Hakone: Back in Time but Not So Far Away
Located just southwest of Tokyo, Hakone
is one of the most popular hot springs resorts in Japan. The reasons for this are obvious: the volcanic activity in the area creates natural hot springs, while the mountainous terrain allows for beautiful hiking trails. On a clear day, breathtaking views of Mount Fuji
over Lake Ashinoko
Hakone is rich in culture as well. An area of historic importance, this region was once a resting point on the frequently traveled Golden Route between Kyoto
, the Imperial capital, and Edo (Tokyo
) the capital of the Shogun. Travelers have been enjoying Hakone for centuries.
Hakone is popular in rainy season because of the hydrangeas -- Photo by Molly Thompson
Popular year round, each season brings a new reason to visit: cherry blossoms in spring, flowers in summer, colorful foliage in autumn, and snow in winter. June and July are especially popular, as travelers from all over the world come to see the hydrangeas blooming
in rainy season.
Take the original Tokaido Road -- Photo by Molly Thompson
A hike on the Tokaido Road
(Eastern Sea Road) is like traveling back in time. A bus on a busy mountain road drops you off at a well-marked trailhead. As you make your way along this centuries-old path, the sounds of cars are swallowed up by the towering cedar trees and replaced by the sounds of birds.
This feudal-era highway was used for centuries by merchants, daimyos (feudal lords)
, and pilgrims alike, making the trip between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo). In many places, the trail has the original paving stones, which are over 400 years old.
In order to maintain power over the daimyos who had sworn loyalty, the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867)
required that all daimyo make a procession to Edo every two years. These processions were showy and expensive, spending money that the daimyo could have otherwise used to overthrow or threaten the rule of the Shogunate. The processions were also frequent and could involve hundreds of people. Members had to be fed and sheltered on their journey, creating a market for inns and teahouses along the road.
Imagine doing this walk in wooden or straw sandals! -- Photo by Molly Thompson
The entire expanse of the Tokaido Road is 488 kilometers long in all, stretching all the way to Osaka
. Some parts are not as well-preserved or easy to walk. For a more pleasant hike, you can start your journey at Motohakone-ko. For a shorter walk, grab a bus from Kyukaido Ishidatami bus stop. National Route One intersects the old road in several places, so you will have to cross the road at different points. Take care, the road is busy!
- Price: Free
- Nearest station: Motohakone-ko
- Phone: None
- Hours: Open except in inclement weather
- Website: None
Teahouse on the Tokaido Road -- Photo by Molly Thompson
Just off the Tokaido Road, you will stumble upon Amazake Chaya
, the last Edo-era tea house of its kind.The teahouse is dimly lit and smells pleasantly of charcoal smoke, just as it has for centuries: this tea house has been serving Tokaido Road travelers for over 350 years! You can sit outside on roughly-hewn log benches or choose traditional floor seating by the hearth in the center of the tea house.
Pounded rice snacks and tea at Amazake Chaya
-- Photo by Molly Thompson
Here you can get chikara-mochi (glutinous rice cakes pounded with a wooden pestle and toasted by charcoal), which comes in three flavors: isobe (savory soy sauce), uguiso (soybean powder), kurogoma (mixed with black sesame). You can also pick up some omiyage or gifts for your friends at home. To drink, hot or cold matcha tea is available, but the house specialty and namesake, amazake, is worth trying: a glutinous non-alcoholic rice wine fermented with grape sugar. Lightly sweet and tangy, the drink is served cold or hot with ginger.
Tokaido Road Museum in Hakone -- Photo by Molly Thompson
After you’ve finished, leave Amazake Chaya
to visit the small Tokaido Road Museum next door. English information is unavailable, but the exhibit hosts several original pieces from the Edo era, designed to give the viewer an impression of daily life. While the artifacts are interesting, the Hakone Sekisho
(Checkpoint) Museum is much more interactive and offers English translations.
