(Continued from my Tokyo 2017 trip)
Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture is very popular side trip from Tokyo. It’s so popular that it comes off as kinda touristy to me and probably isn’t the best experience in Japan to me. It was a lot more crowded than I’d like to to be and full of foreign tourists. Still, it was still somewhat enjoyable because everywhere in Japan is and it is a beautiful place if you manage to ignore the crowds.
Odakyu Line, Romance Car Limited Express
Getting to Hakone from Tokyo is fairly easy: you can either drive, or take a train -both with their own pros and cons. The Odakyu Line is the railway linking Shinjuku, Tokyo to Hakone. The fastest way to get to Hakone would be on the Romance Car Limited Express trains on the Odakyu Line and this would take around 1.5hrs with very few stops, depending on which train timing you take, the very fastest train – Super Hakone 13, totally doesn’t stop at all from Shinjuku to Odawara (one stop before Hakone Yumoto station)! This train departs at 10:10am daily, but other trains are pretty fast as well. Note that this is NOT a Shinkansen train. For normal trains, the fare is ¥1190 from Shinjuku to Hakone-Yumoto Station, and if you wish to top up for Limited Express Romance Car, the additional Limited Express surcharge is ¥890 (total ¥2080). Prices are for 1 way, so you need to double it if you’re returning to Tokyo!
Hakone is so popular, the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Center in Shinjuku station is equipped with staff speaking several different languages. You should expect a long queue of tourists all the time. I can’t imagine how long the lines will be during the peak seasons.
As these trains can be pretty popular, you can reserve your seats online up to a month ahead. This is especially important if you want to board popular train time slots or wish to get the seats at the front or the rear end of the train. You can either purchase it online (no need to pick up physical ticket, just show your credit card and booking details to board to train), or simply book without paying (you need to redeem it a day before your train ride and pay up at the counter otherwise your seats will be released.).
If you’re going to get a Hakone Free Pass (which includes normal train from Shinjuku to Hakone) and want to get to Hakone via Romance Car, you can simply secure your Romance Car seats online first. When you redeem your reserved seat at the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Center, you can purchase the Hakone Free Pass in the same transaction, they’ll do the math for you. Do not purchase your train tickets online first or else it’ll be complicated!
Hakone Free Pass
Hakone Free Pass is recommended for visitors because it includes transport around the Hakone sightseeing area. The various forms of transport is the tourist attraction – sightseeing trains, boats, cable car, ropeway and also mountain buses (including bus to Gotemba Premium Outlets!). It is designed as a loop route and is easy to follow. The individual fares can be quite expensive so you’ll definitely make savings from getting this pass. If you want to get down in between to check out the area up close and personal (such as Lake Ashi, or the volcanic activity in Owakudani – more on those later!), you probably need more than a day to see it all if you go during autumn or winter when daylight is short. Therefore, you can opt for a 3 day pass instead of 2 days if you want to spend more time in the area. The cost difference is only ¥500 more for the extra day.
*It is important to take note that not all buses around Hakone are under the same bus company. Those operated under Izu Bus are not part of the Hakone Free Pass!
The main point about the Hakone Free Pass is the unlimited access to these modes of transportation. The price of ¥5140 (2 days) or ¥5640 (3 days) includes regular train fare from and to Shinjuku. I wanted to have half a day in Gotemba Premium Outlets so the 3 day pass made more sense for my itinerary as I needed more time in the area. Hakone Tozan bus has a route which brings you from Hakone area to Gotemba Premium Outlets and it makes more sense to visit Gotemba while in the area, rather than to make a day trip out of Tokyo on another day. I also topped up the Limited Express Romance car both ways, making my Free Pass to cost ¥5640 + ¥890 + ¥890 = ¥7420.
