Take a break from the dizzying delights of Tokyo for 48-hours in Hakone, a destination pf stunning natural beauty, that’s jam-packed with culture, cuisine and adventure.
Nestled in the volcanic embrace of Mount Fuji in Kanagawa Prefecture just 90-minutes south of neon-saturated Tokyo, Hakone is a popular destination for locals seeking relaxation and breathtaking scenery, served with a side of historical charm, thrilling adventure, and attractions for all ages.
Hakone’s story starts hot and heavy, shaped as it was by volcanic activity some 400,000 years ago. Early communities revered its mountain, and around the 8th century AD, the Hakone Gongen shrine emerged, attracting samurai, shoguns, and pilgrims, solidifying its spiritual significance. Centuries later, during the Edo period (1603-1868), Hakone-juku would become a post station, complete with a strategic checkpoint, on the Tokaido highway that connected Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto.
The 20th century ushered in a new era and a raft of Tokyo residents and foreigners who quickly fell for Hakone’s many undisputable charms, leading to its evolution as the popular resort destination it is today.
So, with a vague plan of adding a little yin to the yang of a Tokyo holiday by immersing ourselves in nature, we hit the road south on a two day Hakone itinerary.
Exploring the Owakudani Valley
I had not expected to find myself dangling like a teabag above a percolating bowl. But here I am in a gondola on the Hakone Ropeway, Japan’s longest, crossing the sulfuric springs of the Owakudani Valley. This active volcanic crater was formed by a magmatic eruption of Mount Hakone 3,000 years ago, and as we cross I am willing it with all my might to wait at least that long to blow again.
Hopping off at Owakudani Valley station, we are overcome by the crazy power of nature and an intense rotten egg smell. To put it politely, this is not a place at risk of becoming the inspiration for Dior’s next fragrance.
The sulphurous steam vapours float heavenwards as we explore the apocalyptic landscape, and we stop our exploration only to devour a jet-black ice-cream. Yes, black.The icy delight is made with bamboo charcoal powder and its earthy flavour makes for a unique and refreshing treat. It is also a pleasant distraction from the pong.
Another culinary delight of Owakudani, which I am less eager to partake in is its black eggs, also known as kuro-tamago,
At least I am until I hear that they are believed to bring good luck and longevity, with one legend saying that eating just one egg will add seven years to your life. I debate whether to stock up on enough to render me immortal, but just go for a starter pack. These all-powerful eggs are chicken eggs boiled in the volcanic hot springs of Owakudani, which turns the shells black due to the sulphur in the water. Like Owakudani they are a little whiffy. Once peeled they really don’t smell or taste that much different to a regular boiled egg, and only time will tell if the legends are true.
Back on the ropeway, we descend to the shores of sparkling Lake Ashinoko, a picturesque volcanic crater lake nestled in the Hakone caldera, and the surreal sight of enchanting swan boats trailing a trio of pirate ships. Only-in-Japan.
A popular destination for families, the Lake offers stunning views of Mount Fuji (when the weather cooperates), sailing, kayaking and paddleboarding. But its main attraction, besides it devastatingly good looks, is the Hakone Shrine, a beautiful Shinto shrine known for a red torii gate that appears to be floating on the water. Kids will love the mystical atmosphere of the shrine and the opportunity to learn about Japanese culture and religion as much as they do the hen-pecked pirate ships sailing by.
Hakone Open-Air Museum
From the steamy to the sublime, art plays with nature at the Hakone Open-Air Museum, which may just be my new favourite art gallery. The surrounding mountains provide an exquisite backdrop for a cool collection of 120 outdoor installations from renowned Japanese and international artists spread across the 70,000-square-metres museum grounds.
There’s a lovely collection from Henry Moore and I am pretty taken with Miss Black Power by Nikki de Saint Phalle. But it is is Symphonic Sculpture – an 18-metre-tall lookout tower housing a spiral staircase surrounded by exquisite stained-glass that I fall completely head over heels for.
