Usually, I would not write a full post about just a day trip, but this one day just stands out in every possible way. It was a mix of very different experiences, some fabulous and others just mind-boggling and two worth writing home about. There was also some delicious food at a most unexpected cafe and then a bizarre ride on a ship with a view of Mount Fuji. The town of Hakone is also known for its small boutique hotels with unique own onsen experiences. That, however, requires an overnight trip and I did not have the luxury of time.
So let us start in the morning with the walk to the Shinjuku Station – the mother of all stations. Usually, you need a map to find the station in the city but here you need to worry about the right entrance and then the right train pass. A Hakone Pass for the day would cover nearly all of the journey – so I would recommend that.
The first step of the journey is getting to Odawara – the entry point to Hakone and the nearest major station. There are many ways to get there including a bullet train, a train called “romance car” with large windows, and also a regular express train. The Romance car was sold out for the day and I ended up in the express train for a 70-minute ride into Odawara. Across the platform from my train was another commuter train with the traditional “pushers” making sure the trains were stuffed to the limit. Fortunately, my train wasn’t as crowded! Towards the last part of the journey you get a stunning view of Mount Fuji, so don’t fall asleep!
From Odawara station, you switch to a small train that takes you to Hakone Yumuto. It’s a nice picturesque journey on a cute train from decades ago and takes only 15 minutes. The scenery keeps getting prettier as you get deeper into Hakone and while there are crowds everywhere, the systems work quite well and there wasn’t much wait.
The next phase of the journey was an even smaller train to Gora. This is a mountain train and climbs up some steep slopes. The boarding platform is also more traditional compared to the modern straight line platforms for the regular train system. The train itself actually changes direction several times during the ride up and passes by some really small stations. If you were staying at a hotel, you would get off at one of these. The train was crowded and the seats had their back to the window, making it hard to appreciate the scenery. A different rake that I had missed had front-facing seats, that would be better. The ride passes through some beautiful viewpoints, made even better by the fall colors.
Once you get off the train, you are in a small town with a small platform to board a Funicular Train which was for some strange reason called a cable car. Funiculars are considered national heritage in parts of Europe, but they don’t get this sort of respect in Japan. It is a short ride, maybe 10 minutes, but there was a wait because of the small size of the cars. There isn’t much to see or do here, it just passes by quickly to get you to Sounzan to start the most picturesque and sometimes adventurous part of the journey.
A ropeway will take you up a hill with a stunning view of a valley and also of Mount Fuji. A second part of the same ropeway will then bring you down to Togendai. However, that is not the exciting part – the ropeway passes over an active volcano. There are days when the smoke from the volcano is too much and the ropeway has to be shut. The day I was there, the volcano was quite active, but not enough to shut the ropeway but they did give out wet tissues to cover your mouth and nose. The view of the smoke coming out of the volcano and the dull brown foliage with deep craters is exhilarating. The top of the hill has a wonderful viewpoint and an amazing restaurant. There was a short wait to get a seat, but the buckwheat noodles were delicious. Definitely try the famous blackened eggs – eating one is said to increase your lifespan by 7 years. They are cooked in the hot springs and have a strong sulfur smell. By the time I had finished eating the ropeway was being shut down because of the volcano so people were only being allowed to go down, no one was coming up. I quickly clicked a few shots of the smoke and took the beautiful ride back down. The view of a lake and Mount Fuji just beyond was just amazing but alas the glass walls of the ropeway car were too badly scratched to get any good shots.
Sun was beginning to get a little low when the ropeway dropped us into a really crowded station at Togendai. There were a lot of people waiting to board a boat that would take us across the lake to Moto Hakone. The first view of the boat was mind-blowing – it looked more like a pirate ship. Looking at the crowd I was worried if I will be able to get on the upcoming trip or will have to wait another hour for the next one. I ended up buying a first-class ticket (an extra 1000 JPY). I did get on the boat for the 40-minute ride and was very quickly happy about the extra money spent. First-class had table seating with a food counter and I could walk to the bow of the boat in freezing November air to click a few shots. Let’s just say the regular seating was crowded and leave it at that. It was quite a beautiful ride and as the boat docked, the Sun was setting giving Mount Fuji a beautiful red dusk background.
The next phase of the journey was nowhere near as interesting. It was getting dark when I got into the hour-long bus ride to Odawara. There was a short wait for the bus but then there was no other option. I bought some snacks before boarding as lunch was a while ago. Not much was visible outside as it was dark and I took a short nap till the bus got me back to the Odawara train station.
There were two options for the return journey – the express train I had taken on the way in and or a bullet train to Tokyo train station and then a local metro to the hotel. Both would be free as the first was covered by the Hakone Pass and the second was covered by the JR Pass – always the story for traveling by train in Japan. Just for variety, I chose the bullet train, not realizing that the only tickets available were in the smoking cars. I also didn’t fully appreciate that the train was 4 min to departure when I bought the ticket and it’s a very long train. A long sprint to the coach later I was taking deep breaths in the smoking car. Fortunately, it was a very short ride, about 30 min to Tokyo station.
In the central Tokyo station, I was going to take my 9th different form of transport for the day – a simple metro train back to Shinjuku. Back to the hotel for an amazing dinner in a small restaurant and then some much-needed sleep. The direction I traveled in is the recommended direction in most guidebooks and blogs. I would think doing the loop in the opposite direction may help avoid some crowds…just maybe.