Getting from Tokyo to Hakone is incredibly easy but if you do decide to travel on the Romancecars, make sure you plan early to get one of the highly sought-after seats (which are priced the same). Hakone is beautiful and it is usually recommended for you to stay at least one night to fully experience the beauty of this place. With that being said, it is also highly possible for you to complete most of the major sights in a day and this guide will show you exactly how!
How Much to visit Hakone from Tokyo?
For a fuss-free experience around Hakone, you should opt for a Hakone Freepass which comes in 2-day (¥5,140) or 3-day (¥5,640) validity period. Contrary to what the name may suggest, the Hakone Freepass is actually not free and the prices quoted above are correct at the time of writing and they are valid for travel to and from Shinjuku (find out how to get from Shinjuku to Hakone HERE!). While the Hakone Freepass may be valid for two to three days, the machine will retain this ticket the moment you get back to where you embarked on this journey - for example, if you have purchased a 3-day pass and you have decided to return to Shinjuku after a day out, the ticket will be retained by the machine the moment you exit the station and the rest of your pass will be forfeited. As such, it is highly recommended for you to stay overnight in Hakone if time permits or if you wish to explore the region a little bit more.
Is the Hakone Freepass worth it?
Whether the Hakone Freepass is worth it or not depends on where you travel to and how often you intend to utilise the different modes of transport there. My suggestion is to purchase the Hakone Freepass so you do not actually have to constantly calculate and figure out whether it is better to take the transport or walk. With the Hakone Freepass, you will be able to enjoy unlimited usage of the Hakone Tozan Railway (Odawara-Gora), the Souzan Cablecar and Hakone Ropeway between Gora to Togendai, the Hakone Sightseeing Boats on Lake Ashinoko, Hakone Tozan Buses and Odakyu buses within the free area as well as the Numazu Tozan Tokai Buses between Mishima and Moto-Hakone.
Getting from Hakone-Yumoto Station to Gora Station
If you have followed my guide carefully, you should arrive at the Hakone-Yumoto Station (especially if you have opted for the Romancecar option). Once you get out of the Romancecar, do not exit the station and look for the Hakone Tozan Train (as photographed above). The Hakone Tozan Train will take you all the way to Gora Station (with about five stops in between) and the journey takes quite a while since it moves in a zig-zag fashion. It was actually quite crowded and uncomfortable when I was there since it was moderately cold outside and the heater was actually on full-blast which made the insides of a train feel a little bit like a sauna (thankfully someone managed to crack open a small window for ventilation).
The Gora Station is the final stop on the Hakone Tozan Train (I was happy to get out of the train since it was really quite stuffy in there when I visited) and there are plenty of souvenir shops and a couple of noodle restaurants. There is apparently a pretty famous restaurant known as Tamura Ginkatsu-tei here which is well-known for tofu-based cuisine but I did not manage to check it out since I wanted to rush up to the Owakudani Station and try my luck at seeing the famous Mt. Fuji in full glory.
Gora Station to Sounzan Station
Before you get too excited about cable cars, the Hakone Tozan Cable Car isn't exactly the cable car that we are used to seeing (yes, not like the ones that go up to Mount Faber in Singapore). The cable car (which honestly, looks more like a train) will take you to the peak of the mountain - Sounzan Station where you will be able to transfer to the Hakone Ropeway (which is definitely the kind of 'cable car' that most of us know of). There isn't much to do here at the Sounzan Station so take a few pictures and get in the queue to hop on the Hakone Ropeway (which is by far my favourite mode of transport in Hakone).
Sounzan Station to Owakudani Station
Getting from Sounzan Station to Owakudani Station takes approximately 10 minutes and the next station is definitely a highlight of the Hakone trip. If you are traveling with Japanese visitors, you will enjoy a moderately quiet journey up the mountain on the Hakone Ropeway but once it reaches the peak, you should hear excited squeals and murmurs from everyone because the view of the Owakudani (大湧谷) which is sometimes known as the Valley of Hell, is just amazing.
Viewing the Owakudani from the Hakone Ropeway
This is also when you will hear the most camera shutter sounds (since you actually can't turn off the camera shutter sounds on iPhones sold in Japan). Watch as steam rises up from volcanic activity below - you will definitely notice the sulphur smell as you get there but trust me, you are going to love Owakudani (especially if the weather is perfect).
The Owakudani Station is a popular station and there are plenty of mandatory things to do (for a tourist). Of course, feel free to take a photo with the Valley of Hell as your backdrop - I didn't try since the number of tourists were just incredible and there was no way I was going to take a photo without someone in it.
There is actually a trail in the volcanic zone where visitors can walk along but for some reason it was blocked off on the day I visited.
