In the forested mountains near Tokyo, idyllic Hakone has served as a retreat for weary city dwellers for centuries. With its traditional inns, ancient walking routes, soothing hot springs and views of Mount Fuji, it’s just as much of a draw today as ever.
Hakone is made up of several distinct areas linked by bus, train and cable-car routes, broadly forming a triangle. The point nearest Tokyo is Hakone-Yumoto, a bustling tourist area with the main train station. Make your way southwest past Hatajuku and you’ll reach Moto-Hakone and Hakone-machi, at the southern tip of picturesque Lake Ashi. From there, the lake stretches north to Togendai, beyond which is Sengokuhara and, at the third point on the triangle, Gotemba. Heading back to Hakone-Yumoto, you’ll pass Gora and Miyanoshita.
To make the most of your time in this hot-spring hotspot, stay somewhere with an onsen (check in advance whether tattoos are accepted, if you have any). Accommodation is clustered in Hakone-Yumoto and Moto-Hakone, and these areas can get very crowded. If you don’t mind the extra travel, head instead for Gora, which is quieter but still provides a selection of restaurants and shops. You could also stay a little way out of one of the main areas; KAI Hakone is under 10 minutes by bus from Hakone-Yumoto, but enjoys a peaceful riverside location. Tattoos are allowed in their onsen overlooking the river if small enough to be covered by a provided patch.
Pro tip: Especially if visiting Hakone from Tokyo, look into the various discount passes available. You could save a good amount on transport and on entry to Hakone attractions. The Hakone Free Pass is the most popular option.
Morning: walk the ancient Tokaido
For hundreds of years, people took the Tokaido route between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo), and even today you can walk the same paths through Hakone. The section heading from Lake Ashi towards Hatajuku includes everything from idyllic cobbled trails through the trees bathed in dappled light, to wild and barely maintained tracks where you have to clamber over loose stones and up well-worn steps.
You can walk the route in either direction, but the easiest approach is from the lake. Though the initial section is uphill, you can then stop off at 400-year-old Amazakechaya for a cup of sweet amazake (a rice-based drink) and some restorative mochi (pounded rice cakes). Much of the final stretch towards Hatajuku follows modern tarmac roads, but it’s worth pushing on to this craft centre, known for its intricate yosegi (wood mosaics), which you can learn about at the craft museum.
Afternoon: take in some art
Head next to the Gora/Miyanoshita area to explore some of Hakone’s many art museums. Naraya Café, by Miyanoshita station, is a perfect spot for lunch. As well as a laid-back dining area serving pizza, hot dogs, ice cream and other snacks, it has its own small gallery, plus an outdoor foot bath fed by a natural hot spring – very welcome after a long morning of walking.
Make your way to the Open-Air Museum, where eye-catching sculptures are dotted around an extensive area with views across the mountains. Next head to the Hakone Museum of Art to see its impressive collection of Japanese ceramics, plus the beautiful grounds which include a moss garden. The nearby Okada Museum of Art covers ceramics and other art forms from Japan and China, and has a fancy gift shop, lush gardens and another café with a foot bath.
If you have time, you can extend your explorations north towards Sengokuhara, where you’ll find the Pola Museum of Art (mostly contemporary works) and Glass no Mori (dedicated to Venetian glassware), plus the Zen temple of Choan-ji and Hakone’s Botanical Garden.
Evening: soak in the hot springs
Head back to your hotel for a long soak in the onsen, followed by dinner. Alternatively, you can enjoy both at Tenzan, near KAI Hakone and just a short bus ride from Hakone-Yumoto. As well as a traditional restaurant focused on soba (buckwheat noodles), Tenzan has extensive indoor and outdoor baths; uncovered tattoos are allowed, but they discourage large groups of people with prominent tattoos.
Morning: explore Lake Ashi
Make for Lake Ashi (Ashi-no-ko) to see one of Hakone’s most iconic views: Mount Fuji rising up in the distance, with the red torii (shrine gate) of Hakone-jinja standing tranquilly in the water below. But even if the weather isn’t clear enough to see Japan’s most famous mountain, the lake has enough other attractions to fill a morning.
In Moto-Hakone, you can explore the lush grounds of Hakone-jinja, and get up close to the torii. The Narukawa Museum of Art is also worth a visit; the collection of nihonga (Japanese-style paintings from 1900 onward) is impressive, but the panoramic windows also make it one of the best places to view the lake and Mount Fuji. You can follow a road lined with towering cedar trees towards the promontory of Onshi Hakone Park, with gentle walking trails and spectacular views over the water. Towards Hakone-machi, you’ll reach Hakone Checkpoint, a recently restored set of buildings which served as a checkpoint on the ancient Tokaido route.
For a different perspective on Lake Ashi, head out onto the water on a sightseeing boat, leaving from either Moto-Hakone or Hakone-machi. The Izuhakone boats are the modern-looking ones, while the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise vessels (covered by the Hakone Free Pass) are designed to look like pirate ships. Alternatively, explore the lesser-visited western side of the lake by walking the shoreline trail, reaching Togendai in around three hours. Pick up a bento box and some snacks in Moto-Hakone or Hakone-machi before you set off, to have a picnic lunch later.
Afternoon: enjoy the view
A ropeway (covered by the Hakone Free Pass) runs from Togendai up to volcanic Owakudani, where you can see the yellow, steam-belching sources of several hot springs. The air’s eggy smell is mostly due to sulphur, but the local speciality of black eggs (cooked in the hot springs) also contributes. The ropeway then continues on to Sounzan, from where you can take a cable car down to Gora.
The views from the ropeway are spectacular, and you can get off at Ubako or Owakudani to join hiking routes with even more panoramas over the lake. Both stops have access to short loop trails, but you could also walk from one to the other, stopping off at Hotel Green Plaza by Ubako to soothe your muscles in their onsen after the exertion. The baths here have excellent views of Fuji in clear weather, and small, covered tattoos are allowed.
For a longer hike, make your way over the peak of Kamiyama to Komagatake. This mountainous trail takes around two hours from Owakudani – longer from Ubako or Sounzan – and connects you with the original Hakone-jinja buildings on the mountain, near a ropeway heading down to the lake (not covered by the Hakone Free Pass).
Evening: dinner in Hakone-Yumoto
Though Hakone-Yumoto is a bit touristy, it also has several excellent dining options. Make your way there – taking the scenic Hakone Tozan Railway, Japan’s oldest mountain train line, if departing from Gora – and head straight to Naokichi for dinner. The menu at this elegant restaurant focuses on one of the local specialities, yuba (tofu skin), usually served on rice as yubadon. There’ll probably be a queue, but you can take advantage of the wait to have your last hot spring dip in Hakone – at the free foot bath outside.