Hakone Daytrip: Fall Foliage, Endless Lines, and Many Modes of Transportation

Last Sunday, I took a day trip to Hakone, to check out the fall foliage in the area. Hakone is a small town in the mountains at the top of the Izu peninsula, famous for its onsen (natural hotsprings) and fantastic views of Mt. Fuji. It is less than 100 kilometers from Tokyo, so I was once again was foolishly tricked into thinking that it would be a “quick easy daytrip from Tokyo.” I’m starting to realize that there might not actually be such a thing.

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Hakone Freepass loop

We bought the Hakone Freepass, which allows you unlimited use on any of the public transit in the area. The goal was to complete a loop on five different kinds of transportation: train, bus, cable car, ropeway, and boat. We did end up making the loop, but not without difficulty. Because, it turned out that on this fine Sunday, everyone – and their mother, and their cousin, and their sister’s boyfriend – decided to come to Hakone. Everywhere we went, we found huge crowds and super long lines. It made our loop take far longer than anticipated, and made the day quite stressful.

We caught a view of Fujisan on the train coming from Shinjuku. It was pretty cool to see the mountain from this different perspective, huge on the horizon, and remember that I was on top of it just a few months ago. (Read about my adventure climbing Mt. Fuji here.) We arrived at Hakone-Yumoto station in the late morning, and were disappointed to find a long line for the train to our next stop, Gora. We opted to take the bus instead to try to save time. I’m not sure if it actually ended up being quicker, but it certainty was the path less traveled by.

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20161113_130430The bus took us up a steep winding road with gorgeous views of the fall colors, and dropped us off somewhere in the small residential streets of Gora. We got a little lost but finally found our way, through a narrow, overgrown path and up several long and steep sets of stairs. Finally at the top, we found Gora station, and… another extremely long line for the Hakone Tozan cable car.

After stopping for some soba, we got in the line, and waited for about 40 minutes for a mere 8-minute ride on the cable car. But we did see some great colors from the cable car. At Sounzan Station, the top of the cable car and the start of the ropeway, there was a lovely view looking out over the tree-covered hills below. It was the peak of the fall colors, and it was gorgeous. There was also another insanely long line for us to wait in.

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View from Sounzan Station
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Nice colors, long lines

The ropeway took us to Owakudani, a volcanic crater on Mount Kamiyama. It’s an active volcanic zone, complete with sulfuric fumes and natural hot springs. You can buy black eggs, which are cooked in the sulfuric water, and are said to prolong your life by seven years. It was a really bizarre, barren landscape, and I felt like I was on an alien planet.

Owakudani was only a transfer point on the ropeway, not the end, like we had thought. This meant that we had to get back in another ridiculously long line to get down the mountain. We had to wait nearly an hour and a half, and at this point we were feeling super frustrated and disheartened by the lines and crowds, and it was getting cold and dark. We had spent all day just waiting in lines and trying to get somewhere, but never having time to enjoy being there. We finally got back on the ropeway and made it down to Togendai-ko station, where we thankfully made it on to the last boat of the day to take us across Lake Ashi and complete our loop.

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Going down the ropeway. There’s a great view of Mt. Fuji behind the clouds.
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Sightseeing boats

Once aboard the boat, we bought some sake cans. Our kanpai (cheers) sparked a conversation with an older Japanese couple. We started chatting with them, and it turned out they were family friends of another girl on the JET program who we know. What a small world! They were so kind. The husband bought us all another can of sake, and we talked for the whole boat ride. It was such a nice experience, and just what we needed at the end of a somewhat lackluster day.

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Lake Ashi, unfortunately it was pretty much dark.
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Finally on the boat with our sake!

Feeling warmed and re-energized by the kindness of these strangers (and by the sake) we started our journey home. After a bus ride and three more train transfers, I made it back to my little apartment, which had never felt so cozy. The day didn’t go exactly how I’d hoped, but at least I was in good company with good friends, and I did see some beautiful fall colors. I’d definitely like to return to Hakone, but with a better plan, and not on a weekend during peak leaf viewing season. I still want to see that famous view of Mt. Fuji. Next time!

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