Seeing Mount Fuji for once in real life was a long-kept dream of mine. I have traveled to Japan many times in the last 18 years, but yet I had not managed to pay visit to the one if not the most symbolic landmark that the “Land of the Rising Sun” has to offer. Having it seen in magazines and on television uncountable times, I can tell you it is such a difference when you stand eye to an eye with this majestic beauty! So when I had the chance to take a flight with two full days off in Tokyo, guess what I aimed for?
It was an unusual tough flight over to Haneda airport and I was not able to catch some sleep during the onboard break. So when we finally reached the hotel after a long and cruel night around early afternoon, it was time for a snooze. Since the next day would be rather strenuous, I decided to take the arrival day slow and grabbed a coffee at a nearby coffee place and headed up onto the viewing platform of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building just around the corner. It was a wonderful sunset and Mount Fuji stood prominently against the bright orange sky. Just one more night and I could cross him out from my bucket list!
One thing that is great to know is that there are two Tourist information inside the Government Building, so before you head up to the viewing platform, make sure to visit both branches for maps and additional information leaflets about Hakone and many other popular landmarks in the greater Tokyo area. Even though I had done most of the planning at home, it was great to have all the information at hand with me. These shops close around 6 pm, so definitely hop in before you go up! Another thing that I can highly recommend is the Japan Travel App with lots of useful information about getting around in Japan and a great train schedule database that is easy to understand and detailed enough to make this form of travel less stressful.
Apparently, there are many different ways to get to Hakone. The easiest (but also most expensive) way is the Romancecar express train from Shinjuku station directly to Hakone Yumoto (the gateway to Hakone area). It is comparable with a German ICE train but the timetable is a little bit limited. The regular Odakyu Line local and express trains leave on a far more regular base from Shinjuku (as early as from 4:30 am on) and are also less expensive. They all stop at Odawara where you will have to transfer into the Hakone Tozan railway.
As the Hakone area is quite big and there are many forms of transportation to get around, it is recommendable to purchase the so-called Hakone Free Pass. This pass is rather pricy (5,140 YEN => 44 USD /42€ ) but covers all bus, train and most of the ropeway connections to/from Hakone and inside the whole area around Lake Ashi. It can either be purchased at the Odakyu Line Information Center directly or at one of the ticket vending machines around the corner inside the Shinjuku train station (click here for a detailed location). As I departed very early in the morning (5:31 am), I used the vending machine which was easy to use and offers an English menu.
A display board right above the ticket barriers just pass the vending machines displays the departing trains in Japanese and English. It also displays the departure tracks and if you are completely lost, simply ask the friendly guy sitting at the counter. The Odakyu Line trains generally leave from platforms 4 and 5 just up the stairs to the right behind the ticket barriers. As all of them terminate in Odawara, the only thing that you need to worry about is the length of travel. Local trains stop at every station and therefore take about 2 hours to reach Odawara, the express trains do the same distance in around 1 1/2 hours.
If you would like to sit during the train ride, plan your journey to Hakone outside the general rush hour times between 6 and 8 am. It is also a good idea to go during the week. Hakone is a popular weekend getaway for the Japanese and the trains and stations can get very, very crowded!
Once you reach Odawara, don´t leave the station but follow the signs saying Hakone Itabashi/Yumoto. The Odakyu Line trains normally arrive on platform 8. Take the escalators up and look out for the signage for the Hakone Tozan Railway where you take the steps down again to the platform.
The train ride to Hakone Yumoto takes approximately 15 minutes. Yumoto is the main gateway to the Hakone district and offers a selection of restaurants, cafés and a Tourist Information outside the station, right opposite of the bus stop and the taxi stand. Just in case that you need any further details or assistance. Note that the information does not open before 9am, so include this in your travel itinerary!
