Over the course of the last two years we have been fortunate to have both family & friends visit us in this beautiful country. Although there is a good bit to do around our local neighborhood, one of the places we find ourselves coming back to again and again is Hakone. If your travels have taken you to Tokyo, this serene spot is just ~75 minutes from Shinjuku Station via the Odakyu Limited Express Romance Car. Nestled at the foot of Mt. Fuji, Hakone is a part of the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park and is a fabulous spot to seek out the beautiful, natural side of Japan, the sweeping views of Lake Ashinoko, and the abundant hot springs. Not sure what to include in your itinerary? We’ve got some ideas for you below!
Hakone Shrine is one of our favorite spots in Hakone and is located along the shores of Lake Ashi surrounded by a dense forest. Towering old growth cedar trees (thought to be good luck) line the path from the lake up to the main shrine and add an almost magical feeling to the entire area. There are two huge torii gates that mark the presence of the shrine, one (very often photographed) right off the shore of the lake, and another one spanning the main road leading up to the shrine. It’s an area that is beautiful year round, but particularly stunning when the leaves change in the fall or during sakura season in the spring.
- Hours: Always open
- Admission: Free
- Parking: Free
With its strategic location close to Tokyo, historically Hakone served as a essential checkpoint to control trade (and people) moving from Kyoto to Tokyo during the Edo period. The journey, taking only a few hours via the Shinkansen today, was once an arduous journey taking weeks. Most of this ancient highway has been destroyed, but there is a section from Hatajuko to Moto-Hakone that not only is intact, but still contains the original stones that were present when traders and samurai walked 400 years ago. Believe me, there is nothing better to motivate a five-year-old boy than telling him he is walking the same path as Samurai! The original checkpoint itself has been rebuilt and is now a museum dedicated to the importance of the pass (see the “Activities” section below). Additionally, there is a traditional teahouse on the path that gives you a very authentic idea what it was like for travelers on the route all those years ago (details in “Eats” section below).
- Hours: 24/7
- Admission: Free
- Parking: There is no parking or restroom at the trailhead (link below). We parked at Hakone Checkpoint Museum and walked.
- Location of Trailhead (from this trailhead it’s a ~35min hike to Amazake Chaya Tea House)
Like so many other traditional Japanese castles, Odawara Castle has been destroyed several times since its initial construction (reported to be in the 1400s). During its 600+ year history it was brought down by an earthquake, rebuilt, but then dismantled and sold. Most recently it was rebuilt again in 1960 as a museum/recreation from original blueprints and pictures. It is the closest traditional castle keep to Tokyo, making it relatively easy to access. It wasn’t the nicest day when we went, but we’ve heard it is absolutely stunning when the cherry blossoms in bloom (Late April to Early May).
- Hours: 0900 – 1700 Daily
- Admission: Free
- Parking: free
Japan is famous for its onsens due to the abundance of natural hot springs. Due to all of the seismic activity, over 2,500 are scattered all over the country. Traditionally, onsens are outside, and separated by sex as clothes are not allowed. Volcanic activity heats the water, which is rich in minerals and is thought to heal body and soul.
Thankfully modern Japan has swimsuit varieties as well (yay!!), which are more family friendly and less stress inducing for us foreigners (we finally took the plunge and enjoyed our first traditional onsen experience in Hokkaido – post coming soon, promise!). Even though the air temperature was hovering around freezing (we visited in January), the volcanic water made for an awesome and relaxing experience that we were able to enjoy as a family! Our favorite part of Yunessun Spa Resort was the scenic view portion. This specific bath spans 40 meters and affords you some pretty beautiful views of Hakone’s mountains (see above photos). Additionally it was also the least crowded (always a bonus!)…maybe because it was in the low 30’s (F) outside. With water that warm, the cool air felt incredible.
Before making your way over to the scenic overlook area spend some time at the Rodeo Mountain water slides (3 slides in all that vary slightly in their turns). Minimum height requirement is 110cm, so unfortunately Penny couldn’t cash in on the fun, but Miles had a blast! In addition to the slides this area also has a few cave baths and a waterfall (no height restrictions on these).
After spending some time outside head back indoors and let the littles splash around in the shallow pool a bit before finishing out the day enjoying all the separate themed baths filled with wine, coffee, sake, and green tea…the crazy list goes on and on.
Bottom line: Although less traditional (it’s a co-ed, swimsuit-wearing onsen), Yunessun, a hot spring theme park, which includes both indoor and outdoor baths is a great choice for a family experience.
