 17/18th-century warships and typically has 2 level of enclosed deck and 2 level of open deck.

 

The cruise performs a round trip of Lake Ashi, serving the 3 ports of Togendai, Hakone-Machi and Moto-Hakone. Cruise departure frequency range from 30 minutes to over an hour, depending on seasons. (cruise timetable)

Hakone Sightseeing Cruise Route (source: www.hakone-kankosen.co) [Copyright of source]
Hakone Sightseeing Cruise Route (source: www.hakone-kankosen.co) [Copyright of source]

 

The ride on the cruise ships is truly entertaining. Besides serving as a form of transport to explore Lake Ashi, the exterior design and internal decor of the ships offers plenty of photographic opportunities. Kids, in particular, would love the excitement of boarding a life-sized pirate ship.

 

From the deck of the cruise ships, one would have a field day snapping photos of the scenery surrounding the lake. On clear days, Mt Fuji can be spotted during certain parts of the cruise.

Tip#1: When taking the Togendai-bound cruise from Moto-Hakone port, Mt Fuji can be seen about 3-5 minutes after leaving port. Keep a lookout on the right side (starboard) of the bow when the ship is about to pass the torii gate of Hakone-jinja shrine.

Tip#2: Click here for other great spots in Hakone that offers view of Mt Fuji.

View of Mt Fuji and Hakone-jinja Shrine torii gate from cruise ship @2015
View of Mt Fuji and Hakone-jinja Shrine torii gate from cruise ship @2015

 

 

Part#4: Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone

Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone are tiny yet charming towns located on the southern ends of Lake Ashi.

 

Hakone-machi

After a 30 minutes entertaining cruise from Togendai, I arrived at Hakone-machi port.

There are a couple of attractions within short walking distance from Hakone-machi port. These includes Hakone Checkpoint (aka Hakone Sekisho) and Onshi Hakone Park, which used to be a vacation palace for the imperial family and offers good views of the area.

 

Naturally, the foreshore area beside the port offers a great view of Lake Ashi. While strolling along the foreshore, we noticed a shop by the marina (next to the port) advertising small row boats for rental. Once the kids’ razor-sharped eyes caught sight of the row boats, there was no denying them and I reluctantly paid the ransom rental.

 

I couldn’t possibly let 2 kids handle a rowboat by themselves in the middle of a lake, so I have little options but to join them on the boating trip.

I was rather taken aback by the lack of safety measures. The ladies manning the rental operation was more interested in rushing us out in the boats (presumably starting the “timer”) and NO life jackets were provided. There was also no attempts to find out if we had ever tried boating. This definitely doesn’t reflect the high standard of service and safety that I’ve become accustomed to in Japan. The only consolation was that the water was calm, though this shouldn’t serve as an excuse for the non-existence of safety precautions.

Having said, the boating experience was rather fun, though I would prefer not attempt it if not for the kids.

 

After a short boating session, we returned to shore, much to my relieve.

We then proceed to talk a short walk towards Hakone Checkpoint. However, once at the entrance (of the checkpoint), we decided to turn back and head for the port due to time constraint (rather more importantly as the kids are getting restless). We figured the kids would be more entertained by the pirate ship than the historical Hakone Checkpoint.

Back at port, we boarded the next departing cruise ship to Moto-Hakone port, which is just 10 minutes away.

 

Moto-Hakone

There are a few tourist attractions at Moto-Hakone (click here). However tourist mainly comes here for the famous Hakone-Jinja Shrine. It is a short walk from Moto-Hakone port and has a vermillion torii gate situated prominently in Lake Ashi near the shoreline.

View of Hakone-jinja Shrine torii gate from cruise ship @2015
View of Hakone-jinja Shrine torii gate from cruise ship @2015

 

With the kids getting increasing bored and agitated, I decided against exploring the shrine. Instead, we spent the rest of the time exploring the immediate area surrounding the port while waiting for the last cruise of the day to sail for Togendai.

Typically, visitors attempting the Hakone Round Course would take the Hakone Tozan bus from Moto-Hakone (or Hakone-machi) back to Hakone-Yumoto, thereby completing the circuit. However, I decided to do an about-turn at Moto-Hakone and return via the same way that I came (i.e. Togendai – Sounzan – Gora – Hakone-Yumoto). Reason being the kids enjoyed the trains/cablecars along the way, and to a lesser extent, of me trying to squeeze more value out of our Hakone Freepass! =P

 

As it turned out, the foreshore area immediately south of Moto-Hakone port is a great spot to take photos of both the torii gate (of Hakone-Jinja Shrine) and Mt Fuji!

These were to be the last meaningful addition to my photographic loot for the day. It was getting late and the long journey back to Tokyo beckons.

Summing up, Hakone is a great place to explore. Though I would advise others to attempt it as a 2 days trip, topped with an overnight stay at one of the local hot spring resorts. Attempting Hakone as a single day trip is possible, but it comes with a water-tight schedule and does not allow for a more comprehensive exploration of the region.

 

 

Hakone Tourist Map

Hakone Area Map pdf file (Source: www.hakonenavi.jp) [Copyright of source]
Hakone Area Map pdf file (Source: www.hakonenavi.jp) [Copyright of source]

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2 Responses

  1. Esther Lee
    |

    I really enjoy reading your blog! Very informative and beautiful pictures. You have given me the confidence to travel in Tokyo on my own. Tks for sharing!