A fun day travelling the Hakone Loop Circuit
Updated: Mar 8
Having a stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan was something we were really keen to do during our visit to Japan - ideally also combined with a traditional onsen experience.
One of the best places in Japan to combine these two is the Hakone region, located between Tokyo and Kyoto, and easily accessible from both.
Hakone is famous for both the numbers of its hot springs as well as the quality of the waters, and there are a wealth of great options spread all around the area for those looking for a great place to bed down as well as to partake in this healthful ritual of Japanese bathing.
We had booked our Hakone accommodation at the amazing Gora Hanaougi ryokan, a hotel perfect for lazing about in the onsen baths that come with each room. It is also perfect for sightseeing around the Hakone area, being located right outside Sounzan station at the top of the Hakone Tozan cable car.
Most visitors to the region follow the options on the so-called Hakone Loop or Round Course itinerary to make their way around this part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Having 1 day available to us between our 2 nights at Gora Hanaougi, we decided to do the same.
And since the Hakone Tozan cable car forms one part of this circuit, we had an ideal starting point for our trip.
So after breakfast, we set off on the first leg of the course, boarding the Hakone Ropeway where it begins at Sounzan station, for our counterclockwise trip around the circuit.
All the various modes of transport running round the Hakone Loop - buses, boats as well as the various train options - are included in the Hakone Pass which we had purchased at Odawara station on our way to Hakone, and we simply presented our Pass each time we boarded the next phase of the route.
The Ropeway is a 3-stage cable car, the first of which ends at the crater of Mount Hakone - at Owakudani station.
The views from these cable cars is magnificent, showcasing the beautiful Hakone region and some great mountain scenery in the background. If you are lucky, on a cloudless day this part of the round course is also a great place for some breathtaking views of Mount Fuji!
It is not long before the stench of the mountain crater becomes apparent - the grey sulphur fumes revealing themselves as we come over the final lip of the crater and approach Owakudani station.
Of all the stops around the Hakone loop, this one feels the most touristy. There are tour buses, selfie sticks and people milling about, as well as a large store catering to all the tourists' souvenir needs. Some of the more adventurous amongst them are trying out the famous Owakudani black eggs - chicken eggs hard boiled in the sulphurous springs, and which according to legend will add 7 years to your life on eating one.
We spend a fun bit of time ambling about in the chilly air - patches of snow still on the ground in early-April as winter lingers here in the mountains - as we check out the vapours rising from the geyser vents of this active volcano, our noses slowly habituating to the odour.
Afterwards, we warm up over a quick coffee in the on-site cafe, but we don't hang round for long - pretty soon we are boarding the next part of the Ropeway, for some more great scenery as we descend from the crater towards Togendai Port, where we will board one of the Kankosen Pirate Ships for a cruise across Lake Ashinoko.
Needless to say, the pirate ships are not exactly authentic - these replicas are definitely somewhat tacky as well as packed solid with day tripping tourists. But they are nevertheless a comfortable and entertaining way to cruise across the lovely lake Ashi, the boat ride taking around 30 minutes.
En route there are some picturesque views of lake Ashi itself and the surrounding woodlands which cover the mostly undeveloped shore. For those lucky enough to have a clear day, sightings of Mount Fuji are sometimes possible during the crossing too.
And as we approach the end of our cruise, there are also some lovely views of the Jinjya Heiwa-no-Torii - the floating red torii gate near the Hakone shrine.
Our cruise ship takes us into Hakone-machi port, and from there we take a gentle walk along the shoreline of lake Ashi, towards Moto-Hakone port and via the Ancient Cedar Avenue. (Do note that some of the pirate cruise ships dock at Moto-Hakone port rather than Hakone-machi.)
On the way we stop for some browsing of the local artisan wood inlay crafts at Hakone Maruyama, and pick up a couple of souvenirs to take home with us.
Then we continue on a little further past Moto-Hakone port, to visit the Hakone-jinja shrine, and see the floating red torii gate again up close.
