In this rather long post, I cover some of the more popular attractions in Hakone, a region renowned for its onsens. I hope this post can serve as a starting point for you in planning your trip if you decide to visit this beautiful place.
Consider if you Need a JR Pass
Firstly, before you even leave for Japan, consider if it is more economical for you too buy a JR pass which will enable you to take JR trains across the country. The Pass allows you to take the Hiroshima-Miyajima ferry, but it not eligible for the Nozomi and Mizuho train lines, which are faster.
We did not get a JR Pass as my calculations showed that we would not reap any savings since we weren’t travelling very far from Tokyo. I suggest calculating the cost of your train fares (and you can also check train times) using Hyperdia to work out whether you should get the Pass. A 7-day Pass costs S$325/£161. There are 14 and 21-day passes available as well.
An important thing to note is that you must buy the Pass before you leave for Japan. You can do so online at the JR Pass website. After paying for the Pass online, you will receive a JR Pass Exchange Order. You must present this Exchange Order together with your passport at one of the many Service Counters around Japan in order to receive the actual JR Pass. Do note that the service counters open at different times.
We took the overnight flight to Tokyo on ANA and were greeted in the morning with a nice Chinese-Japanese airplane breakfast with chicken porridge, siew mai and cold soba noodles.
Rent a Portable Wi-fi
The flight wasn’t very long and we arrived in Tokyo at 6am. We were tired from the lack of sleep but there was no time to waste! We rented a portable wifi device at the counter in Haneda airport for about ¥1350/day (S$15.50/£7.25 per day) before catching the train to our first destination.
I highly recommend getting a portable wifi, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. The convenience of being able to Google Map destinations and check train times on the go was immense and well worth paying for. I can’t remember which company I rented from but many people have had good experiences with Global Advanced Communications so it’s perhaps something you want to check out if you plan to visit Japan.
Getting to Hakone from Tokyo
Haneda > Shinagawa Station > Odawara Station
Our first destination was Hakone, a region famous for its onsens (hot springs). Getting there was a bit of a hassle as we had to change trains numerous times. We took the train from Haneda Airport to Shinagawa Station, then took the Tokaido line to Odawara Station. Both Japan Guide and JP Rail provide detailed instructions on how to get to Hakone.
At Odawara Station, we bought the Hakone Freepass for ¥4000 (S$45/£22.50). I know… It’s ironic. The Freepass isn’t actually free. I think they meant ‘free’ in the sense of being able to travel around Hakone ‘freely’ as it allows you to take buses, trains, the cable car and the cruise in Hakone, though do note that the price may differ a little depending on where you buy it. The cheapest place to get it is at Odawara Station. You will also be given a booklet with the departure timings of the buses, trains and ferry so look through to make sure you don’t miss the last bus/train/ferry.
Here is a map of the Hakone area. You can download the map here.
Another map with the time required to travel between places provided:
Ryokan in Gora
Odawara > Gora
At Odawara Station, we caught the train (which is covered by the Free Pass) towards Gora, where we had booked the onsen ryokan for the night.
I wanted the full tatami experience with the ryokan dinner and breakfast thrown in without paying through my nose for it. Typical Singaporean, I know. But the high end ryokans go up to hundreds of dollars a night and I definitely cannot afford that. I decided on Hakone Chiyodaso after much digging around for a reasonably priced ryokan.
We paid ¥10,700 (S$120/£57) per person for one night accommodation in a tatami room with dinner and breakfast. This was the cheapest I found with good reviews and a good location. It is near the Gora train station itself, a short walk of about 300m — a blessing when you’ve got heavy luggage with you.
There are quite a number of ryokans around Gora, so do check out TripAdvisor or Booking.com and other booking sites for one that is within your budget. The tatami room we got could sleep 4 people (or maybe even 6?). The futons were all kept neatly folded in a cabinet to the left of the room. While it’s not the most comfortable of beds, it’s all part of the experience right? I just don’t feel it’s right to go for an onsen and then sleep on a Western bed after that. Or maybe it’s just me.
Below are some pictures of the room and the area.
Attraction 1: Owakudani
Note: at the point of writing, Owakudani was closed due to increased seismic activity and authorities had raised the volcano alert.
After checking in and dropping our stuff off at the ryokan, we went off to explore Hakone. We took the train from Gora to Sounzan and then switched to the Hakone Ropeway to go up to Owakudani, a volcanic area with active sulphur vents and hot springs, hence the yellow deposits of sulphur you see in the picture. Since it was at a higher altitude, it was much colder than Gora and we were all shivering. But I couldn’t resist having a Goma Ice Cream (¥350) since I love black sesame. Unfortunately, it did not taste much of black sesame at all, despite it being so black. It tasted more vanilla than anything else. Ah well, I fell for a classic tourist trap!
The green ice cream isn’t actually matcha, as I initially thought. It’s actually wasabi-flavoured ice cream! They didn’t seem to be selling it on that day, however. Perhaps you could try it when you visit Owakudani and let me know how it tasted.
That little shop that sold the ice cream also sold the famous Kurotamago ( Black Eggs, 黒玉子). 5 eggs cost ¥500. It’s a local specialty of eggs hard-boiled in the hot springs, turning them black and smelling of sulphur. It is said that eating just one of these eggs will add 7 years to your life. It’s most likely hyperbole, but I insisted on buying some to try. After all, that’s what this place is famous for.
But alas, it was another tourist trap.
While it smelt of sulphur, it didn’t taste of anything other than a normal hard-boiled egg. Still, it did make for a nice memory of the place. Whenever I think of Owakudani now, the black eggs are what first come to mind.
For lunch, we decided to eat at the ramen shop inside the souvenir ship, right next to where the counter selling the ice cream and black eggs was. The first bowl is the famous black ramen with its hearty pork bone-based broth. The rich broth is perfect for warming you up in the cold weather and I would definitely recommend you try this. I definitely prefer the black ramen for its richer broth over the regular shoyu-based one.
We then took the cable car again to Togendai Station, where we boarded the Cruise which looked like a pirate ship. It really was unfortunate that the weather that day was so gloomy, I imagine that the views must be spectacular in the spring when the sun is out.
There were hoards of people disembarking the ship when we arrived and the queue waiting to board was really long. Fortunately, we were able to get on to the next ferry, which departs about once every hour. So do check the departure times to avoid too long a wait.
The lake you see is Lake Ashi, or Ashinoko. It is a crater lake best known for its views of Mount Fuji. Since the day was so overcast, it was impossible to see anything. The cruise ride was also disappointing since the windows were heavily tinted and everything looked flat and boring without the sun. We were dozing off on the half hour ride, mostly due to tiredness from our lack of sleep on the flight. Hopefully you will have better luck than me when you visit and can actually see Mount Fuji in the background!
In my next post I will review the ryokan where I stayed (Hakone Chiyodaso), as well as post some pictures of the food that we were served. So stay tuned!
Thanks for reading thus far and I hope I enticed you enough to consider going to Owakudani when you visit Japan!