You can also have your Hakone Free Pass beginning from Odawara station. This would cost ¥4000 or ¥4500 for 3 days. You will be able to access the same network of transport within the Hakone sightseeing area – the only difference is no train ride to and from Tokyo. This option makes sense if you’re not going 2 ways to Tokyo, or not coming from Tokyo altogether. Otherwise, there will be savings if you go for the ¥5140/ ¥5640 Hakone Free Pass which departs from Shinjuku two ways.
If you’re not intending to take the Limited Express Romance car, thus having no reserved train seats booked (or if you do want to take the Limited Express Romance Car but did not book any seats online), you can actually purchase the Hakone Free Pass and Limited Express surcharge ticket from any Odakyu Line Ticketing Machine, skipping the long queue at the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Center. However, you’ll need to be very sure of what you’re purchasing since you’ll be on your own. If you need assistance, you just need to get in line and purchase from a human at the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Center counter.
Besides the Hakone Free Pass, other options for foreigners includes the Hakone Kamakura Pass including Enoshima Kamakura area (new and available from 1st December 2017, hence it wasn’t an option for me) or the Fuji Hakone Pass which includes the Mount Fuji sightseeing area such as Lake Kawaguchi-ko. As I’ve visited that area before, I decided to just do Hakone alone.
On board the Romance Car Super Hakone 13!
All seats have to be reserved. If you’re travelling in bigger groups and wish to sit together, online reservation is highly recommended. The seats can be spun around to face one another if you’re in a group of 3 or 4.
If it’s your first time on a Japanese train, you would like to know that eating on trains is a very common practice and it’s basically the norm. These bento called eki-ben (I love how it has a name), literally meaning train station bentos, are available for purchase at major train stations or on board the train. The selection is wider at the stations for sure, and on some trains it may get sold out, so you better buy them at the station before boarding. I wasn’t really hungry, but I wanted to have an eki-ben because why not?
As per Japanese culture, they always clean up on their own accord before it’s time to get off the train, so make sure you do that too. Have plastic bags ready for all your trash. Do not expect service staff to clean up your area after your meal!
How to deal with baggage
Upon reaching Hakone-Yumoto station, I took one of the Hakone Tozan buses to my accommodation for the night to off load luggage. The ryokan I booked for the first night was is actually only a mere 500m or so from Hakone-Yumoto station, but the whole area was up slope a mountain so it makes walking with luggage kind of inconvenient.
If you would like to stay in ryokans or hotels further away from Hakone-Yumoto but do not wish to waste your time personally bringing your luggage there (and risk having to walk up slopes from the bus/ train stops with luggage!), you can opt for baggage delivery service. This is available at Hakone-Yumoto station and needs no prior reservation. I think Hakone Free Pass holders are entitled to some discount as well. I am not too familiar with this, but had I known about this service earlier on I’d definitely pick a nicer hotel somewhere else within the region!
Staying in Hakone-Yumoto wasn’t half bad either – I had nice food options near me.
First stop was Chimoto for wagashi and tea. The tea house was beautiful and I love the interior decor which was minimalistic yet unique. It was a pity that I didn’t get a good photo.
The above dessert was a limited edition creation only available during Autumn season. During Autumn in Hakone, they were having this event called Hakone Sweets where various tea houses all over the area participated by launching a special dessert on top of their usual menu. Even the Romance Car also offered a seasonal dessert item as part of this campaign. The special dessert from each of these participating establishments usually features seasonal ingredients to match the theme of Autumn using seasonal ingredients or items designed to represent fall. Fret not if you miss the season – they have Hakone Sweets for Spring as well, featuring spring themed dessert! This should be a recurring event with new creations each season. It was a cheap thrill for me because I love it when such themed events coinciding with my travel plans, especially if it involves beautiful desserts!
