Relaxation in Hakone, Japan
The Hakone region is a well known destination for relaxation and onsen bathing located an hour away from Tokyo. It is a picturesque region with beautiful green hills and stunning flowers. The big drawcard here of course is hot spring bathing, although the region also has a host of art, culture and natural beauty to explore. Hakone is also famous for that elusive view of Fuji-San, if you travel on a good day you can catch a glimpse of the majestic mountain in the horizon.
Getting to Hakone:
Travelling from Tokyo to Hakone can be tricky, as you need to change multiple trains if you are travelling with a JR pass. However you can approach the JR counters at the train stations, they will be able to help organise your trip to the region using the JR pass. Alternatively, refer to this post for more information on travelling to Hakone. If you don’t have a JR pass then there are direct options to Hakone available on different trains.
There are a wealth of accomodation options in the Hakone region. The township of Hakone-Yumoto, is the gateway to the area with shops, restaurants and hotels all close by. It is an ideal location if you are planning on staying one night only. However if you want to spend more time in the area and explore the region then staying up in the Gora hills is a great option. Provided you have good weather, two days here is a good amount of time.
Hakone is also home to traditional Japanese inns, known as ryokan. These hotels are common in hot springs areas and are famous for their hospitality, regional cuisine and onsen bathing. Rooms in a ryokan are traditionally styled using tatami floors, shoji paper screens and futon bedding. Staying at a ryokan gives you a unique experience into Japanese tradition and culture.
Gora Hanaougi, Ryokan:
We booked a Japanese Ryokan up in the hills in Gora, which is known for its beautiful scenery. To get to Gora we had to take a 45 min train from Hakone-Yumoto followed by a short 10min trip on the Hakone Cable Car. Once we disembarked off the Hakone Cable Car, we had to take an elevator to get to the hotel.
The hotel building sat back from the garden and was secluded and private. Upon entry into the building we were greeted by our hosts and were encouraged to take our shoes off. Our shoes were then stored at the front entrance, for us to use when we wished to go outside. This is one of the rules of staying at a Ryokan, you can’t wear your shoes inside the hotel, instead you are provided with soft indoor slippers to use throughout the facility.
We were shown to our room, which overlooked the Hakone mountains. Our room was filled with traditional Japanese furniture, a futon bed and shoji paper screens. The room also had its own deck with a small onsen tub for our use. We had been provided with a canister of the hotel’s famous seaweed tea and homemade Mochi for us to indulge in before dinner. This is another traditional aspect of the ryokan experience, a snack is provided to welcome guests.
Before departing, our attendant gave us a quick lesson on how to wear the Yukata that was provided for our use. This is a traditional cotton kimono, commonly provided to ryokan guests during their stay. We were strongly encouraged to wear the kimono to dinner, another rule of a ryokan. This is to ensure everyone is appropriately dressed for the traditional Kaiseki dinner.
Things to do in Hakone:
Hakone has a treasure trove of activities which include onsen bathing, hiking and visiting renowned art museums. Hakone is in fact home to the famous open-air museum of sculptures. Alternatively, if you are after a family friendly activity then visiting the Kowaki-en Yunessun, a hot springs adventure park is also a great idea.
Hakone has 17 different hot springs sources across the region, and each source has its own mineral qualities. There are sodium chloride, calcium sulphate and alkaline springs which are all renowned for various different health qualities. As each spring has its own properties, and you can choose to visit the onsens that have the health benefits you are after.
Like many things in Japan, hot springs bathing has its own rules and customs. Bathers are expected to bathe in the nude and are provided with a small dignity towel to cover themselves when moving in and out of the spring pools.
One of the key attractions in Hakone is the Hakone-Tozan circuit which commences and ends in Hakone-Yumoto. This circuit is the best and easiest way to see all of the top nature sites of the region and can be completed in one day in any direction. The Hakone-Tozan circuit allows you to travel on a variety of different transport options to better experience the mountainous region.
Once in Hakone-Yumoto, you can explore the town before heading to the cedar lined avenue in Moto-Hakone. From here, Lake Ashi is close by. If it is a good weather day, then you may be able to see Mount Fuji in the horizon from the side of the lake. This is one of the quintessential photo opportunities of the region.
To continue with the circuit, you can take a cruise along Lake Ashi on a pirate ship. The end of this cruise will bring you to Torendai where you disembark. This stop is the starting point for the the Hakone Ropeway that takes you to Owakudani via sky gondola. On a clear day you can catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the horizon during the ropeway ride. Unfortunately we lucked out as the weather was very cloudy and we didn’t get to see it.
Owakudani is an active volcanic zone, once you arrive at the Owakudani Ropeway station you can take a stroll around the area. Its possible to walk down into the volcanic crater to experience the steam vents and bubbling pools powered by the volcanic activity in the region.
Kaiseki experience at Gora Hanaougi:
Staying at a ryokan means the chance to experience local cuisine, as such when booking a room at a ryokan you generally have the choice to book full or half board. Full board generally includes dinner and breakfast, whilst half-board is dinner only. The Gora Hanaougi ryokan serves a multi-course formal Kaiseki dinner to all guests staying at the hotel. Breakfast though, is a much more laidback affair with a spread of dishes served to the table. The sheer amount of food on the full board option is a bit much though, truth to tell.
Kaiseki cuisine is a multi-course formal dinner that is meticulously executed and presented. The ingredients in a kaiseki menu are seasonal and are often sourced locally. The courses in a kaiseki dinner traditionally involve the following types of dishes:
- Sakizuke, an appetizer
- Nimono, a simmered dish
- Mukozuke, a sashimi dish
- Hassun, an expression of the season
- Yakimono, a grilled course
- Hanmono or shokuji, a rice dish.
Dinner was an extravagant affair, we started off with the cold dishes of sushi and sashimi and gradually meandered our way through to the larger grilled dishes and rice. Some of the outstanding dishes were the tempura with miso salt, and the pork with glutinous rice.
In the morning we were lucky enough to be able to do it all again. We were served a traditional Japanese breakfast which included grilled fish, eggs, congee and an assortment of pickled vegetables. The disorientating part of breakfast though was the lack of coffee with the meal. Instead, we were served a morning green tea on arrival. The ryokan however, had a post breakfast coffee service in the lounge, which we headed to after our meal.
Hakone is a fantastic destination to visit to immerse your self in Japanese culture and to get close to nature. Whilst in the region, if you have the chance definitely book yourself into a ryokan as this unique experience will allow you to take home some lasting memories.
- Staying at a ryokan is a true Japanese experience. There are lots of strict protocols to follow – be prepared, so that you don’t risk upsetting your hosts!
- If you’re not comfortable with bathing in the shared public bathhouses at ryokans then consider booking a room with a private onsen tubs
- A traditional kaiseki meal is very large, combined with the breakfast on the following day it can be too much indulgence. In hindsight we would do half board in the future.
- Weather in Hakone can be difficult to predict. Views of Fuji-san from the lookouts are all dependant on cloud cover. Try and plan your trip to the Hakone region around weather if possible. Arrive in the area early so you can get to all the attractions before the crowds.
- Many ryokan have a last arrival time policy which is generally before 6pm. Getting to Hakone the day you land in Tokyo may not always be possible. It’s better to spend the night in Tokyo and then head out to Hakone the day after