There’s also an extensive indoor collection dedicated to the life and works of Pablo Picasso that is worth the trip alone. Beyond the incredible outdoor works and the masterful works of old mate Pablo, there’s a Jenga stack of timber beams leads little ones to a quirky interactive art play space filled with giant swings formed from dangling rainbow nets.
Forget hushed galleries – here, kids can climb, crawl as they soak in the stunning Mount Fuji views. just the way we like it!
Enjoying the Onsen experience
Given our steamy start, it is perhaps not surprisingly that Hakone is renowned for its numerous natural hot spring baths, known as onsen. But Hakone’s onsen offer more than just a bathing experience, they’re pools of time-honoured tradition. Shrouded in steam and ritual, people have sought their healing powers for centuries, soaking in the mineral-rich waters to cure both physical ailments and spiritual anxieties. The variety of onsen in Hakone is as diverse as the landscape itself. Some are open-air, offering breathtaking views of Mount Fuji and starlit skies. Others are tucked away in hidden corners, their serenity amplified by the sound of trickling water and rustling leaves. But the one thing they all have in common is nudity! Yep, you gotta ditch your duds to join in on this tradition. Bathing suits are not allowed. But worry not, while the onsen experience is deeply communal, men and women bathe separately ensuring privacy and comfort for everyone.
And trust me, no one is watching. They’re too busy relaxing. To be honest, it is quite empowering to be in a room full of naked folk where no one is judging you or cares if your bum is bigger, boobs are saggier or skin wrinklier. Which is rather fortunate, as I would win on all three counts.
For those who feel a little too shy, many ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) do feature private onsens. But before you book your ryokan, you will need to check beforehand if children are allowed, as some have age restrictions.
A sensational sleepover at Mikawaya Ryokan
Speaking of family-friendly Ryokans, one of the best ryokans in Hakone is the sublime Mikawaya Ryokan, a pretty, family-friendly 138-year-old Japanese inn surrounded by a garden famous for its azaleas.
If you’ve never stayed in one, it’s worth knowing that there are many ryokan rules and rituals , which your can read about at length here. But for those in a hurry, here’s the abridged version…
Upon arrival, you will be asked to remove your shoes and trade them for slippers. These will not be attractive. They are, however, a necessity as outside shoes must always remain off in publics spaces at your ryokan. The slippers must be removed before stepping on the tatami flooring in your room, which incidentally at Mikawaya Ryokan are both spacious and stunning.
Once I can tear my eyes away from the colourful autumn gardens that I spy from my veranda, I spy the robes that have been laid out for me. You see, Ryokan etiquette also dictates that along with shoes, you gotta ditch your clothes for yukata (robes), which are to be worn in public spaces and gardens. Now, these do come with a few rules. The first rule is do not go commando. Seriously no-one needs to see anything unexpected pop out of your robe while enjoying their leisurely kaiseki dinner (more on that in a minute). The second rule is to ensure your yukata is crossed left-over-right as only corpses dress right-over-left, and you don’t want to scare the other guests into thinking they’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
As well as being stupidly pretty, the service at Mikawaya Ryokan is super friendly and so welcoming, even proffering tea and delightfully sticky strawberry stuffed mochi, as soon as we arrive.
There Ryokan has English speaking staff members, which came in very handy when I lose the key to my suitcase and had to get the manager to do a break and enter on it. For soakers, the ryokan boasts both indoor and outdoor onsen (as well as a private one that is available on request if you’re on the shy side), all bubbling with healing Sulphur-filled waters that leave my muscles merrily molten.
But despite the ryokan’s overall fabulousness, it is the dining room that leaves me most impressed. For dinner we indulge in an extraordinary Japanese kaiseki dinner of meticulously crafted small dishes that ran the gamut from sashimi to a bubbling personal hotpot. Every morsel presented is a work of art and every bite a revelation of flavour and texture.
From history and tradition to art and adventure, our 48-hours in Hakone is packed with moments of nature, wonder and awe. Add steaming hot springs, sumptuous feasts and a postcard pretty ryokan, and we are left yearning to explore more of Hakone’s earthly delights.