A Family Road Trip To Tokyo’s Nearest Paradise
Take a drive to and around Hakone and enjoy glorious views, sweet rice tea in a 400-year old building and a relaxing soak in red-wine and amongst breath-taking skyline views.
For those holding down typical jobs in Tokyo, long breaks are a rarity. Knowing that we had a whole week off over the New Year but wanting to stay close to home this time, we went to and from trying to decide what vacation-type thing we should do until we nearly missed the opportunity altogether. Not wanting to wrangle our toddler into a night of sleep away from home, we finally settled on the idea of renting a car and taking a day trip to Hakone. We’ve been to Hakone several times before, but travelling on wheels gave us the opportunity to see some new things.
So, off we set at 8 a.m. in our comfortable and conveniently-rented Toyota Vitz towards the mountains. After a brief but eventful one-hour journey that included two unintended outfit-changes for the toddler, we arrived at our first destination.
Destination 1: Amazake-Chaya Teahouse
Amazake-Chaya Teahouse, just a 25-minute ride from Hakone Yumoto station, doesn’t usually come up on the “Top Things to Do in Hakone” lists, which is a shame as it provides a wonderful cultural and culinary experience. Step through the doors of the approximately 400 year-old thatch-roofed building and you are greeted with an atmosphere evocative of Edo-era Japan. The air is delightfully thick with smoke from the charcoal fires burning at one end of the dim room and a range of relaxed seating options are spread out over the earthen floor.
In the far corner is a tatami area that opens to the outside letting in sunlight and fresh air. The furnishings match the atmosphere and the menu options are scrawled in beautiful Chinese characters and displayed on the walls. The teahouse is in its 13th generation of family ownership and our host, a member of the family, tells us that her ancestors would never have dreamed that it would be frequented by so many visitors, particularly from outside of Japan.
On offer is, of course, amazake, which is a traditional sweet drink made from fermented rice dating back to the Kofun period (250 to 538 AD). The comforting drink can be enjoyed hot or cold and is said to be a nourishing food for babies that is also sugar and alcohol-free (usually, depending on the recipe). Amazake pairs perfectly with their iguisu mochi, a rice cake coated in a sweet powder made from green soy flour. Other menu options include miso oden (soy-paste flavored stew), cold matcha (green tea) and shiso (perilla) juice.
After enjoying your refreshments you might like to take a stroll outside. Directly behind the restaurant you can enter one of the many walkways that meander around the bush and hills of Hakone.
Destination 2: Ashinoko Skyline
With nicely stretched legs and warm, full tummies, we jumped back into the car to drive around Lake Ashi via the Ashinoko Skyline. The breathtaking views had us stopping at nearly every viewing platform to take in the panoramas and snap closeups of Mt. Fuji that seemed to improve on every turn. The ¥620 toll to enter this scenic road was worth every penny.
Destination 3: Yunessun Spa Resort© Photo by horschmology
After a delightful drive that ended too soon, we arrived at our final stop on the day’s drive: Yunessun Spa Resort. While the coffee and red wine onsen on offer sounded a little gimmicky to us, we were excited to check it out and were also attracted by fact that the place is meant to be a parents’ dream. And, indeed it was. Children of any age are allowed in the pools (swimming diapers required for little ones). It’s also equipped with nursing rooms and plenty of spaces for kids to run around or unwind.
We also loved the convenience. Upon entry, patrons are issued with a barcode wristband that is scanned each time you make a purchase and you settle up at the end. In addition to the novelty baths, we enjoyed soaking in the outdoor spas while taking in views of the mountains surrounding us. I should add that in the main area swimsuits are compulsory, while there is a separate area in which you can enjoy a more traditional Japanese onsen sans suit. Apart from just soaking, you might choose to enroll the kids in one of the craft classes on offer and sneak off for a relaxing massage. Told you — it’s a parents’ dream.
After a good few hours worth of communal bathing, we decided to head home to beat the holiday traffic. We arrived back at the car rental place with five minutes to spare on our 12-hour rental time and thoroughly satisfied with our day.
Getting to Hakone: Take the Odakyu line to Hakone Yumoto station (about 85 minutes on the Romance Car limited express train, ¥2,080 each way). You can also get there via the JR Tokaido line from Tokyo, Shimbashi or Shinagawa stations or the JR Shonan Shinjuku line from Ikebukuro, Shinjuku or Shibuya. The Hakone Freepass is a discounted ticket (¥5,140) that includes a return ticket from Shinjuku, plus free transport on buses, trains, the Hakone ropeway and cable car, as well as the sightseeing cruise on Lake Ashi — worth it if you’re planning on using a lot of public transport to get around!
Business hours: 7 a.m.- 5:30 p.m.
Access: Hakone-Tozan bus (get off at Amazake-chaya bus stop about 25 minutes from Hakone-Yumoto station)
Business hours: Open 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
Access: Hakone-Tozan bus (get off at Kowakien bus stop about 20 minutes from Hakone-Yumoto station)
Cost: Passport to both onsen areas: ¥4,100 for adults, ¥2,100 for children, but please check the website for discount coupons.