The most important decision that you will have to make in advance is in which direction you would like to circle Lake Ashi, North to South or the other way around. If you want to begin your excursion at Gora station (North) from where you connect to the cable car and then later on to the ropeway leading to the volcanic area of Owakudani, then you will need to change trains at Hakone Yumoto with direction to Gora.
I decided to begin my tour in the South of Lake Ashi and then work my way up to the North. It was great to take the early train from Tokyo to avoid any kind of commuter traffic, yet at 7am there is literally nothing open in Hakone, not even a café and the bus system that opens up the lake district is also running on low-key.
But on the other hand, it was the perfect timing for exploring the area a little bit by foot. So I decided spontaneously to partly hike my way into direction Lake Ashi, where (on clear days) you can get a panoramic view onto Mount Fuji with the volcano reflecting in the lake´s surface.
So after leaving the station I crossed over the small river to the other side to make a short stop at Sounji Temple and Chogenji Temple. The pathway along the creek is relatively poorly signposted. So most of the time I was not sure if I walked into the right direction, but as long as you follow the driveway (Old Tokaido Highway), you should be fine.
Sukumo River springs somewhere close to Lake Ashi and finally empties into Sagami Bay. Along the creek lie quite an array of hotels, so if you feel lost there is at least a chance to ask someone for directions.
Looking back on the day, I probably would not do this kind of hike again as it was rather strenuous. At the beginning it seems rather easy and there is signage at every other crossing, but as soon as you continue on Old Tokaido, walking right on the lane felt rather discomforting, even though this obviously seems nothing extraordinary for the people living in the area.
Next time, I would definitely take the bus right from the beginning (which unfortunately runs only a maximum of two times an hour on this route) with direction Motohakone. But if you are fit and eager to see a little bit of the surroundings, I would say that hiking until the Sukumogawa bus stop is possible. From this point on the latest, I would definitely suggest to completely rely on the bus network as the steepness of the hills and the incline on the street become intimidating.
A nice treat to visit along the way are the Tamadere Falls just 15 minutes from Hakone Yumoto.
This is where you can take a little break and refuel your energy with snacks and beverages from the hotel´s convenience store located right at the falls.
There even is a little temple up the rock with a tiny shrine to look at. The stairs lead further up the hill, but I already was too tired and wanted to save energy for the rest of the day. So no idea where they eventually lead to.
A little further down the driveway, shortly before the Sukumogawa bus station, lies a very colorful temple which is nice to pay short visit to. Photographs are not allowed inside, but I was able to manage this snapshot from outside through the temple´s gate.
From Sukumogawa I finally managed to take the bus. Note that in Japan people drive on the left hand side of the road. The bus stops are indicated by small signs standing next to the driving lane but are not as eye-catching as to what we are used to in Europe. The Hakone Free Pass enables you for unlimited rides on the buses serving the area and you present your ticket to the driver upon embarkation as well as disembarkation.
Motohakone is the final destination for the bus line running on this route. This cute little lake town offers a wide range of restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops and is also the starting point for the Lake Cruises. The cruise that is included in the Hakone Free Pass brings you to Togendai Station at the Northern end of the lake or Hakone Machi only! The ships are designed in the style of a buccaneer. The other operator Izuhakone Senpaku (additional cost) operates a sightseeing boat that also stops at Hakone-en from where you can take the cable car up to Komagatake Mountain or visit the small Lake Aquarium.
The ships are designed in the style of a buccaneer. The other operator Izuhakone Senpaku (additional cost) operates a sightseeing boat that also stops at Hakone-en from where you can take the cable car up to Komagatake Mountain or visit the small Lake Aquarium.
After warming up a bit at a lake view café, I took the walk along the shore towards Hakone Shrine of which the affiliated red gate in the water can be seen from the village.
This place is also known as Hakone Gongen and is listed as Shinto Shrine among the third class of nationally significant shrines in Japan. Apart from the beautiful location inside the woods, the gate down in the lake is definitely worth a selfie :).
