I don’t know about you, but I always love a good blast from the past. We often do #tbt posts on our Instagram account, and I always enjoy looking back at our past travels. Today I’m stoked to bring you an oldie but goodie. Read on for a travel flashback about our experience visiting the Hakone onsen in the mountains of Japan.
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Our Short Trip to Hakone, Japan
When we were teaching English in China, we traveled around the region as much as possible. Sometimes, this involved getting creative with our schedule. We often switched days with colleagues to take short trips here and there. This allowed us to sneak off to Japan for 5 days without using a single day off!
With such a short time, we wanted to see Tokyo but also get out of the city. We had to see some of the beautiful scenery the Land of the Rising Sun has to offer. Luckily, this is very doable via the sophisticated rail system that links up the entire country.
In just a few short hours, you can find yourself out in the mountains, breathing fresh air and enjoying a clear blue sky free of skyscrapers. For our short trip, we decided to head to Hakone. This is a stunning mountainous town just 100 km west of the capital. Here you can kick back and relax in the Hakone onsen, but we’ll get to that later…
Getting to Hakone
From Shinjuku station in Tokyo, you can use a vending machine to purchase a 3-day Hakone free pass (6,100 yen); this includes a round-trip train ride out there and also gives you access to the many different forms of transportation available in Hakone. Riding the standard express train called kyoku takes about 2 hours and is quite comfortable.
Alternatively, you can upgrade to the “Romance Car,” which makes the trip in around 85 minutes and has nicer seats. Upon arrival at Odawara, you need to get off and board another train bound for Hakone Yumoto. Due to bad weather and the fact that we were dragging our suitcases, we just went directly from train to train, but travelers are also free to leave the station to explore the area a bit and pay a visit to the Odawara Castle.
Once at Hakone Yumoto, we switched trains once more – this time to the Hakone Tozan railway. The incredibly scenic ride takes you through a narrow, densely wooded valley, changing directions at three different switchback points. Enjoying the majestic views outside of the window really takes the “Are we there yet?” feeling out of traveling; in fact, getting there is half the fun when you make the trip out to Hakone!
After the 35-minute ride, we arrived at Gora station, where we made one final transfer to the cable car. This small train makes the steep 1.2 km climb from Gora up to Sounzan station in about 10 minutes, with a few stops in between.
We jumped off at Koenkami station and went about trying to find our accommodations. Unprepared for the rain, we were a bit lost and becoming progressively more soaked. Thankfully, an incredibly friendly Japanese man at the art museum invited us under the awning, chatted with us for a few minutes, and gave us clear directions up the road.
At so many points in our short trip, we experienced the kindness and hospitality of the Japanese people, who were always eager to help a couple of confused gaijin (“foreigner”).
Staying in a Hakone Ryokan
A short stroll in the rain led us up a quaint little road and to our home for a few nights, a traditional ryokan called Kiritani Hakoneso. Inside, we were greeted by the warm smiles of the family who own and operate the guesthouse. The man welcomed us with a bow, and then slowly said, “Sorry…. my…. English… no good!” I responded with, “That’s OK! My… Japanese… no good!” The language barrier allowed all of us to share a nice laugh.
What is a Ryokan?
You’re probably wondering what in the hell a ryokan is. Allow me to explain… A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that is quite similar to the Western B&B. This style of accommodation dates back to the Edo period that stretched from 1603 to 1868 when Japan was ruled by the shoguns of the Tokugawa family. Back then, ryokans served travelers along Japan’s highways.
These days, you’ll find ryokans mostly in scenic areas outside of the big cities and away from their skyscrapers and neon lights. They’re especially popular in areas that feature onsen, or natural hot springs. That’s why this is such a great destination, as there are plenty of Hakone onsen to choose from.
Although they are a bit pricier than your standard hotel, it’s definitely worth it to shell out the yen for a few nights in one. This Hakone ryokan was without a doubt one of the best accommodations we’ve ever had in our many travels. If you’re wondering where to stay in Hakone, we highly recommend this place.
A stay in a ryokan gives you a chance to experience Japanese culture, hospitality, and cuisine on a level that simply cannot be matched by chain hotels or youth hostels. From the incredibly warm greeting you receive upon your arrival (regardless of language barriers), to the quaint charm of the rooms, to the marathon meals that are included in your stay, a ryokan is a wonderful place to call home for a few days.
As a stay in a ryokan is more like visiting someone’s home than a hotel, great effort is taken by the staff to ensure that guests have a very pleasant arrival. The entrance to a ryokan, called a genkan, is usually a stone or tiled floor that is just a little bit lower than the actual floor indoors. Apparently, this serves as the boundary between the outside and inside worlds. This is where guests should remove their shoes, as they are never worn indoors in Japan.