690 Yumoto, Hakone, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa Prefecture 250-0311, Japan
For proper lunch, it had to be at this soba restaurant with a perpetual queue! This restaurant is so popular, they even have a second branch just within walking distance from the main shop. Be prepared to share tables here – they basically squeeze you in to whichever seat they find vacant. To queue, you write your name and party size on a sheet of paper and when it’s your turn they’ll shout out for you. If you’re not present, your turn will be forsaken and you need to re-queue. The number of people in line is never ending but because they squeeze people in like sardines, the wait to get in is only about 20 minutes. The soba was good, but honestly it wasn’t super special. It wasn’t as memorable as the soba I had in Ibaraki, and definitely nothing so special that is worthy of any hype. Still, it makes a good and economical meal.
Hatsuhana Soba (Honten)
635 Hakone Yumoto, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa Prefecture 250-0311, Japan
Along the streets leading to Hakone Yumoto Station, you can find many shops selling local products and souvenirs. Grabbed a coffee soft cream from 箱根焙煎珈琲 along the way just because.
702 Yumoto Hakone Ashigarashimo-gun Kanagawa
From Hakone-Yumoto, I took the Tozan Train up to Gora Station. The train was more like a sightseeing train rather than an efficient form of transport, so it was pretty slow. It also made several detour turns along the way because it was meandering up the mountains. Gora station is the last stop for the Tozan Train and you can hop onto the Hakone Tozan Cable Car to carry on the sight seeing course.
I was intending to check out Gora Park, and from the 2D map it looks like just a short walk away from Gora Station, like only a 5 min’s walk, so I thought I’d walk there instead of waiting for the Cable Car. What I didn’t expect was this 5 min walk to actually be a 5 mins hike! Gora Park was situated up hill and it was pretty steep. Even with steps and pathway, it was not within the definition of an easy stroll. I definitely recommend taking the Cable Car even if it’s just for 1 stop, because it’s up hill. Basically the Hakone Tozan Cable Car will take you up the mountain from Gora Station, similar to the Peak Tram in Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak.
Admission to Gora Park is charged at ¥550 for regular adults, but Hakone Free Pass holders get to go in for free.
I’d reckon it’ll be a lot nicer in spring or summer, with flowers blooming. I caught the last few remaining blooms.
Autumn pretty must just started and only part of the landscape changed colour. I found maple leaves in 5 colours.
They also have craft activities to do onsite, which I would have done if I had time.
Hakone Gora Park
1300 Gora, Hakone, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa Prefecture 250-0408, Japan
Daylight in autumn is limited and by 4pm+, it started to get dark. I booked a Ryokan stay for Hakone thinking it would make the experience here authentic and fun.
Brewed some tea and had some wagashi before dinner.
The Japanese garden was small but beautiful. It was illuminated so the garden can be admired even at night.
I was really looking forward to dinner because I love Kaiseki, but I must say this is one of the most disappointing Kaiseki I’ve had in Japan. The pace of serving wasn’t attentive enough (like the food was dished out at lightning speed, some of which turned cold before I could get to it) and the food was average at best, with some items below average. The dessert tasted like it came out of a can. But also, I think the food in this region is generally different and style I cannot appreciate. This was such a disappointment because meals at Ryokans are part of the reason for the high accommodation costs, and if the meal isn’t good, the Ryokan isn’t worth putting up at.
The room was made up while we had dinner. I love sleeping on the futon. I had a nice shower and soak in the onsen after briefly digesting my dinner and The shower facilities at the public bath area were quite good, with Panasonic Nanocare hair dryer – I always wanted to try the Japanese version! It cost like $300 but is not compatible with Singapore power rating, hence using it in Japan is the only option. I also booked a 45mins massage which was good – you can even get a discount coupon at the counter. The in-room shower facilities however, was below average.
Breakfast was served as set meal rather than buffet style and this is a double edged sword. While I love well balanced set meals and not needing to think of what to eat at buffets, if the meal consisted of food not to my liking, it generally is going to suck. This meal belongs to the latter category and most of the items were left untouched. In this case I rather have a buffet breakfast and select my own items.