- Hours: Yunessun 0900-1900 (March-October); 0900-1800 (November-February); Mori No Yu 1100-2100
- Admission (Yunessun Spa Resort Zone (All Day)): 2,900yen/Adult, 1,600yen/Child
- Parking: 1,200yen
- When you arrive, you will pay the entrance fee and be given a bracelet. This bracelet will open your assigned locker and will also be your “charge card” while you are visiting if you choose to use it.
- There is a small shop at the resort that has swim suits and towels for sale should you forget yours.
- There are also several informal places to grab a bite to eat during your visit as well.
- The spa is divided into two separate sections, the Yunessen and Mori No Yu. When you purchase your entrance ticket you can decide to pay for one or both. Yunessen is the more family friendly side and allows swimsuits while Mori No Yu is more of a traditional onsen (no swim suits are allowed in this section and it is separated by gender).
Buy a pass and spend the day moving around Hakone via the Hakone Round Course! Start at Hakone Yumoto Station and wind through the mountainous area via the Hakone Tozan Train until you reach Gora station (this ride is ~40minutes). The train itself is a bit older, but like most things in this beautiful country, it’s punctual and comfortable and complete with stunning views (read: grab a window seat if you can)! *If you’re interested in stopping for a bit, the Hakone Open Air Museum, an outdoor art gallery (more on this in the next “Activity” listed below), is located at the second-to-last stop, Chokoku No Mori Station, before reaching Gora.
Once at Gora, hop on the Hakone Tozan Cable Car for a ~9minute ride. Make sure to hold on as this ride is pretty steep or better yet, grab a seat by the window (You noticing a trend here?). Once you arrive at Sounzan, transfer to the Hakone Ropeway and take a ~10minute ride down to explore craters of Owakundai Valley. These craters are spectacular and were created by the last eruption of Mt. Kamiyama, Hakone’s highest peak, which erupted over 3,000years ago. *You’ll take a second ropeway after you have explored Owakudani down to Lake Ashi.
Today you can see the craters that the eruption left behind as well as the active sulphuric and hot steam vents. Eat black eggs or “Kuro-Tamago” which are normal eggs turned black by boiling them at 80°C for 1 hour in natural spring water containing sulphuric acid and iron at Owakudani before continuing on. Eating these eggs is said to add 5-7years to ones lifespan, so maybe eat a few?! Or maybe not… According to legend, two should be the limit. Honestly, despite their dark outer shell, the eggs pretty much taste like any other hard boiled egg, so no big surprises there – promise!
Next board the Hakone Ropeway and take the scenic lift down (~20minutes) to Togendai. This may have been our favorite part as you can get some gorgeous views of Fuji-san on a bluebird sky day and the ropeway car affords 360degree views of the mountainous area. Can you spot Fuji? There’s a spot to dine at Togendai if you’re interested or just continue on the course and hop aboard a pirate ship and sail Lake Ashi. Our kids couldn’t contain themselves once the words “pirate ship” were mentioned, so I’ll give you a guess as to what we chose!
Once disembarked, take some time to soak in the last views of the lake and then board the bus back to Hakone Yumoto Station.
- Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
- Admission: Hakone Free Pass (1-2day) 4,000yen, Black Eggs: 5 for 500yen
- Parking: 1800yen
Looking for an open space for your wild creatures to explore that isn’t a park? Hakone Open Air Museum may be the spot for you! With ~70,000 square meters to explore, this outdoor museum makes for an absolutely beautiful outing. If you hold a “Hakone Free Pass” (see above for admission costs) you can easily take the Tozan Railway from Hakone Yumoto Station and your transport will be included in your purchased pass. However, if you’re just making the trek out to the museum and not completing the Hakone Round Course (see above) the “Hakone Free Pass” is most likely not the best way to go and paying the 400yen for the journey via the Tozan Railway from Hakone-Yumoto station is a better option. Just get off at Chokokunomori Station and then walk ~120m to the museum!
First opened in ’66, the museum features 120+ works ranging from artwork by Picasso (heck, there’s an entire building with over 300 pieces dedicated to him!) and sculptures by Henry Moore, Marta Pan, as well as Francois-Xavier and Claude Lalanne to name a few.
The artwork is fantastic! But honestly you know what was the most fantastic? The fact that several of the exhibits encourage kids to climb through and play on them. And isn’t that the most challenging part of traditional museums, keeping kiddos from not touching #allthethings, yes? Here were our two favorite exhibits:
First, this structure, an instillation crafted by Peter Pearce. Y’all, it’s a model of a diamond molecule that was enlarged 8 billion times! Yes, that’s BILLION.
