Welcome once again to another (far and few in between!) installment of Jose’s Japan Tips.
For this segment I will give you some tips and suggestions about travel to and from Hakone. I visited Hakone on my first trip in 2004 and did the traditional one-day “circuit” that I will describe in just a moment. Lately, the transportation system in the Hakone region has become more tourist-friendly, helping to make a potential trip – be it for a few hours or a few days – very enjoyable.
Hakone is one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations – maybe even THE most popular. Hot springs abound, natural beauty, and of course a mountain named “Fuji” majestically lurks as a symbol of the region and the country.
How you want to enjoy yourself depends on your time available, and more importantly, how much money you would be willing to spend.
The traditional round-trip course to sample the beauty of this region is defined as follows: From the area’s major train station of Hakone Yumoto, a switchback train ride up the mountain to Gora, a cable car ride further up the mountains to Souzan, several aerial tramways to Owakudani and Togendai, a boat across Lake Ashi, and finally a bus back to Hakone Yumoto train station.
An inexpensive way of traveling around the Hakone region on your own is to purchase a Hakone Free Pass. Available in two or three-day versions, the pass gives you unlimited travel on these transit systems and many more buses that scour through the Hakone region and discounts on attractions and meals.
The Hakone Free Pass is available from Tokyo, costing 5,000 yen for 2 days or 5,500 yen for 3 days to travel from Shinjuku Station on the Odakyu Railway. This free ticket includes one round-trip between Shinjuku Station and Odawara station on regular Odakyu trains, and unlimited travel within most of the Hakone region for the term of the pass. Note that I say REGULAR trains, because if you take regular trains from Shinjuku it could take you as much as two hours to reach Hakone-Yumoto train station… so for a day trip an average of 4 hours or so can easily be eaten up on the train. On the other hand, if you pay a supplement you can travel on the Odakyu limited express train, the iconicly dubbed “Romance Car”. These trains offer more comfortable seats and in just about all cases you can stay on the train all the way to its destination. This will shave about 20 or 30 minutes off of the trip from Shinjuku, and the surcharge is 870 yen each way. So if you were to use a Romance Car both ways, your total cost would be 6,740 yen and 7,240 yen respectively.
On the other hand, Hakone Free Pass tickets also exist from Odawara station, which not only is a stop on Odakyu Railway but also a gateway station on the iconic bullet train. A Hakone Free Pass from Odawara station is 3,900 yen for 2 days and 4,400 yen for 3 days. With this particular Free Pass your travel would have to originate from Odawara station, but you would still get the unlimited travel privileges and discounts in the region. This Odawara starting option is great for holders of the Japan Rail Pass, who can whisk themselves directly to Odawara on a bullet train instead of having to take slower Odakyu trains.
Hakone has an extensive bus network, and nearly all of its bus routes are now letter coded for the benefit of tourists. This color coding can be seen by visiting the Hakone Navi web site and reading the tourist bus map. The bus map easily shows the names of bus stops around the region, and can be beneficial if visiting a hotel or resort as you can get a sense of what bus you should take and where you should get off.
Here are the bus lines that I feel are the most important: First is the H bus, which is a frequent bus that runs from Odawara and Hakone Yumoto to the south part of Lake Ashi making many stops along the way. Once off of the sightseeing boats an H bus can get you back to your starting point. If you are lucky, though, you may be able to pick up the occasional R bus, which is an express bus that travels between the south of Lake Ashi and Hakone-Yumoto/Odawara via the Hakone Toll Road in a faster time than the H bus. Finally, if you want to take in a piece of old history, the K bus uses a third route along the Old Tokaido Road, which was the route that the Japanese used centuries ago to travel between Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto.
If you are interested in staying in the Hakone region, perhaps at an onsen hotel, then you will want to check a few web sites and do comparison shopping to find the place that’s best for you. My suggestions: go to Google Maps and search for “Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan”. Then zoom in on the Hakone region and do another search for “Hotel” or “Ryokan”. This will give you a few options. Alternatively you can use Rakuten and Japanican which can usually give you some good deals.
If you are looking for a tour package to visit Hakone, then you may want to consider those offered by JTB, including their flagship one-day tour of Mount Fuji and Hakone. The base tour from Tokyo costs 13,000 yen per person and includes bus transportation to Mount Fuji, sightseeing, lunch, then a trip to Lake Ashi where you can take an aerial tram to Mount Komagatake for more sightseeing before finally heading back to Tokyo by bus. A cheaper option exists at 11,000 yen but the option does not include lunch.
There are several variants of this JTB tour. One option is to “Return by Shinkansen” which increases the cost to 16,000 yen (or 14,000 yen without lunch), but includes return tickets to Tokyo by bullet train. Another option is to “Disband at Odawara” which costs the same as the standard tours, only here you exit the tour at Odawara station and continue on your own; if you have a Japan Rail Pass you can head back to Tokyo on your own, or you can head the other direction and head towards Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka to continue your journey in Japan.
Appealing, though, are packages that include the tour and an overnight stay in the region. For 26,000 yen per person double occupancy you can combine the Mount Fuji-Hakone tour with an overnight stay in a western-style room at Hotel Kowaki-en. For 39,000 yen double occupancy you can stay in a Japanese-style room at Yunohana Onsen. If you want a change of pace, for between 29 and 30,000 yen per person double occupancy you can do the tour and spend a night at an onsen hotel on the Izu peninsula, which has a charm of its own and commands some very scenic views. These Izu hotel options offer a bullet train transfer to Shizuoka at the end of the trip, or a bullet train ride back to Tokyo.
Finally, this particular tour is also included in the longer travel packages offered by JTB. All of the JTB packages can be reviewed on Japanican‘s web site.
That’s about all for now… hopefully I’ll provide some more travel ideas and review some Japan travel deals in my next post. ^_^