Generally, I do not recommend this ryokan at all. Besides the convenient location near Hakone-Yumoto and beautiful garden, there isn’t really anything great about this ryokan! Accommodation in Hakone area is not cheap to begin with and I guess this is what you would expect from a touristy region – expensive but average hotels.
597 Yumoto, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun 250-0311, Kanagawa Prefecture
For the second night, I booked a very basic hotel which was 1 bus stop uphill from Ryokan Yoshiike. As mentioned, accommodation in Hakone isn’t cheap and since the plan for Day 2 in Hakone was to be out the whole day, going for the most basic yet decently convenient one makes the most sense.
After dropping off the bags, we were back at Hakone-Yumoto Station to catch a Hakone Tozan Bus through the mountains to Lake Ashi. All these happened really early in order to maximise daylight!
First stop was Amakaze Chaya. This tea house is one of a kind. It is located in the woods, en route to Lake Ashi. The Hakone Tozan bus stops right in front of it and it’s an iconic attraction of Hakone too.
It was barely 10am and the fresh mountain air was chilly. In such weather, a cup of hot Amakaze came in handy. Amakaze, literally sweet sake, is not really sake at all. It’s made from the fermentation of rice and all alcohol is removed, leaving something which tastes like Horlicks. The warm mochi was something I’d still think of – perhaps it’s the combination with chilly air that made these warm mochi so delectable, we even ordered a second serving. These are pounded from steamed glutinous rice with a pestle – not from powder! The texture was so good and definitely different from mochi made from powder. I waited till 10am sharp before they allowed me to order the special dessert creation for Hakone Sweets. I’ll admit that I was a sucker for that pretty pink dango, but it was really delicious too!
Amazake chaya is a unique experience and I’d say it’s worth the time checking it out.
Amazake Chaya 甘酒茶屋
395-1 Futagoyama Hatajuku, Hakone
Next stop – Lake Ashi. This is probably the most iconic place in the whole of Hakone sightseeing area, famous for the Torii gates of Hakone Shrine and the iconic viking ships.
I was here before 11am and there was a crowd around the iconic Torii gate facing Lake Ashi. You need to get in line for a photo. However, the lighting wasn’t favourable at all and all you could see in pictures was your silhouette. It’s quite overrated I must say. The shrine itself had visitors as well but I didn’t check much of it out since time was tight.
For lunch, most of the food options were around the sightseeing cruise area which was 10mins walk from Hakone Shrine. Some of the popular establishments were really crowded with tourists – I certainty didn’t like that feeling. I grabbed chicken karaage takeaway from a little shop behind the main touristy stretch as my lunch on board the cruise. No regrets with my choice.
Hakone Karaage Karatto
10 Motohakone, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun 250-0522, Kanagawa Prefecture
The famous Hakone Sightseeing Cruise comes in 3 designs and the one which I was going to board happened to be Vasa, in this nice shade of viridian green.
The sightseeing cruise is included in the Hakone Free Pass, but if you wish to upgrade to First Class cabin, you can top up at the counter. The amount of tourists in the economy cabin was massive for my boat, so topping up for First Class was quite worth it. However, the first class cabin for Vasa was kind of basic. The other 2 boats has fancier interiors and you can check them out here.
This boat is very touristy but it was a good experience not to be missed. Even if it isn’t for the sake of sight seeing, this is the best was to get to the other end of Hakone if you’re at Lake Ashi.
There are 2 docks where you can board this ship – Hakonemachi-ko and Motohakone-ko. It doesn’t really make a difference and I boarded at Motohakone-ko. When you get to Togendai-ko, a pathway will lead to the Hakone Tozan Ropeway.
Hakone Sightseeing Cruise
6–40 Moto-Hakone, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun 250-0522
Togendai is the starting point for the Hakone Tozan Ropeway. This ropeway will lead you to Sounzan, where you can transit to the Hakone Tozan Cable Car. Along the way, you will get a glimpse of Mount Fuji if the weather is clear!
