Traveling to Hakone, Japan? Here are my FIVE favorite Hakone experiences.
One of my favorite places during our Japan travels, Hakone is a magical mountain town tucked halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto. It’s the perfect stop for a few brief days, or even a quick Hakone day trip.
It’s an escape from the sensory overload of Tokyo and a welcome exhale to experience Japan’s natural beauty. Hakone is a popular tourist destination, with its close proximity to Mount Fuji and natural hot spring fueled by the region’s volcanic activity.
There are so many things to do in Hakone. Here are my favorite Hakone experiences.
5 Favorite Experiences in Hakone
Stay in a Ryokan
The bus wound around the road, ascending higher and higher for a solid hour until we reached our stop. Cramped and crowded, we yanked our suitcases out the jenga-stack of luggage and rolled down the road, lush and green like a foliage tunnel. The Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse greeted us with its manicured landscape. Finally, our ryokan experience.
We removed our shoes upon entering and conversed with the ryokan attendant in the welcome office. The room looked like a 90s travel agent’s suite, with brochures and postcards and maps and knickknacks covering every free space. Adjacent to the office, a lounge with couches, books, and mishmashed Japanese decor was available for guests to read, relax, or befriend other travelers. Upstairs, our room, quite spacious, had two bamboo mattresses resting on the floor. The room was simply furnished with the bathroom in the hallway to be shared by all guests.
On one particular evening, we returned from the day’s adventures to find the entryway littered with shoes. What in the world? Room abuzz, we wondered, did we return to a party? A family reunion? In the lounge, a group of local residents gathered among some of the ryokan’s guests.
“It’s English Club; please join us!”our concierge invited, as we were ushered in to the room while handed a cup of warm green tea. We soon learned that the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse unites locals with ryokan guests to host an evening of cultural exchange and the opportunity to practice speaking English with native speakers – “English Club.”
We took the time to communicate, some locals practicing basic expressions of Hello! What is your name? Where are you from? What is your occupation? Who is your family? with Japanese-English dictionary and notepad in hand. Many of the English Club participants presented us with gifts as tokens of appreciation for our time: origami cranes, hand-rolled candies, calligraphy. Gifts weren’t necessary. The exchange & conversation was enough.
Ryokan advice: bring a gift! Besides kind, it is appropriate (though not required) to present a gift to the ryokan host in appreciation for the hospitality. I recommend something from your hometown. From us, a gift from my favorite local confectioner. Also, looking at this Facebook post makes me sad because that was the last moment that I had my favorite hat. Sometimes I imagine that my hat is still hanging in that office among the tchotchkes, a relic of guests passed through.
Soak in a Private Onsen
We stepped outside the ryokan onto a patio enclosed by a tall bamboo fence and bamboo shades, ensuring the door behind us locked. Nobody wants to walk in on a couple onsen-ing in the buff. Untying our yukata, our naked skin prickled at the exposure of the air cooled by dusk. Before us, a rounded rectangular vestibule of milky-colored water released a soft steam from the surface. First, I dipped my toe to test the water. Mmmm… warm. So warm. Submerging my body, the water hugged like a liquid blanket, massaging my muscles to relaxation, saturating my skin with the silty residue accumulated in the hot spring’s nooks. “This… is bliss.” We soaked, fingers pruned, cheeks tinged with pink, and wispy hair taking on a humid curl.
Shortly after our outdoor onsen experience, we moved to the indoor onsen. A wet, humid sauna, the indoor onsen steamed the windows and dampened the floors. For the first time since I arrived to Japan, sick, the thick mucus that clogged my nose and lungs loosened, and decongestion finally relieved my sick body. I could breathe again. I was cured by onsen, if only for a brief amount of time. I suppose there’s a reason why onsen is considered healing.
Onsen does wonders for the skin, promotes blood circulation, minimizes muscle and joint pain, and of course, relaxes the mind. Our onsen at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse was completely natural, fed directly from the Owakudani Volcano. This particular hot spring’s mineral composition includes sulfate, calcium, magnesium, and chloride with a strong acidity level.
With its close proximity to Mount Fuji, Hakone is known for its high level of volcanic activity and volume of natural hot springs. There are over 17 types of hot spring in this region, all with varying characteristics. Onsen, I learned, is uniquely Japanese. When visiting a public onsen, nakedness is required and tattoos are forbidden. For those with tattoos or those with naked-shyness, private onsen is a welcome alternative.
We booked our ryokan particularly because its amenities included both an indoor and outdoor private onsen included with the stay. Even if you are not staying at the ryokan, this particular onsen is available to book.