Rooms in a Ryokan
Rooms are constructed using traditional Japanese methods – this means an entrance room for changing out of your shoes and into slippers, sliding doors (which are called fusuma in Japanese), a tea table and set, and of course, tatami flooring with a futon bed. To ensure that you remain comfortable and feel at home for your stay, guests are provided with a yukata, a traditional Japanese robe.
Our room also featured a peaceful sitting area where we were able to take in the stunning views of the mountains. As far as bathroom facilities go, it wouldn’t be Japan without an incredibly high-tech toilet, equipped with a control panel to choose from various options, including: a seat-warmer, an air freshener, and a bidet.
Meals in the Ryokan
In most ryokans, both breakfast and dinner are served to guests, either in the comfort of their room or in a private dining room. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and the folks who run ryokans take that very seriously, as they serve up a multi-course morning meal full of local and seasonal specialties.
Strolling into our private room in our yukata, we sat down and were treated to a feast fit for an Emperor – salad, tofu, eggs, seasonal veggies, an assortment of pickles, grilled fish, and the obligatory bowls of rice and miso soup.
With a cup of hot tea, this was quite different from our usual Western style breakfast of bagels, yogurt, and coffee; sometimes culture shock is a good thing!
While the breakfast was great, the staff in a ryokan really kick it up a notch when it comes time for dinner. This elaborate meal is known as kaiseki ryōri, and it features multiple courses prepared in a variety of cooking methods.
Food meets art in this traditional Japanese meal, as chefs do their best to balance the appearance, taste, texture, and color of the various dishes. As so much effort is put into the presentation, we almost felt bad for eating it.
Both nights in the ryokan, our dinner got started with a small glass of a sweet wine for an aperitif. A mix of appetizers, known as sakizuke followed. Other courses included: sashimi, a small palate cleansing dish, grilled fish or meat, and a main course such as hot pot.
Even after all of that, there was still more – another dose of rice and miso soup, as well as a sweet dessert. We washed it all down with some tasty Kirin beer and a little bottle of sake. After all, we figured a dinner that good deserved a proper toast!
Relaxing in the Onsen
Nightlife in the relaxed atmosphere of a ryokan simply consists of a nice pot of tea (or another bottle of sake) and a dip in the Hakone onsen. Most ryokan feature a variety of both indoor and outdoor baths, which are communal and separated by gender.
It’s not uncommon that a ryokan will switch the gender of the baths, so make sure you know the Japanese kanji for man (男) and woman (女) before heading in. Forget your bathing suit, as your birthday suit is about all that’s allowed. Private baths are usually available for couples or families, but they come at an extra charge.
With a full belly and a relaxed body and mind, we hit the futon and slept like babies. The next morning, we awoke with the sunrise, poured a cup of tea, and got ready to do the whole thing over again. Staring out over the mountains in the comfort of my yukata, my mind was dominated by one thought – the ryokan life is the good life.
Check out some highlights of our trip to Hakone Japan!
Book Your Hakone Accommodation
The ryokan was stayed in was pretty freaking awesome. If you want to find a room there, click here to check prices on Agoda.
We love a good travel deal and I’m sure you do, too. Here are the best deals for Hakone accommodation on Booking:
A quick search also reveals some pretty nice places on Airbnb. Not on Airbnb yet? Get 15% off your first stay up to $415 and $15 towards an experience of $50 or more with our link. Just click here.
Interested in teaching English in Japan? Read our post about what it’s like teaching in Kobe!
Things to do in Hakone
As far as sightseeing goes, there’s plenty to do out in Hakone, Japan. Thanks to the Hakone free pass, transportation is simple, convenient, and best of all, already paid for.
Lakes and the Great Boiling Valley
Perhaps the most famous sight is the picturesque Lake Ashi, which tourists can enjoy from the deck of a pirate ship. You can arrive at the lake via the ropeway, which gives you a panoramic view of the mountains and even a glimpse of Mt. Fuji on a clear day. Both the pirate ship and the ropeway are included as part of the Hakone Free Pass.
Along the ropeway, many people stop to visit Owakudani, which literally means “Great Boiling Valley.” Created over 3,000 years ago as a result of Mt. Hakone’s last eruption, this volcanically active area is full of sulfurous hot springs.
As steam is constantly rising from the ground, this area is also commonly referred to as Jigokudani, or ”Hell’s Valley.” Aside from the nice view, the main attraction here is the Kuro-tamago, or black eggs. Baskets of eggs are dipped into the steaming hot sulfuric water, where they are left to boil for a few minutes.
When they’re finished, the egg shells turn black. It is said that eating one will add seven years to your life. Be careful, though, as you are ill-advised to eat any more than 2 1/2. Don’t ask me why.
Back on the ropeway, you can head to the final stop – Lake Ashinoko. The name means “Lake of Reeds” in Japanese, and it’s a great place to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of Hakone. Our free passes got us onto one of the pirate ships that cross the lake every 30 minutes or so.
On a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji from these boats. Unfortunately we weren’t so lucky, as clouds obstructed the view of Fuji every day that we were in Hakone. Of course, it cleared up the day we had to head back to Tokyo.
