Hakone Offers More Than Just A Getaway From The Bright Lights Of Tokyo

Mt Fuji Hakone

HAVING grown up in the city, the idea of a holiday in another city holds little appeal for me.

Give me a spell away from the familiar, to bask in an environment that is idyllic, quiet, unharried and unhurried.

Japan offers both the big city hot vibe as well as the chill, easy-going offering.

One of the more recent areas to emerge as a tourist spot is Hakone. Lying about 100km from Tokyo, a quick train ride on an efficient semi-express will get you there without fuss in around two hours.

Hakone Sekisho
Nature trails also have cultural significance. This is the first road between Tokyo and Kyoto passing through the Hakone checkpoint.

7 Villages Offer Various Activities

Hakone, in the Kanagawa Prefecture, is a mountainous region made up of seven villages, each with its own vibe. From mountains to lakes, it is dotted with hundreds of hot springs and art galleries; quite the mixed bag of attractions.

The highlight is often Mount Fuji, which, should the weather permit it, presents itself in snow-peaked majesty.

Lying around Lake Ashi, this caldera of the volcanically active Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, has seen an increase in tourism and interest in what it has to offer.

Volcanic thermal springs
This volcanic area and its thermal hot springs opened up Hakone as a tourist destination.

Allure Of Gora

Gora is a dark horse in this grouping of villages.

A more recent tourist development, Gora was barren up until the turn of the last century. The discovery of a hot spring and a railway line running through the area opened up its prospects.

These days, it’s a coming together of many railway lines and cable car connections to get you about the hilly region.

Amazake house
Enjoy desserts and amazake in this centuries-old establishment along the winding roads of Gora.

Gora Station sets the tone for those arriving by train. The current station was opened in 1977 and not much has changed. There are a few shops as you exit the station, selling trinkets, quick bites and looking like time had slowed down to get you in the right mood.

Up along twisting roads we climbed, passing old structures — like a centuries’ old tea house still serving desserts and the traditional amazake, a sweet fermented rice drink that takes a week to prepare — and new builds to cater for the tourism that is finding out about this spot of tranquility. 

Sunrise, Gora
The sun peeps over the ever-present mountains at Hakone.

Basing ourselves in the spacious and modern Hyatt Regency, we are treated to a magnificent view of the mountains that dominate the landscape. By day, houses peek out from the lush carpet of green coating the ridge, turning, as the sun sets, into twinkling dots by night.

The hushed sounds of nature fill the expanse; a gentle accompaniment to the serene ambience.

Ropeways of Hakone
Ropeways connect you to the various sights of Hakone.

Getting Around Hakone

As the season shifts from spring to summer the mercury bounces between the low teens and mid-20s. The sun keeps you warm and makes it ideal for wandering through the numerous areas and taking in the sights; be it Mount Fuji with the millennia-old Hakone shrine, hiking trails in the region, including the first road from Kyoto to Tokyo passing through the Hakone Sekisho, or riding the ropeways (cable cars) and trains to the thermal volcanic vents, or even cruising on a pirate ship on Lake Ashi.

The roads and paths are an uneven mix of ups and downs, so appropriate footwear would be beneficial, and journey at your own pace.

Yosegi Marquetry in Hakone
Yosegi, marquetry from local wood, originated from the Edo period.

Magic Boxes

Some of the traditional crafts have been given a renewed shot in the arm with the rise of tourism.

Yosegi, a woodworking craft from the Edo period originated in the Hakone mountains. Using the natural colours of the wood from the trees in the region, geometric patterns are created and made into utilitarian and decorative items, including magic boxes with secret compartments that take as many as 1,536 steps to unlock.

At the Hakone Karakuri Museum an assortment of crafts featuring marquetry from the area are on offer. Displays of the puzzle boxes that require several steps to open showcase the amount of time that was available for the craftsmen to figure out how to make these novelty items.

Gora Brewery & Grill
Chef Nobu has carved a niche for himself at the popular Gora Brewery & Grill

Enter The New

While the old world still welcomes you at the railway station, Gora Brewery & Grill shows the new face of the evolving town. A chic restaurant that is often packed out, it serves up a tasty array of grilled meats and salads in the style of the popular Japanese chef Nobu.

If you rock up and are turned away, the brewery has an array of beers, wines, whiskies and sake.

Hakone Open Air Museum
The Hakone Open-Air Museum showcases several scultpures on its grounds, as well as an area for Picasso’s works.

A Variety Of Museums

The surprising collection of museums in Hakone makes this an interesting destination for those into art.

There are museums for Venetian glass, doll houses, history, Lalique, and a number of private establishments. Loads of opportunities for the IG and TikTok generations to keep their fans well fed with contents.

The Hakone Open-Air Museum brings together art and exercise as you wander around the gardens taking in a variety of sculptures. It’s a mixed bag of art — numbering more than 2,000 works — that would generally appeal to a mass market audience. There’s also a structure filled with Picasso’s works and information, where you can look but not touch nor photograph.

Hakone seems like quite an unlikely location to be instructed in art, but, it is a place full of surprises.

Often taken in quickly as part of a day trip from Tokyo, Hakone does merit a longer stay, especially if you are not a fan of big cities.

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