The ropeway ride to Sounzan isn’t direct – at Owakudani station, you will get off for a transit. Here they will provide medication and face masks for those who are susceptible to dizziness from sulphur fumes. At this station, it is also where you can get off and check out the volcanic fumes up close and personal if that’s your thing. You can even try one of their famous black eggs. I had time constraint so I just headed for the next ropeway car down to Sounzan. The ride from Owakudani to Sounzan provides a good view of the volcanoes as well and even from afar, you can really smell the sulphur. I cannot imagine how much more intense it will be to be down there in person.
Upon alighting at Sounzan station, I took the cable car downhill to Gora station. I was lucky that the next car was a direct ride to Gora without any stops in between. It was pretty much like the Peak Tram in Hong Kong. I was rushing to catch the 2+pm bus from Gora to Gotemba Premium Outlets.
This bus is a regular public bus and is included in the Hakone Free Pass. Along the way, majestic Mount Fuji showed up a lot!
My favourites from Gotemba premium outlets – crepes and Haagen Dazs. The food court has terrible food, so don’t eat there.
No pics while shopping because it was around 3+pm by the time I arrived in the Outlet mall and there was no time to waste. The shopping here is good – they have a lot of designer brands which you cannot find in most other outlet malls in Japan!
Gotemba Premium Outlets
1312, Fukasawa, Gotemba-Shi, Shizuoka, Japan, 412-0023
As mentioned, I stayed in a very basic hotel for the night and it didn’t include meals. Pretty much everything is closed at Hakone Yumoto area at night, so it’s cup noodles to the rescue! These 4 bowls are famous restaurant cup noodles by Nissin, sold only at 7-11. We have Sumire, Santouka, Ippudo, and Nakiryu (1 Michelin Star). These premium cup noodles even comes with freeze dried meat which tastes like the real deal once cooked. The ramen eggs can be found at 7-11, and they were perfect. The verdict – Ippudo was the best.
Digressing, some people hunt all over the place for these cup noodles but they are only sold at 7-11 as it’s a collaboration between 7-11, Nissin and the respective ramen chains!
Breakfast was provided, but again, I couldn’t appreciate this cuisine.
Half the day was to be spent at Odawara today before heading back to Shinjuku on the Romance Car. The Hakone Tozan Bus will take you into the residential area of Odawara , still covered by the Hakone Free Pass, and the castle is a short walk away.
Odawara is not really a tourist area and the main attraction would be Odawara Castle. Having seen Osaka and Himeji Castle before, this was just average, but newly refurbished.
Jonai, Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture 250-0014, Japan
I wanted to have the famous Unagi in Odawara for lunch, but the wait for a seat was too long and I wouldn’t make it for the train ride. Ended up walking to Suzunari Market of Suzuhiro Kamaboko Village looking for alternative food options. Honestly, there wasn’t much ready to eat food options within Suzunari Market because it was more like an indoor market place selling all sorts of Kamaboko (Japanese fish cake). By this time I’ve already figured that Kamaboko is a local speciality in this area because I keep getting it in all my meals while in Hakone. This probably has something to do with the samurai history in this area – Kamaboko was eaten by samurai and nobility dating back to the 12th century. It is now a popular food item in Japan.
However, I did manage to find a tea house, Koyurugi Chaya within Suzunari Market selling local mochi and tea. Perfect!
It’s mochi (made from pounded glutinous rice, not from shiratamako) with bean paste or powder on the outside – similar to the style of mochi I had at Amazake Chaya.
They have 5 regular flavours and 1 season flavour changing every month. I loved all of the ones I tried. It was November so the monthly special was Murasaki Imo.