We got off the boat, walked along the road for a few minutes, and found ourselves at the Hakone Checkpoint. This small museum serves as a reconstruction of the original, which controlled traffic along the Tokaido back in the feudal Edo period.
This important highway linked the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto at that time. We took a quick stroll through and headed up to the look out point where we took one last look at the picturesque lake in the distance.
After some transportation confusion, we finally ended up at our desired destination – the Open Air Museum. As a sucker for the outdoors and the arts, this was easily the highlight of the trip for me.
A variety of sculptures are scattered around the grounds, which are situated in a great location for taking in the scenery of the valleys and mountains that surround.
In addition to the many outdoor sculptures, there are also a few indoor galleries (including one full of Picasso’s work), some futuristic playgrounds for children, and a small garden maze.
We took our sweet time wandering around the museum, and we even got to take a nice break to soak our feet in a small hot spring while enjoying some ice cream.
Of course, no visit here would be complete without a dip in one of the many Hakone onsen. The Hakone hot springs are such an integral part of the town that they deserve their own subheading in this post!
Onsen are natural hot springs that are a result of Japan’s volcanically active status. These public baths are believed to have healing powers, and many people use them as a way to relax and relieve the stress of the big city grind. Thanks to its location, there are many Hakone onsen you can enjoy here.
As a volcanically active country, it should come as no surprise that you can find them just about anywhere in Japan. Traditionally, these were public bathing facilities. These days they serve as more of a respite from the daily grind of big city life. The onsen are actually a big part of the Japanese tourism industry.
People flee the frantic pace of mega-cities like Tokyo and head for the countryside. Here they can enjoy a few days of fresh air and, most importantly, hot baths. Should you find yourself trapped in the city, however, never fear. Some onsen can still be found amidst the skyscrapers and neon lights. Big or small, indoor or outdoor, in the mountains or in the concrete jungle, a wide variety of onsen are available for you to enjoy.
Onsen are commonly gender-separated, and are enjoyed in the buff. Some places feature more of a water park atmosphere, though. These are meant for all people to enjoy together in the comfort of their bathing suits. During our stay in Hakone, we got the best of both worlds on a visit to the Yunessun Spa & Resort. This might be the best Hakone onsen out there!
One side is family friendly, with a variety of baths including a few special ones filled with coffee, red wine, sake, and green tea. The other side is more traditional, with open air hot baths where you can relax in your birthday suit and take in the stunning views of the Japanese countryside.
These hot baths are a vital part of Japanese culture, and they offer more than just relaxation. Onsen are believed to have healing powers derived from their mineral content.
Hakone Onsen Etiquette
Before you take a dip in these healing baths, there are some things you should know about Hakone onsen etiquette:
- Get covered – This one goes for those with ink. Tattoos are associated with gangs and unruly behavior in Japan. You’d better take some bandages and cover them up before heading into the locker room. Many onsen strictly forbid tattooed guests to enter.
- Get naked – As I previously mentioned, most onsen are enjoyed in the nude. Head into the locker room, strip down, and store your belongings in a small basket before entering the bathing area.
- Get clean – A full on shower is not necessary. You should at least rinse yourself from head to toe in one of the small shower cubicles. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a proper shower, and most onsen will provide all of the essentials.
- Get comfy – Take your time getting into the onsen, as they can be incredibly hot. Once submerged, sit back, relax, and let the magical waters do their work.
- Get out – As the water is very hot, it’s important that you don’t stay in for too long. Take a break, rinse, and repeat. For the hot spring waters to take their full effect, you should not shower after you’re finished.
However you decide to enjoy the many onsen of Japan, you’re sure to leave feeling relaxed, refreshed, and reenergized. Visiting the Hakone hot springs is definitely a must when you travel there!
Final Thoughts on Hakone Japan
The only problem with our trip to Hakone was our lack of time. There’s so much to do there and it’s such an incredibly beautiful place; we wish we could have stayed for a few weeks instead of a few days. It’s built up as a tourist destination, but not to the point of overkill.
One day in Hakone can start with a scenic hike through the mountains in the morning. A peaceful afternoon exploring art and nature in the parks and museums follows. You can wind down with a massive traditional Japanese dinner before soaking in the steaming water of a Hakone onsen. If that’s not a solid day of vacation, then I don’t know what is!
While we enjoyed our lives in Beijing, they were quite hectic and stressful. This 5-day escape to stay in a Hakone ryokan and soak in the onsen was just what we needed. It’s the perfect place to go for some good old fashioned R&R. We highly recommend checking it out if you travel to Japan.
We would love to get back to Japan, buy a rail pass, and explore more of the country. If you’ve been to the Land of the Rising sun, we’d love to hear your tips! Drop a comment below and let us know where we should go next time. Who knows – maybe we’ll make it back for the 2020 Olympics!