Second, crafted by a group of architects and built using hundreds of types of wood is The Woods of Net. It’s tough for me to wrap my mind around how a structure this massive could contain no metal and yet be so strong. Using the same techniques the Japanese wooden temples have employed for centuries, it stands as a testament to their craftsmanship. Although our kiddos found the structure itself pretty mind-blowing, they found the Knitted Wonder Space 2 by Toshoiko Horiuchi MacAdam inside even better. Pretty sure they could have spent HOURS just in these two spots!
- Hours: Daily, 0900 – 1700
- Admission: 1600yen/Adult if purchased in person, but 1500yen/Adult if purchased online; Free/Elementary age and under (also every Saturday is family day and up to 5 elementary/junior high school students can enter for free with one paying guardian). Additionally there is a bit of a discount if you have a “Hakone Free Pass” on the day you visit.
- Parking: 500yen (up to 5hours)
Hakone Open Air Museum Tip: Make sure to spend some time soaking your feet in the outdoor footbath which is fed by volcanic heated onsen water. No additional charge for this. We let our feet air dry (no towels provided).
Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan, before Tokyo officially became the capital (and home of the Emperor) in 1868. Naturally, transportation between the two cities was essential, so a “highway” was built. The Tokaido way is an ancient path that has been used by Emperors, samurai, and pilgrims moving between the cities for over 400 years. As the last checkpoint before arriving in Tokyo, Hakone was an essential last stop in controlling/regulating the traffic going into Tokyo. So why not recreate part of this journey on a sunny weekend afternoon? Check out the “hiking” section above for all the deets about you can also hike the Old Tokaido Trail!
- Hours: 0900 – 1700 (December to February until 1630)
- Admission: 500yen/Adult; 250yen/Child (elementary and up). Admission ends 30 minutes before closing (no closing days)
- Parking: Available, and Free!
Hakone Checkpoint Tip: You must have a ticket to enter the three buildings; there is a free waking street (short).
The Asahi Brewery isn’t in Hakone itself, but it is only about 20km (35 min) away and makes for an easy stop if you are looking for something to fill out your day in Hakone and honestly doesn’t a free beer just sound delish anyway? Yup, that’s what we thought too. Asahi has breweries all over Japan (8 to be exact).
If a free tour sounds good and you think you may want to add it to your day in Hakone, just call and make a reservation anytime between 0900 and 1700 (it’s super easy as all the representatives speak English). Thirty-minute tours occur every 1.5 hours during the day and are only offered in Japanese, however there are English audio guides that help walk you through the entire process of making one of Japan’s best known beers. Just follow the numbers along the route and you’ll know what to tune into next.
At the end of the tour you’ll be assigned a table where you will be able to enjoy free beer tasting. The tasting includes three beers (for non-driver) as well as some munchies. Fear not, soda, tea, water, and crackers are provided for the driver and kiddos!
- Hours: 0900 – 1700
- Admission: Free
- Parking: Free
If you choose to make your way along the Tokaido Highway stop at Amazake Chaya, a traditional tea house for a cup of amasake, a drink given to travelers along the road for hundreds of years. If you’re lucky your littlest ones will be tuckered out from the hike!
- Hours: 0730 – 1730
- Admission: Amasake (400yen/cup). This is a non-alcoholic, no sugar, sweet beverage that the tea house claims to be rich in nourishment. Can be served hot or cold.
Amazake Chaya Tip: The tea house can bed accessed via the Old Tokaido Highway (stone hiking path). The house is located ~35min hike from the trailhead mentioned above in the “Hikes” section.
One of the best parts of Hakone is its proximity to Mt. Fuji, giving you some absolutely stunning close up views of the mountain. There are several spots where you can catch a glimpse of the volcano, but Fuji Bussharito Heiwa Park (Fuji Peace Park) is definitely one of the best. The park features a white stupa, a Japanese garden, and a Buddhist temple, but let’s be honest…Fuji is the real star of the show. As with most of Hakone, seeing it in fall with the autumn foliage or spring during sakura season are the most popular times.
- Hours: Daily, 0900 – 1700
- Admission: Free
- Parking: Free
Fuji Bussharito Heiwa Park Tip: There is a stupa located at the back of the park where some of the ashes of Buddha are housed. Take off your shoes at the bottom of the steps before climbing up and then take a stroll around.
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