Suzunari Market, 245 Kazamatsuri, Odawara, Kanagawa, Japan
Besides Suzunari Market, there are other activities to check out within the same cluster of Suzuhiro Kamaboko Village, like Hakone Brewery, Kamaboko Museum where you can make your own kamaboko, and dine in F&B options across the road. Honestly visiting this place wasn’t part of my plans but it was a nice random find. Odakyu Line Kazamatsuri train station is located right behind the market, making it a very easily accessible site from Hakone-Yumoto – only 2 stops.
Suzuhiro Kamaboko Village
245 Kazamatsuri, Odawara, Kanagawa, Japan
Last photos in Hakone before leaving! This was right beside my hotel.
Random grape + matcha soft serve at Hakone station, which was not very nice, and the very last Hakone Sweets special I ordered on board the romance car (not nice either).
Overall, Hakone was alright but would have been way better without the crowd. It was a Saturday afternoon and the roads towards Hakone from Odawara had pretty heavy traffic. I usually don’t get heavy traffic in rural parts of Japan, but I guess Hakone is different since it’s well known to foreign tourists.
Instead of getting back to Tokyo, we were going to spend the last night in Narita before heading home the next day. Accommodation in Narita is a lot cheaper than in Tokyo for a Saturday so it makes no sense stay the night in Tokyo. To save the extra bucks I even chose to take the Keisei Line (not express) from Ikebukuro to Narita town (not Narita Airport) where we were staying for the night and the whole journey was s l o w.
This is my 3rd time in Narita so I pretty much know what I wanted to do around here. Narita town at night had lots more F&B options as compared to Hakone (which is dead town once night falls) but I was headed to AEON Mall for shopping.
Random dinner at a family restaurant, CoCo Restaurant (this is not CoCo Ichibanya Curry House, which actually turned out to be within walking distance as well – regret because I love CoCo Curry! I didn’t know it was there…) near Narita AEON Mall.
Narita is sparsely spread out and rural so if you do not have a car, you need to depend on public buses to get around unless you roam within Narita town. Besides the tenants within the mall itself, Narita AEON Mall has several other shopping, entertainment and F&B outlets in neighboring buildings so it makes a good one stop location to get things done. The last bus departing AEON Mall was around 11pm so we had ample time to shop despite reaching at 7pm and having dinner. The main target was the MEGA Don Quijote and Daiso! You can also find other popular Japanese brands around the area like Uniqlo, Muji, Hoshino Coffee, Lowry’s Farm just to name a few, and they have a big supermarket and department store within AEON Mall itself.
Narita AEON MALL
24 Uingutsuchiya, Narita, Chiba Prefecture 286-0029, Japan
When in Narita, have Unagi for breakfast. I first tried Kikuya in Narita even before Unagi became popular in Singapore, and I was sold ever since. Good quality unagi is just so different from the regular ones. Even at 10am, the highly popular unagi restaurants already have queues outside! In my previous layover in Narita, I queued up for a famous one and I found it to be no better than Kikuya (except for being slightly cheaper) so this time I rather have my meal in comfort back here.
385 Nakamachi Narita Chiba
Most hotels around Narita provide free shuttle to the airport so I took the free bus and arrived at 12pm despite my flight departing at only 5pm. I managed to check in my bags to get rid of them and so, it was shopping time again! The shopping options within the airport is honestly quite good and I did find things to buy. The BIC camera is well stocked despite being small and messy.
My flight got delayed an hour so I took the chance to visit Shisui Premium Outlets for a quick one. They have round trip buses linking Narita Airport to Shisui Premium Outlets and the journey was only 15mins. I didn’t find anything to buy, but I got to have my favourite Freshness Burger! Gotemba Premium Outlets was way better if you really want to shop.
Shisui Premium Outlets
2 Chome-4-1 Iizumi, Shisui, Inba District, Chiba Prefecture 285-0912, Japan
Curry rice on board! I guess that’s a consolation since I did not get to eat CoCo Curry in Japan?
Shopping hauls! This is what I picked up all over the place, from Tokyo, Gotemba Premium Outlets and Narita. It’s not a lot but I love all my buys.