In some respects, Hakone might be likened to Brighton!… Not convinced?
Well, both are situated approximately 50miles from their respective capital cities and have historically attracted city folk looking to relax and recuperate, drawn in part by the espoused health benefits of natural bathing:
Brighton bloomed as an eighteenth-century health lure for the cold sea dipping of Martha Gunn & Co, while Hakone has long been held as one of Japan‘s finest onsen (hot spring dipping) sources and retreats. Similarly, both have flourished and grown into cultural hubs and seats of leisure for visitors looking to unwind and absorb.
And, of course, where Hakone has Mount Fuji, Brighton has…Devil’s Dyke.
Ok, maybe they win that one.
Hakone is gathered to the South East of the great Mt. Fuji, and more broadly makes up part of the surrounding National Park. Nested amongst the mountains and swelling onsen, the area bubbles with traditional Ryokan inns, museums and leisurely attractions.
Transport is geared towards Fuji-gazing and encircles the area, with a variety of passes offering combined deals and discounts like the complete Hakone Freepass, operated by Odakyu, it offers a variety of inclusive options, including connections from Tokyo, around Hakone and back again.
Clearly sighting Fuji is paramount for many and the ropeways provide prime platforms, but then even from the close proximity of Hakone, weather and visibility can make viewing unpredictable, though planning ahead can certainly help.
August is generally popular and more reliable and recommended by Japan’s National Tourist Organisation, but the long-holiday weekend falls in the middle of the month and with relative midsummer reliability, comes the visiting crowds. Planning is particularly vital if you’re hoping to challenge the iconic peak by foot, as the mountain is only accessible to hikers for a few summer months.
We began our Fuji approach from Hakone-Yumoto Station, catching the vibrant red-yellow Hakone Tozan Line (aka the ‘Hydrangea Train’ due to its flowered surroundings in June), gradually crisscrossing roads, easing up the curving rails to ascend the first 450 or so metres, through quaint blossom-lined stops, on the only mountain railway in Japan.
Travelling up the Tozan line, it’s necessary to change at Gora station on to the Cable Car for the second part of the ascent to Sounzan Station. Hidden away just down the road from Gora station is the intimate Gora gyōza centre, a short walk and a pause at the dumpling haven provides a welcome treat.
We arrived late afternoon in Gora, took a wander and on speck had decided to find a place to stay.
We struggled – the hotels and ryokans we found were either fully booked or out of our price range – so in need of a rest and some food, we made our way to recharge with a ‘brief’ round of gyōza and sake.
Greeted by a mouth-watering array of plump dumpling choices, the passionately decorated restaurant seats just a few, and despite our gear taking up half a table, we were warmly welcomed and a spot was happily found for our bags to rest while we did the same… So much so, that we stayed until close.
By the time we had persuaded ourselves to stop eating dumplings and re-consider our accommodation quandary, it was getting late and we sobered to realise arranging transport was going to be a challenge, let alone somewhere to stay. So, we asked the friendly staff if they could
recommended anywhere nearby; to say they went out of their way to help would be something of an understatement – They managed to track down a place for us, booked us in for the night and even gave us a lift to the spot!
Safe to say, a trip to the Gora gyōza centre is thoroughly recommended! Although as we found, if you’re planning to make an overnight stop in the town, booking ahead would ease the pressure and uncertainty, especially if you’re on a budget as the area is popular for its 5 types of hot spring, not to mention proximity to Mount Fuji.
Gora to Sounzan
Picking up where we left off the next morning, we considered the various travel options, from individual tickets to inclusive passes like the bus-museum duos which provide entry to particular attractions along the way, such as ‘the world’s only’ museum dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince!
Our bed for the night was a little way out of town, we were relatively short on time and the weather was clear so we opted for a single direct bus ride to Sounzan as we continued up to catch Fuji via the ropeway over Hakone.
We were fortunate enough to have a fine, bright day and commencing the 30-minute ride along the ropeway revealed truly panoramic views of Fuji-san and the surrounding area – generally snowcapped somewhere between October and April, it’s hard to imagine a more impressive view of the great mountain, short of flying past it!
Descending the ropeway, the gondolas pass Owakudani and Ubako Stations, flying over the volcanic valley and stretching forests, framing Lake Ashi below, before finally reaching the port stop of Togendai Station and out alongside the sightseeing cruiser.
We exited to the grand views of Ashi, a cruiser awaiting anyone wishing to take a gentle sightseeing tour across the lake or alternatively, doing as we did, and jumping back on the bus to Odawara toward Tokyo via the Odakyu line for more Japanese adventures.
Useful information and links to reference sites:
Over at the Hakone Navi site, there’s a wealth of up-to-date detail about passes and routes around the area and seasonal changes are represented by the blossoming flora.
Hakone Navi – run by Odakyu.
Late March – April: Cherry Blossom
Late April – May: Azalea
Early June – July: Hydrangea
September – November: Silver Grass
Hakone passes providing travel options on Odakyu-run lines for a 1, 2 or 3 day visits:
Operated by the Odakyu Electric Railway Co are a variety of travel passes which cover a range of touring combinations from single day travel passes to the ‘Hakone Freepass‘ which offers a single solution for travelling around the Hakone area, joining the dots for the popular roundtrip circling Hakone. Valid on the Ropeway, the ‘Tozan‘ transport options (Railway, Cable Car and Bus) plus the Sightseeing cruise, Odakyu and Tokai Buses, the Freepass provides access to transport up through Goya, around Fuji, on Lake Ashi and across the town.
Details on Hakone and accessing free wifi hotspots across the area:
Climbing Fuji: “Mt. Fuji is only open to hikers from 1 July to early September.”