None of us quite knew what we were getting into when we decided to take a "quick trip" to Hakone.
From Tokyo we took the train from Tokyo Station (there are several ways to get here, so look up your closest station) to Odawara. From there, we had to get on a local train that carried us to Hakone Yumoto where we caught yet another train to Gora.
In Gora, you change to a charming wooden train car designed to go up the mountain along switchbacks. We were among the only tourists coming up this way but I don't understand why. While probably not the easiest or even the fastest route, it is definitely the most interesting and the most scenic. A class of little schoolgirls dressed in uniform slowly dwindled down to none as they each got off at their local villages along the way. The vegetation was lush and dark. The village stops that almost looked like little shrines themselves with waving paper banners and sake barrels above gates were the only indication of life on the mountain along the track.
In Gora, you board the gondola and ride along the Hakone Ropeway. There are gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains, sulphur mines below and Lake Ashi as you descend into the valley. You'll have to switch cars a few times so don't get too comfortable! And bring light luggage! We took the last ride as dusk settled into night in the valley. By the time we arrived, the station was closing down and it was deceptively far from where we were staying. I would recommend arranging transport with the hotel ahead of time. During the day, the friendly staff at the final station will allow you to use their phones to call a cab. Reception can be spotty in the mountains.
Our hotel, Auberge au Mirador, looked glossy and classy as hell on its website. Sadly, the reality turned out to be outdated rooms that were cramped and musty. The grounds are beautiful though and the hotel has its own onsen, which is pretty common for the area.
The first night we dined at the hotel, opting for the Chef's Tasting menu. It was late, so we were the only diners there. The place was quiet and intimate. It's steps away from the hotel down a little stone path. It almost felt as though we were entering someone's home.
The food was absolutely beautiful but definitely left us all wanting. Some flavors didn't quite work and the service was slow considering we were alone in the dining room. I think we were all in the mood for something a little homier that night. Unfortunately, I was too tired to take notes so I don't remember what a lot of these dishes were (sorry!) but I had the wherewithal to take pictures!
Like many of the hotels in Hakone, Mirador boasts it own onsen (spa) facilities. The area is teeming with natural hot springs due to the volcanic activity and the locals take advantage!
A dip in the warm outdoor pool before bed is just what you need to relax after the long journey. Keep in mind that most onsen in Hakone are segregated by gender and charge a small fee. The larger onsen facilities in the hotel are no exception.
Mirador also has a wonderful breakfast you can add on to your stay for about $20. It's worth it because the area doesnt have mush in the way of restaurants and you might not find a place to eat until you get across the lake. You have to book ahead though.
The next day we ventured out of Ubako and took a boat from the station to Motohakone, directly across Lake Ashi. The boat itself is a bit of a corny affair.
OK, it's straight up cringe-y. The trip is geared towards entertaining children with actors dressed in garish pirate costumes who put on shows throughout the 30-minute trip and pose for photos.
But the boat is still pretty neat and the views are great. And if you don't have a car it's the quickest way to get around.
Hakone-Machi is a charming little village on the west side of Lake Ashi. The first thing you will encounter as you disembark is a little stand that sells grilled squid and corn. Classic combo! Well, you can try it if you're hungry. It's nothing special if not for the experience of talking to these charming fellows.
From the port, it's a short walk to the Narukawa Art Museum. Along the way you will see swan boats for hire in the bay and across the little inlet was another torii just at the edge of the lake. The main road is populated with restaurants and cafes. We were struck by the amazing view. The hills around Lake Ashi are just lovely. And on a clear day, from these shores, you can see Mt. Fuji from here. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and foggy the day we spent in Hakone. We could barely make out the outline of the mountain through the clouds.
But I could imagine in a couple more weeks, all the trees would have changed colors and the area would have been even more spectacular.
Narukawa Art Museum
The museum houses a private collection of contemporary art, most notably Nihonga (Japanese-style) paintings. They also have a lovely collection of kaleidoscopes and a great museum shop with plenty of great souvenirs including some pretty out-there flip books. I ended up buying one of each!
The museum also has a lounge and cafe with huge windows overlooking their beautiful garden on Lake Ashi.
Take a break at the cafe and sip some warm tea or sit in the garden for a bit before you continue on to the temple.
The torii we saw from the pier actually belongs to the Hakone Shrine set back from the water in a cedar forest to the north of Hakone-machi. Legend has it that a priest pacified the nine headed dragon residing in Lake Ashi, allowing for the construction of the temple. You will see dragon features all over this temple.
Even when the shrine is busy, as it was when we visited, you can still feel the magic of this place. Because of its location in the forest, sounds are hushed, the air is fragrant and you get a sense of the shrine's mystical past.
Water gushes out of the nine heads of the beautiful dragon fountain where you can ceremonially wash your hands and mouth.
Here, again, you will see walls of Ema, or wooden tablets, and fluttering Omikuji, prewritten fortunes visitors can get from the shrine for a small donation. If the fortune is positive, you can tie them to the wires provided for added effect or keep the fortune for good luck.
I find the Japanese written language beautiful so I have kept most tickets, Omikuji and receipts from the trip. These little fortunes make great little keepsakes.
Between Moto-Hakone and Hakone-machi you can walk along the ancient Tokaido road (one of the country's five oldest). The lovely Cedar Avenue is just beyond the checkpoint where you enter. It's a leisurely hike that can take up to 2 hours. I read that there is a tea house and onsen along the route but our friends were on a tight schedule so we didn't end up going to either but I would definitely take a look if you find yourself along this road. The tea house has been in service for over 350 years.
Hakone is a lovely place and I would highly recommend a quick visit if your goal is to find somewhere relaxing. It is completely different from bustling Tokyo and I can see why it is a popular weekend getaway destination for city-dwellers. I would choose a bigger village than we did to call your home base though and opt for a traditional Japanese-style hotel with onsen on-site.