My next stop was Hakone-en where the valley station of the Komagatake Ropeway is located. There is an ancient stoned path along the shores of Lake Ashi that you can partly walk on. Otherwise you will have to share the lane again with the cars, which I did. It took me around 30 minutes to get there. Taking the bus would have been much easier, but I really enjoyed this sunny day, watching the fishermen from one of the stone benches.
Mount Komagatake is a lava dome which had formed after a volcanic eruption around 40,000 years ago. That must have been an enormous one since the peak is almost 1,360 meters high! It was almost noon when I reached the station and since then I did not have the clear view of Mount Fuji that I had aimed for. It was a similar situation like two years ago when I full-filled my long-time dream Machu Picchu. I almost broke my left hand when climbing up Machu Picchu Mountain in the thickest fog, but when I reached the top around noon, suddenly the clouds broke open revealing the most amazing panorama over the valley and the magnificent Inca site.
So I thought I should take the chance (despite the extra cost of 1050 YEN – you get 30 YEN discount with the Hakone Free Pass) once again, maybe I would be lucky for another time.
And while the gondola made her way up, guess what happened …
It was like a miracle! We had not reached the summit yet as the cloud cover around Fuji-san´s top suddenly disappeared as if someone had vacuumed them away. So there we were, finally face to face. The grand mountain and myself, the tiny man.
I felt so happy and content that all the effort and hard work were not without success and I stared with enlightenment for the few moments while the picture perfect remained for not more than about 15 minutes. I thanked whoever made this special moment possible for me. It truly was magnificent!
But apart from Mount Fuji, the views from up here were magnificent all the way. There is a small shrine built up on top and a few paths that one can walk around to enjoy the 360 degrees panorama.
Even though it was hazy in far distance, I could see Sagami Bay, Odawara and the mountain ridges around Lake Ashi absolutely clearly, particularly from the very top where the Shrine Mototsumiya is located.
I felt more than happy! Funny way, as soon as I took the gondola back down, Fuji-san covered its top again with a ring of clouds. And that ring did not disappear for the rest of the day.
From Hakone-en, I catched the bus up North to Togendai Station. This is where the Hakone Ropeway starts and which use is completely included in the Hakone Free Pass. The views from the ropeway are spectacular and it is a great way to reach Owakudani Station from where you have access to the Geomuseum and the Sulphurous Vapor Erupting area.
Normally, you can take a hike along a trail that goes through the area, but this seems to be currently closed (as of March 2017). Nevertheless, it is a nice location to take a break of the tour. There is a restaurant and little souvenir shops along with the museum about the history about volcanoes in Japan.
Owakudani is referred to as the Death Valley and it is a must to taste the famous kuro-tamago, the black eggs! They are sold out of a window and the legend says that per egg eaten, seven extra years are added to you life. With five eggs in a bag, use that time wisely :)!
Of course, you may also enjoy further excellent panoramas of Mount Fuji, yet I very much favored the perspective from Mount Komagatake.
I anticipated almost a full hour up here, hoping that Fuji would reveal its iconic top once again to me. But as if the volcano wanted to tease me or say that I had already received the maximum possible of the day, the clouds constantly danced on and off the top, but never eventually letting it glimpse through.
Very, very happy but deeply tired I shortly after returned back to Tokyo. It was a magical day and I was very thankful for the experiences that I was blessed to make today. This is a tough excursion for one day to make and I am sure there is way more to see in the Hakone area if you have more time to spare. But if you are short on time like me, definitely something to take into account! Having seen the mysterious Mount Fuji in real life is a magic that only those understand, that have experienced it themselves.
I hope I was able to provide you with some useful information regarding your trip. Or I could inspire you to actually plan a visit yourself! Japan is such a fantastic travel destination and really a one-of-a-kind. I cannot wait to come back soon for the next adventure. But first, please subscribe to not miss my next blog post: Temple Marathon in Kamakura.
Safe travels, folks!