Eat a Black Egg (Owakudani Kuro-Tamago)
“Warning: Individuals with asthma, allergies, or respiratory illness are advised.” Hesitating, I considered walking away. A life-long allergies sufferer, my inability to breathe clearly was further obstructed by a thick sinus infection that turned me into a struggling mouth-breather.
This was the Hakone Ropeway, stretching across the Hakone region to provide an aerial view of the natural landscape. One station, Owakudani station, sells eggs, freshly boiled in the natural, volcanic water. The famous black eggs of Hakone, or Owakudani Kuro-Tamago.
Rank with the sulfuric smell of rotten eggs, I donned my face mask and opted to risk it. Unfortunately, due to the increased levels of hazardous gases, the railway was closed after the first station of the ropeway. That meant no Owakudani Station. That meant no black eggs.
Why the desire to acquire hard boiled eggs? Local legend claims, eating a Hakone black egg will increase longevity by 7 years. These black eggs are boiled in the sulfuric water of Odawaini, a valley of volcanic activity. This is what gives the eggs their black coat, as if it were dipped in charcoal.
This valley is sometimes closed due to the levels of hazardous gases in the air. Lucky for us, on days like the day we visited, the eggs are taken to a small Visitors Center along the road. The queue to purchase these little black pearls of longevity wrapped around the building.
Peeling the hot egg delicately and carefully taking a bite, I tried to tune into my body, awaiting the buzz of my cells regenerating from the magic of the black eggs. They tasted no different from your average hard boiled egg.
Check in with me in about 60 years and I’ll let you know how my health is faring.
Find the Elusive Mount Fuji
There’s a special kind of feeling when you’re about to complete something on your bucket list. The blood pumps faster. The fingertips go a little numb. The eyes blink harder. All physical signs to confirm that, yes, yes I am here. Yes, this is now. Mount Fuji is one of those natural wonders I’ve always dreamed of seeing. The grandness, the perfectly symmetrical connical shape, the sleeping goliath, a ticking bomb.
I imagined the moment. Sailing along Lake Ashi, with Fuji towering above on the horizon.
So we visited Lake Ashi, looked toward the horizon and saw…. nothing.
No Mount Fuji. Little did we know, Mount Fuji is a bit shy. Often shrouded in cloud and mist, the best bet to see her clearly is during the winter months. You can imagine our surprise (and disappointment). Instead, we enjoyed the breeze on the lake and shoreline sights as the boat introduced us to Lake Ashi.
There were two times when we faintly saw Mount Fuji: on the Hakone Ropeway during our black egg attempt and on the Shinkansen. Seeing Mount Fuji in the distance was like looking through a dream. Hazy, like glimpsing through squinted eyes. Snowcapped summit, like a smudged chalk painting. Oh she was there, but the gossamer curtain of cloud questioned my sanity if Mount Fuji truly was there, or if I was looking through a dream.
That one Restaurant in Hakone
Nestled along the road was a restaurant we wandered into with no food display or indication of what was inside. The only customers, we took a seat and looked at a menu in Japanese. A chef and server were the only two to keep us company. The language barrier was so thick, there was no communicating with words.
This was one of my favorite dining experiences in Japan because it was one of the few times I truly felt that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Despite the language barrier, the staff treated us kindly, providing us with small appetizers and dessert. Orchestral Japanese music played from the speakers. They even presented us with handmade origami cranes with our bill. Not to mention that the food was INCREDIBLE.
I really have no idea what I ordered (I pointed at a photo on the menu that looked most appetizing) but it was a delicious dish. A rich porridge with perfectly poached egg and enoki mushrooms. Eric’s barbecue eel draped over a bed of rice like an oversized blakent. There was something simple and relaxed and curious about that dining experience. To this day, we call it, “that one restaurant in Hakone.”
This restaurant experience in Hakone almost made it to my favorite culinary experiences in Japan list, but I thought it better suited for this listicle.
Honorable Mention: Visit the Sekirakuen Garden
Bursts of pink exploded on our retinas like bouquets of joy. In full bloom, the Sekirakuen Garden at the Hakone Museum of Art epitomized the beauty of all Japanese floral gardens. We walked the grounds as musicians played the koto. The entire experience felt surreal, something from a movie set, yet here we were blinded by pink floral majesty. Cue photos, because words can do no justice.
Those were my favorite experiences in Hakone! If you’re planning on traveling to Hakone, here are some other suggestions that you could add to your Hakone itinerary.
Looking for a List of Things To Do in Hakone?
- Stay at a Ryokan
- Soak in Onsen
- Boat Ride on Lake Ashi
- Hakone Ropeway
- Eat Black Eggs
- Odawara Castle