You will be able to smell the sulphur (prolonged exposure is not recommended for health reasons) and view the steam vents as well as the bubbling pools here at the Owakudani - one of the most popular things to do here is to purchase the black eggs for consumption. The shell of the (chicken) eggs turn black after being cooked in the hot sulphur spring.
Black Eggs (Kuro-Tamago)
The kuro-tamago (or black egg) is sold in a bag of five and location tradition holds that each black egg consumed will add seven years to one's life but YMMV. A little salt sachet is also provided for taste. They may not taste drastically different from regular hard-boiled eggs but hey, you are a tourist and eating this is mandatory! I also highly recommend checking out the gift shop here - you will find a huge collection of confectioneries and beautifully-packaged gifts that will make your colleagues back at home squeal with joy. The Japanese have also done a great job in making kuro-tamago a lovable character - you will see plenty of toys and souvenirs that are modeled after this black egg.
Catch a View of Mt. Fuji (if you are Lucky!)
If you are lucky enough, you will catch a glimpse of the famous Mt. Fuji. I actually went on a day where the weather forecast for Hakone was supposedly cloudy but I did get a window of approximately 45 minutes to view Mt. Fuji in full glory so I definitely lucked out. If you want to hedge your bets, stay over in one of the hotels in Hakone to improve your chance at seeing Japan's highest volcano.
If you are craving for something sweet, check out the super-sexy Charcoal Vanilla Soft Serve or go for something a little more simple like the Vanilla and Egg Soft Serve.
Since it was incredibly windy on the day of visit, I was actually craving for some hot food - I wandered into a store selling oden which is essentially a comforting winter-dish with ingredients that is stewed in a soy-flavoured dashi broth. I absolutely love eating oden in the cold and while I do believe that the dish does not exactly challenge any chef in terms of culinary skills, the feeling of eating (and drinking) this in the cold is just unbeatable.
Owakudani Station to Togendai Station
Once you are done taking in the sights at Owakudani Station, hop on the Hakone Ropeway once again and head down to Togendai Station. Since I do not consider oden, boiled eggs and soft serve to be actual meals, I decided to drop by a store that sells Japanese curry rice at Togendai Station (it is also partially because I've just missed the cruise). I do not remember how much this plate of Japanese curry rice was but I do remember using a Visa credit card for payment.
Togendai Station to Moto-Hakone Station
Once you have satisfied your inner-glutton, get in the queue for the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise which is a definitely highlight of the trip. Get to the deck for the best views but do note that it can get quite cold (especially on a windy day) - you can enjoy a view of Mt. Fuji on a clear day but it started to get cloudy while I was boarding the cruise so I simply took in the tranquility and beauty of the scenery instead.
Everyone also seems to be extremely friendly (perhaps the beauty of nature brings out the best in people) so feel free to wave at other visitors on another boat.
If you do visit Hakone during the autumn season, make sure you look out for the Torii Gate along Lake Ashi which is surrounded by fall colours. The Hakone Shrine is located at the foot of Mt. Hakone and the shrine is hidden within the forest. I did not manage to check it out during my visit as I wanted to make it back to Hakone-Yumoto Station in time for my train (especially since I have booked a special cabin on the Romancecar).
Hakone-Machi Station to Moto-Hakone Station
The Hakone Sightseeing Cruise goes to Moto-Hakone Station but I decided to get off at the Hakone-Machi Station for a slow walk instead. Make your way through the Ancient Cedar Avenue along the way and find yourself at the Moto-Hakone Station where you will be able to hop on a bus that will take you directly to the Hakone-Yumoto Station where you can board your Romancecar back to Shinjuku.
I got back to the Hakone-Yumoto Station about 90 minutes ahead of my train's scheduled departure time. Trains in Japan are well-known for their punctuality so be sure to arrive slightly ahead of schedule (especially if you have a reservation for a special cabin on the Romancecar) to avoid missing your train back.
I decided to wander around the area surrounding the Hakone-Yumoto Station and was pleasantly surprised by the number of souvenir and food options around - you can find a variety of shops that sell everything from dried kelp to keychains and delicious food.
I found a store with a really long queue as I was walking along the stretch of shops and decided to join the line for a box of delicious deep-fried kamoboko. The store actually sells a variety of flavours and since I could not decide which one to go for, I decided to get a box of assorted ones instead.
It is definitely possible to cover Hakone in a day and if you do decide to do it as a day-trip, make sure you leave your hotel extra early and plan ahead in advance in order to cover as much as possible. Remember, getting a special seat on-board the Romancecar is going to cost the same as a regular seat on the Romancecar so you should definitely consider booking in advance for a unique experience. If you do have more time to spare, I would greatly encourage you to consider spending a night in Hakone in order to check out more sights like the Hakone Shrine and the Hakone Open-Air Museum.