Heading to Hakone for the Day
For some reason I thought our JR Pass would still be good for this day so I planned to do Hakone for that exact purpose but when we got to Shimabashi station we fully got denied. We looked at our JR passes and indeed the last day was yesterday.
Hakone is known primarily for their natural hot springs and views of Mount Fuji. It’s a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and only 2 hours away by train.
I had read online about this Hakone Free Pass business and originally we were going to get it once we got to Odawara station but this changed things. From Shimbashi we had to JR up to Shinjuku and purchase the Hakone Free Pass there that is owned by another company Odakyu (I know very confusing right?). The only downfall of doing this from Tokyo was that it would be a lot slower than taking the JR to Odawara. Still it was a fantastic deal. For 5000 JPY each you get to use almost all modes of transportation to Hakone and within the city (that includes the pirate ship, ropeway, cable car and buses). We just made it in time for the 11AM train. The entire trip to the main station of Hakone-Yumoto took about 2 hours.
Arriving in Hakone
From the train station we had to take the Hakone Tozan Bus H to Hakone Machi-Ko (pier). This alone took another 40 minutes so we were really tight on time as you can tell. From the pier we got on the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise a.k.a. pirate ship bound for Togendai on the other end of Lake Ashi. The cruise itself was pretty smooth and provided nice views all around of the surrounding mountains and ancient buildings.
The Pirate Ship
The unfortunate thing was the sky was really cloudy and hazy the whole day and so luck wasn’t on our side to be able to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji. I think I saw it for a few seconds at one point but that may have been my mind playing tricks on me. We found out later that summer is probably the worst time to spot Mount Fuji because of the hot weather and humidity. Winter time is when the air clears and allows Mount Fuji to be seen even from Tokyo.
We met an American couple when we got them to take a photo for us so we chatted with them for a bit. They were in Japan for a bio related conference as he was faculty I believe somewhere. They were super friendly and we were going to continue the rest of the way around Hakone with them but we wanted to take some extra shots on the boat and then lost them in the crowd.
Hakone Ropeway and Smelly Eggs at Owakudani
Everything links up with each other very well so once we got off the boat we walked through a building to get onto the Hakone Ropeway. There was a transfer point at Owakudani and this is where things start smelling like rotten eggs and overwhelms your senses. This area was developed from an eruption some 3000 years ago. Today it’s on an active volcanic zone for tourists to inhale. One of the tourist traps there are the black eggs that they advertise from store to store. Apparently these things provide an additional 7 years of life for each egg you eat because they’re hard-boiled in the natural volcanic hot springs where the sulphurous fumes evaporate from. They catch is you also have to buy a minimum of 5. So we’re sitting on some benches and peeling away at these eggs like all the other tourists. Egg shells are all over the floor. The only thing unique about them is that they have a black shell but other than that we realized that they’re exactly like just normal hard-broiled eggs. They taste the same!! They totally got us haha.
After walking around the area and purchasing some souvenirs at one of the store (softest mochi I ever had in my life), we hopped on another ropeway + cable car to get down to the Gora train station. From there we took the Hakone Tozan Train to get back to the main station. All of that took approximately an hour. Owakudani is an interesting place to check out if you haven’t been to any other geothermal parks like in New Zealand but if you have, this place is very tiny. Nice ropeway pitstop nonetheless.
The second order of business after touring around Hakone was of course the hot springs themselves. We originally tried to look for private hot springs or co-ed ones but the more we dug in the more it seemed like they didn’t exist or if they did, it required reservations and above all more time to play with than we had. With that we decided to just stick to a traditional one such as Tenzan. From the main station we had to wait for a local K bus, which dropped us off right at the front door.
The whole thing was a brand new experience starting with purchasing the tickets. Normally you’d think you have to go in first to some sort of reception desk to pay the admission but no instead there are machines right outside where you first have to pay to get these tickets before you get in. Second, we didn’t think to bring our own towels so we had to pay for their tiny tiny white towels. We locked our shoes in a cubby and after that a nice cleaning person guided us through to the entrance of the men and women hot springs – just another example of the super friendliness of Japanese people. He seemed very excited that we had come all the way from Canada. We agreed to meet in the main waiting area at 6:30PM and I bid Chantelle adieu.
The only thing I knew going in was that Chantelle told me that you have to shower first and sit down while doing it. First thing is you have to strip down naked and put your stuff in a locker. The locker is connected right to the outdoor hot springs so I quickly made my way outside and found some showers with little stools to the right. I did the whole shower thing and then strut my stuff into the first hot pool I found. This one wasn’t hot thankfully and nobody was in it either so I just lay there for awhile to soak in the atmosphere.
The whole area the hot springs occupy for men isn’t that large. There’s one cold pool, two small pools partially covered by a roof and a large pool divided into two sections. I also spotted this small clay enclosure that looked like some sort of oven.
After things got a bit hot for me, I went over to the cold (more like freezing) pool where I first used the small single hand-held pail to splash over myself and then after acclimatizing to it, putting my feet in. I wanted to dunk my whole body in like some of the other guys but that looked too insane.
