Y'all know there's nothing I love more than a fun roadtrip/soothing weekend getaway from the city. Tokyoites are so lucky to be less than 2 hours away from the beautiful Mt Fuji and onsen (hot springs) region of Hakone - surrounded by glistening waters, majestic mountains and the freshest seafood, I admit, the hype was real, I truly did not want to leave... ever.
The first thing you gotta do when planning a Hakone getaway is to choose your home base (i.e. after researching a million onsen/hot springs establishments, which one you finally want to stay at... it's a hard choice, I know. First World Problems can be a struggle, people, but I know you can do it). For us, we went with Hakone Kowakien Tenyu for several reasons 1) Their infinity hot springs 2) An almost brand new property at less than a year old 3) Location - deep within the mountains for that much needed serenity but also just a short bus ride (the bus stop is right by the hotel property) from Gora station where you can take the Hakone Tozan cable car to get to the Hakone Ropeway for the Lake Ashi/Mt Fuji sightseeing, while also being very close to the Hakone Open Air Museum, Gora Park, and Chisuji Falls 4) Every room has a private bath on the balcony for the more shy members of your party 5) The in-house restaurant had really great reviews (because food at a spa is always a bit of toss up) and you want to stay at a place where the food is good because staying up by the mountains in Hakone is kinda remote and you're not going to be wandering around in the dark in the forest looking for a restaurant, y'know? And last but not least, the price point was surprisingly modest for this type of destination (about 33,000 yen/guest including full breakfast and dinner, and access to the various hot springs on the property).
You have a choice between a forest view or a mountain view when booking the Superior Room at Tenyu. We went for the mountain view, obviously. The main event for me, other than the hot springs, was to see as much of the mountains as possible.
Once you've decided where you're going to stay, I highly recommend planning ahead and buying a Limited Express Romancecar train ticket (to be used in conjunction with your 2-day Hakone Free Pass). This is how it works - the Limited Express Romancecar supplement ticket can ONLY be purchased online. If you want an observation deck seat, which is what we did (see video above), you can buy your ticket exactly one month prior to the date that you want to take the train (the line opens at 10am Japan time and you have a few minutes to buy your ticket before it sells out, which it does). This ticket is only valid when used in conjunction with a regular Shinjuku to Hakone train ticket (i.e. our Hakone Free Pass). Then, when you are in Japan, you can buy the Hakone Free Pass (you cannot buy these online) which covers your regular roundtrip fare from Shinjuku to Hakone and local transportation including the Hakone buses, trains, ropeway, cable car, and sightseeing cruise. Got it?
An old friend of mine from my MTV days, Meri, lives in Odawara (the town next to Hakone) so we got off the train a stop early and was picked up by Meri who took us around her lovely hometown.
Meri took us inside the Odawara fish market, which had closed up shop for the day, for lunch. The top floor houses a very low-key, no frills restaurant where fishermen and locals come to eat in between working. Really, only locals come here so don't expect anyone to speak English... but do expect the freshest fish and seafood (it was literally caught the morning-of just steps away from the restaurant) at incredibly affordable prices.
Some of the buttons on the ticket machine have pictures of the food. which is helpful if you can't read Japanese. The options we ordered didn't have pictures, so TGFM (Thank God for Meri).
Meri was telling us how this meal, which cost us about $20 each (insane, right?!) would have cost $50, for the fish alone, in Tokyo. Eating right from the source has its perks.
To take full advantage of the last day, a sunrise private hot springs bath is pretty spectacular.
There's a choice between a Western or Japanese breakfast. I'm one of those people who can't really stomach fish early in the morning, so the option was nice to have... the personal bread basket for one (yes, all of that was for just for me) was also nice. I LOVE BREAAAD!
Mountain weather is very unpredictable and I knew that going in that it was not a guarantee that we'd see Mt Fuji. But I was hopeful... and I guess the secret (or the law of attraction, or the power of now, or whatever) worked because guess what, the sun and clear skies came to represent and we were seeing Mt Fuji all over the place... and I have thousands of pictures of it to prove it.
Along the Ropeway, you can stop off at Owakudani - a volcanic valley with active sulphur vents and hot springs. The famed black eggs (when you boil eggs in the sulphur hot springs, they become black) can be found here. Legend says if you eat a black egg, you extend your life for seven years.
It takes like 20minutes to walk the entire port area where we had lunch so we had a very leisurely stroll and popped into all the small shops and boutiques.
The woodworking craft of yosegi-zaiku, established in Hakone, is so incredible. Tiny intricate pieces of wood meticulously formed together, creating one of a kind pieces.
After contemplating staying another night, we ended up going back to Tenyu to grab our bags and a few refreshing beverages before buegrudeoningly hitting the long road back to Tokyo. I don't want to make the rest of Japan jealous but between you and me, Hakone was a total head to head with Kyoto as one of my favorite Japan stops.