Experience: Hakone Circuit

My husband tells me that the weather is turning cooler in Japan and summer is finally relinquishing its grasp. Hallelujah! I can’t wait to go home in a week and enjoy my favorite season. It’s always nice to return to one’s roots for a while but I am starting to crave some miso and sushi, neither of which is readily available in rural Pennsylvania!

While I am here at my parents’ home, my mother and I were going through some pictures of her last visit to Japan and we came across our trip out to Hakone in early March. Hakone is one of the most popular day trips from the Tokyo area and with good reason. With (usually) cooler temperatures, hot springs, traditional inns and – on clear days – stellar views of Mt Fuji, this area makes for an exciting day or overnight trip.

Part of the fun comes from the Hakone “Circuit”, a loose circle of various modes of transportation around the region – mountain railway, cable car, ropeway, boat and bus. The starting point for the route is Hakone Yumoto, a short hop from the shinkansen station at Odawara and the terminus for the Odakyu line’s Romance Car from Shinjuku station in western Tokyo. The Hakone Circuit can be followed either clockwise or counterclockwise but I’ll detail the counterclockwise route below as that is the way I usually go.

From Hakone Yumoto, the first leg is on the Hakone Tozan train, Japan’s only mountain railway. The railway was built in 1919; listen for the cowbell that’s rung at the departure from Hakone-Yumoto. It’s to honor the “sisterhood” of this tiny railway and one of Switzerland’s famous mountain rail routes. If you ride the rails here in June, the area next to the tracks will be chock full of blooming azaleas.

The railway terminates at the hamlet of Gora. Gora’s pretty tiny and not really worth a wander, unless you are stopping off at the Gyoza Center nearby. From behind the Gora railway station, however, you can board the cable car for the 9-minute ride to Souzan.

The cable car from Gora to Souzan
The cable car from Gora to Souzan

Souzan is nothing more than a changeover station. It’s where the cable car terminates and the ropeway begins. The ropeway runs up and over the mountain to Togendai, but there is a changeover at Owakudani station and you are free to explore a little bit. It’s pretty interesting to walk up into the boiling “hell” of Owakudani and watch how workers cook eggs (known as onsen tamago) in the sulfur springs here. You can try one if you like. I remember eating one in high school and being ok with it, but I abstained the last time I went in March. Older and wiser, I like to think. 🙂

The ropeway ends at Togendai, on the shores of Lake Ashi. Here you can board the Disneyesque “pirate ships” for a 40 minute ride across the lake to Hakone Machi or Moto Hakone. The views from the rear of the boat of Mt Fuji can be stunning, as are the views from the shores at Hakone Machi.

The pirate ships on Lake Ashi
The pirate ships on Lake Ashi

In Hakone Machi, you can visit the Hakone Checkpoint (Hakone Sekisho). The old Tokaido road from Kyoto to Tokyo was once littered with checkpoints. These were run by the shogunate and strictly controlled who could travel the highways during the Edo Period. The Hakone Checkpoint was one of the most important, as it was the last major checkpoint before reaching the Edo (Tokyo) area. No weapons were permitted to be brought into Edo beyond this point and, interestingly enough, no women from Edo were allowed further west than this unless on an official pass (and accompanied by minders). The checkpoint museum is sadly in Japanese only but the various rooms of the checkpoint have English explanations.

The Hakone Checkpoint (Hakone Sekisho)
The Hakone Checkpoint (Hakone Sekisho)

From Hakone Machi, you can walk the Cedar Avenue to Moto Hakone and get a close-up of the Hakone Shrine (with its big red torii gate in the waves of Lake Ashi). From there, it’s a winding bus ride back over the hill to Hakone-Yumoto, where your adventure comes full circle. You can certainly do the Hakone Circuit in one full day coming from Tokyo, but it’s enjoyable to spend the night here in one of the many onsen ryokan (traditional hot springs hotels).

The Hakone Free Pass is an economical way to travel around the Hakone region as it includes all of your transportation in Hakone as well as a round trip ticket to and from Tokyo. You can find out more on the Hakone Navi website.



4 thoughts on “Experience: Hakone Circuit

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  1. The day I did the Hakone Circuit the weather was so bad the pirate ship couldn’t sail, so I only got as far as Owakudani and turned back. I must go back and do the whole circuit one day.

    1. Oh no! That must have been bad weather indeed. It’s such a shame to venture all the way out to Hakone and not see Fuji but the region itself is so lovely regardless. I hope you have a chance to return!

  2. Indeed this is a great circuit, having done it once and with two other visits to the area not quite the circuit. For a variation after travelling up to the volcano area, we used local buses to come down, essentially parallel to the rail route but different views and only a handful of people on the buses!

    1. The buses are especially useful to access places on the north side of Lake Ashi as well. Buses can take longer but they really do ply the rural routes of Japan and introduce you to some great scenery.

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