By now, it is time for lunch, and we have certainly worked up an appetite!
We make our way back to 'Bakery & Table' in Hakone-moto - a popular food spot in the area, as the queues out the door for the ground floor bakery attest. The breads and baked goods on display look tempting, but we have earnt a repose after all the sightseeing, and we decide to ask for a table upstairs.
In fact there are 2 restaurant options at Bakery & Table - a cafe on the first floor serving many of the bakery options, and a restaurant serving slightly higher end food on the second. Having not made a booking in advance there is a bit of a wait, but soon enough we are given a seat in the restaurant, which has an open plan kitchen and some stunning views over lake Ashi.
The restaurant menu includes things like open sandwiches, quiches and the like, as well as being known for their sweet and savoury crepes, which you can see being prepared in front of you. The food is gorgeously presented, fresh and tasty. Between us we have a quiche and a savoury pancake, and we thoroughly enjoy both as we take in the Ashinoko views before us, glass of wine in hand and once again grateful for the experiences this remarkable country has given us.
We also order a dessert to share, and what arrives is almost too pretty to eat!
Bakery & Table did not disappoint, gets a great review from us, and we think its popularity is very well-deserved.
The next stop on our day trip itinerary of the Hakone Round Course would be a visit to the Open Air Museum, and for this we would need to take a bus. We head to the bus stop, which is located right outside the Moto Hakone Sightseeing Cruise quay, and ask for pointers as there are quite a few local bus routes leaving from here.
We end up on a packed Hakone Tozan line H bus, and we are lucky to even squeeze on - there is no chance of a seat. Fortunately the bus journey only takes around 15 minutes, though there is a comic bit of shuffling every time anyone needs to get off, as this bus only has 1 door at the front.
One option on this line H bus route is for us to get off at Kowakidani train station, and take a 1 stop journey on the Tozan railway to Chokokunomori station for the Open Air Museum. However, we decide to get off the bus 1 stop before Kowakidani, and simply walk the less than 10 minutes uphill from there.
The Hakone Open Air Museum
One of the highlights amongst the touristy things to do in the region is a visit to the Hakone Open Air Museum. This museum is very easy to get to, located just outside Chokokunomori train station on the Tozan Railway line - itself part of the Hakone Loop.
Entry price is 1,600 Yen (£11) per adult, and don't forget to show your Hakone Free Pass when purchasing as there is a small additional discount.
This museum is particularly tailor-made for anyone who likes large physical art and sculptures. Dotted all around the lawns and gardens of the museum are many modern art installations and abstract sculptures, by some very famous contemporary artists indeed, including the likes of Henry Moore, Rodin and Calder. There is even a whole Exhibition Hall dedicated entirely to the works of Picasso - 2 floors of paintings and sculptures showcasing works from throughout his artistic life.
Make sure not to miss the 'Symphonic Sculpture' by Gabriel Loire, a tower situated just next to the cafe and coffee shop on the museum grounds. The stained glass interiors of this tower are gorgeous, and for those feeling energetic it can even be climbed for some additional views of the surrounding area and the museum from on high.
We spent a pleasurable hour and a half wandering around the museum grounds admiring the artworks, and we hadn't covered it all by the time the museum was shutting for the day. And while during inclement weather this might not be the greatest experience, we otherwise wholeheartedly recommend a stop at the Open Air Museum during a visit to Hakone.
At this point, all that remained to us was to take the 1 train stop up the hill to Gora station, and a quick ride from there up the Hakone Cable Car to its terminus.
As we settled back in at the lovely Gora Hanaougi ryokan for the evening, we sank our tired bodies once more into the onsen on the balcony.
Having spent a fun day working our way around the entire loop of the Round Course, we finished our Hakone day in the most appropriate fashion, doing what Hakone is known for best - by soaking away the day's aches and pains in a rejuvenating Japanese hot spring bath.