- Price: ¥400 for sake (rice wine) or matcha (powdered green tea), ¥250 for mochi (rice cakes)
- Address: 395-1 Futagoyama Hatajuku, Hakone
- Phone: +81-46-083-6418
- Hours: Open from 07:00 to 17:30
- Website: http://www.amasake-chaya.jp/
Checkpoint on the Tokaido Road from the Edo era, Hakone Sekisho
-- Photo by Molly Thompson
(Checkpoint) was built to control traffic of people entering and leaving Edo. Originally built in 1619, the current restoration was completed in 2007 using period-accurate materials and machinery. The walls are covered with shibusumi
, a black mixture of pine soot and persimmons, and will stain your clothing and skin when wet, so take care! The entire checkpoint has been rebuilt as a museum, including the reception hall, stable, and munitions area.
The Tokugawa Shogunate built 53 of these checkpoints surrounding Edo. The checkpoint’s main purpose was to prevent two resources from leaving Edo: weapons and noble women. When a daimyo had sworn loyalty to the shogun, his family was held in Edo. Ostensibly, the family remained toserve in court, but they acted more as hostages, ensuring the continued loyalty of the daimyo while his heirs were held by the shogun. Women leaving Edo needed permission to exit the checkpoint and were thoroughly inspected to ensure they were not an escaping deonna (leaving woman).
You can walk around to view what daily life would have been like before climbing the narrow stone stairs to the viewpoint over Lake Ashinoko
. The museum slightly outside of the building is a great place to learn more, although some exhibits are only available in Japanese.
- Price: ¥500 adults, ¥250 children
- Station: Hakonemachi
- Hours: 09:00 to 17:00, 365 days a year
- Website: http://www.hakonesekisyo.jp/english/
Hakone Jinja Shrine
Hakone Shrine -- Photo by Molly Thompson
This incarnation of the shrine
was built in 1667, but a shrine has been recorded in this location since at least 750 AD. Tradition says that the founder of the shrine defeated a nine-headed dragon living at the bottom of Lake Ashinoko
, turning him into a protective guardian spirit. Now, every year on July 31st, a priest pays homage to the shrine's guardian spirit by taking a boat to the middle of Lake Ashinoko
. With all the volcanic activity in the region, perhaps some truth to the legend exists after all.
This shrine is historically and culturally important, but the real reason to visit is the area's sheer natural beauty. The red-gated torii
that appears to float over the water, the heiwa no torii
of peace), has become an iconic image of Hakone, a bright vermillion torii
gate strikingly visible over the blue waters of Lake Ashinoko
. The road leading to the Shrine is flanked by immense cedar trees
, more than 800 years old, making the time period ambiguous and peaceful. When you reach the shrine, the bright colors stand out against the crisp green of the surrounding area. Nearby, Boat tours
launch, giving a better view of the torii
gate and of Mount Fuji.
The attached sacred dance hall is used for Noh
plays, which are open to the public and usually packed. It takes 15 minutes from Motohakone-ko along the edges of Lake Ashinoko
- Price: Free
- Address: 80-1 Motohakone, Hakone, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa Prefecture
- Hours: 365 days a year
- Website: http://hakonejinja.or.jp/
Scenic train in Hakone -- Photo by Molly Thompson
Every year in June and early July, this local commuting line becomes packed with visitors from around the world because the rainy season brings ajisai
(hydrangeas) out in full blooms near the tracks. Catch the train from Hakone Yumoto
to climb a winding path up the mountainside, with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.
Hakone's famous ajisai
(hydrangeas) -- Photo by Molly Thompson
The train will pause at several switchbacks to change direction, which conveniently allows for photos before the train continues climbing on. At the height of the season in early July, a night train also runs, with lights along the track illuminating the flowers. The entire ride is about 40 minutes long.
The last stop is Gora Station
. You can continue up the mountain by gondola to see more stunning scenery or stop and grab lunch in one of the local soba shops. From this station, you can also explore the beautiful Hakone Gora Park
, the first French-style garden built in Japan.
- Price: ¥400 one way
- Address: Hakone Yumoto Station
- Hours: 365 days a year, every 10-20 minutes
- Website: http://www.hakone-tozan.co.jp/en/
If you’re trying to accomplish everything in one or two days, consider getting the Hakone Day Pass.
For ¥4,000, your bus fare and many of your museum entrance fees will be covered. You'll find a lot to see and do
in Hakone, so consider coming for a long weekend or for a relaxing week-long stay!
Explore other great spots around Hakone on Odigo