For the next hour and some I basically just repeated the routine of going from hot to cold. Being new to the experience, you’re naturally going to feel conscious of being fully naked so I found that a lot of time I was just using that small tiny towel (size of a large square size napkin) to cover myself before moving into the next pool. Some other Japanese people were doing that so I figured it was normal. You also try not to look in that general region at all just so you don’t send any wrong vibes haha. Overall though it was quite the relaxing experience. You can just stare into the sky or the maple trees that dangle above or listen to sound of dripping water. Japanese people are really respectful of your space so you never really feel uncomfortable. Dads and their kids were there too so it’s totally a family outing too I guess. The only times where it got uncomfortable was when I went to the scolding hot pool that I lasted less than a minute in. And then there was the clay oven room that turned out to be what it looked like. There was nobody inside but I kneeled down on these mats and as I breathed in the air my nostrils went on fire and could barely suck in much oxygen. The air was so thick with moisture and heat that it was barely breathable. The only way I could survive was using my wet towel to act as a filter. After all of that, I couldn’t believe the time was already up so I got up to change and met Chantelle back in the lounge/waiting area.
On our way back we wanted to take a faster train back so we upgraded our tickets to the Romance Car which would allow us to take a direct train back to Shinjuku without any transferring and be in the comfort of a Shinkansen-like train instead of the subway-like train the other line offered. We passed out in no time.
Dinner at Uokin
We didn’t get back to Shinjuku until 9PM something and then had to take the JR around to Shimbashi. I knew this was going to be trouble because I had made a reservation at this restaurant called Uokin (popular high-end izakaya style restaurant mainly focused on seafood) for 9PM. It took a bit of navigating around because we didn’t have a complete Google Map print out nor could we figure out our orientation but after asking a bunch of locals we eventually made it to the restaurant at almost 10PM. An hour late, the waiter was telling us that we’d have to wait for a table to leave. We figured we had some time so we just stood around while everyone else that was turned away just left. After awhile, the same waiter came back to us and told us that we could order drinks while he set up this make-shift table on a tall stool he moved over. Then to our surprise, he came back suggesting that we could order some food if he combined two stools to make a super table. I was like hell yah! He then helped us with the menu that was of course in Japanese only suggested a few items to try. We started chowing down until a table freed up upstairs. They immediately ushered us upstairs and helped move everything over.
Of all the dishes we ordered, the silky smooth tofu + seafood combination was probably one of my favorites. The other dishes was this shelled beast that had a really crunchy and hard texture to it, a sashimi platter but with fish we’ve never eaten before so it was “interesting” to say the least and then we tacked on an extra chicken dish but it turned out to have a lot of internals so we couldn’t finish most of it. Despite some disappointments I feel like if we could actually interpret what the menu actually said we would’ve been able to make better picks. I have to say the service made up for everything though. Maybe it was because we were tourists but they treated us like kings despite being late for our original reservation. Bravo!
- Hakone Free Pass – If you’re going to be going to Hakone and going to do the round-the-city tour like we did, this is the one to get. 5000 JPY can’t be beat. Get an earlier start than we did and in one day you can pretty much see all the main sights and activities in Hakone.
- You don’t’ necessarily have to go to Hakone for hot springs as there are a lot of good ones in Tokyo and in other cities nearby so do your research. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji since we weren’t heading there on our own so this seemed to make the most sense.
- Hot Springs – Do your research beforehand and if you’re not sure ask your concierge if you have any questions or get them to call the places themselves to get the answers. Couple hot springs room are rare in Hakone anyways. Tenzan had them available but they are only available for 2 hour slots and you can only reserve them when you are on-site. There are only 3 or 4 of these type of rooms but you only get one temperature hot spring pool and that’s it. We figured that this would be too tight for us and we’d lose out on the true Japanese hot spring experience.
- Breakfast at the lounge
- Take JR from Shimbashi to Shinjuku
- Purchase Hakone Free Pass
- Take Odakyu train to Odawara and then transfer to Hakone-Yumoto
- Take Hakone Tozan Bus H to Hakone Machi-Ko Pier
- Ride the pirate ship cruise to the other side of Lake Ashi (Togendai-Ko)
- Take the Hakone Ropeway to Owakudani
- Explore the geothermal valley
- Continue along the Hakone Ropeway + Hakone Tozan Cablecar to the Gora train station
- Take the Hakone Tozan Train back to Hakone–Yumoto station
- Run around the main street grabbing whatever food we can find
- Take the Hakone Tozan Bus K to the entrance of Tenzan Hot Springs
- Spend a good 1.5 hours at the hot springs before bussing back to the Hakone-Yumoto Station
- Upgrade our return ticket to the Romance Car
- Arrive in Shinjuku and take JR back to Shimbashi
- Find our way to the restaurant Uokin
- Walk back to the Conrad Tokyo
If you’re looking to do any travelling around Japan, I highly recommend picking up a JRailPass. Keep in mind that you’ll need to purchase it before your trip and ship it to your home.
Check out the Next Day
To read about my adventures with Chantelle where we take a Hato bus to explore the city and then watch the most epic fireworks ever, check out Day 82 – Tokyo – Hato Bus and Fireworks
Curious what else I did on my trip to Asia? See the full itinerary and all 89 days.