Taking It Slow in Hakone

By Kelly Wetherille
December 18, 2014
Lifestyle, Out & About

Life in any big city tends to bring with it a whirlwind of business meetings, deadlines, social functions, and other commitments. Tokyo often seems to move at an especially frenetic pace, and as much as we love it, sometimes we all need a break from the excitement. When those times hit, there is possibly no better place to take a time out for a weekend than Hakone.

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Immediately upon arrival in the Hakone area, life slows down. The first stop for most visitors from Tokyo is Hakone Yumoto station. Unlike Shinjuku or Shinagawa stations, through one of which Tokyoites are likely to transit, there are no businesspeople in dark suits rushing to the platform; no lines of impatient passengers waiting to charge their Suica cards at the machines. Instead, small clusters of Japanese seniors discuss their plans for the day ahead, and couples stroll leisurely toward the ticket gates.

Tourists to Hakone should also be prepared to accept the fact that they may not be able to see and do as much in a day as they can in Japan’s cities. This is something to relish rather than lament, as it allows—or rather, forces—you to enjoy the moment and engage in more provincial activities, like conversing with your fellow travelers and observing the stunning natural beauty of your surroundings.

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To fully immerse yourself in this slower pace, there are a few public transportation options around the Hakone area that really should not be missed. With its manually operated switchbacks that enable it to crawl up and down the mountainside, the historic Hakone Tozan Railway takes 40 minutes to cover to distance of just 8.9 kilometers between Hakone Yumoto and Gora stations. But in addition to getting you from point A to point B, the ride is an experience in itself. So position yourself near a window and enjoy the view as the train winds back and forth through the forest and above fast-moving rivers.

There are hotels of virtually every size, style and budget spattered throughout Hakone, but with its relatively centralized location, Gora is a good place to use as a base. And for those looking for a complete recharge, there is perhaps nowhere better to stay than the Hyatt Regency Hakone Resort and Spa, where the area’s picturesque scenery is enhanced by spacious, luxuriously appointed rooms and top-notch service. From the moment you walk into the lobby, with its subdued and elegant design and open plan looking down on a comfortable sitting area, you’ll feel like you’ve come home.

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And a home is exactly what the Hyatt Regency Hakone is modeled after. The central sitting area is called the Living Room, and the restaurant is the Dining Room. There is even a Drawing Room that resembles a cross between a stately library and a cozy family room.

After settling into your room, there are numerous options for what to do next. It is entirely possible to while away an entire day or weekend without ever leaving the Hyatt Regency. Take a soak in the onsite onsen (hot spring spa), indulge in a treatment from Spa Izumi, curl up in the Living Room with a good book, or simply enjoy the view from your room over a cup of hot tea.

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If it’s an outing you’re after, walk a few minutes up the road from the Hyatt Regency to Kami Gora station on the Hakone Tozan Cable Car. Like the Hakone Tozan Railway, the ride itself is an interesting one, with the cars slowly climbing up the side of the mountain in an almost perfectly straight line. It’s only one stop to Sounzan station at the very top, where most passengers will be transiting to the Hakone Ropeway for another can’t-miss ride.

The views from the ropeway are spectacular, particularly on a clear day, when Mt. Fuji rises majestically above Lake Ashi. Be sure to take the time for a stop in Owakudani, where volcanic activity causes sulfuric gas to rise from vents in the ground, creating what is known as the Valley of Hell. The photo opportunities are endless, and if you’re feeling peckish you may want to try one of area’s signature black eggs, which are boiled in the hot springs and get their color from the unique mineral content of the water.

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Back on the ropeway, continue on to Togendai station at the end. From here, you may wish to ride one of the popular sightseeing boats across the length of Lake Ashi. But while the colorful “pirate ships” with their high masts look cool from below, the view from the ride is best when the weather is clear and Mt. Fuji is not covered in clouds.

If you’re lucky, you will arrive back at the Hyatt Regency just in time for the complimentary drink service that is offered every day from 4 to 7 p.m. Get a cocktail or a glass of champagne from the small bar and then settle in for the Hakone version of happy hour: a long, leisurely affair involving subdued conversions and comfortable clothes. You may even choose to wear the yukata provided in your room. From autumn through spring, try to snag a seat on one of the sofas next to the crackling wood fire, and you’ll never want to leave.

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Once you’ve had your fill of free drinks and laid-back lounging, head into the Dining Room for dinner. The restaurant is divided into two sections: one serving Japanese fare with an emphasis on sushi, and the other specializing in French cuisine. It’s hard to go wrong with either, and both have reasonably priced course menus and à la carte options available. There are also lots of little sectioned-off nooks that provide privacy and almost make you feel like you’ve got the restaurant to yourselves.

Breakfast is another highlight of the hotel. The Western buffet has something for everyone, from fresh green salads with all the fixings to cereal, yogurt and a wide variety of baked goods. Your server will ask how you want your eggs done and then bring them to your table along with piping hot coffee or tea. For those looking for a more local experience, a Japanese breakfast set is also available. I didn’t try it, but it looked to be just as good as the buffet.

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As one of the top tourist areas in Japan, Hakone has plenty of other things to see and do, including a collection of world class museums with very targeted themes. One of the best of these is the Hakone Open Air Museum. Spread out over 70,000 square meters of well maintained gardens are some 120 works by modern and contemporary sculptors, many of them well-known artists from around the world. There is also a Picasso pavilion containing over 300 original works by the prolific Spanish artist. Other museums in the area include one dedicated to Venetian glassware and one inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s famous novel The Little Prince. The Narukawa Museum of Art showcases 4,000 works by Japanese artists, and the Pola Museum of Art features some 400 Western paintings by the likes of Renoir, Monet and Picasso, as well as a vast collection of Asian artworks in various mediums.

In addition to the museums, Hakone’s natural beauty and volcanic activity mean it is perfectly suited to outdoor pursuits, such as hiking, nature walks, birdwatching, and relaxing in an outdoor onsen (hot spring).

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But however you decide to spend your time here, one thing is clear: you’ll be doing it at a slower pace than if you were in Tokyo. You may only get to one museum or see one sight in a day, and that’s just fine. After all, you came here to relax, not to do even more rushing around. Leave that for when you’re back in the city.

The Deets

Getting there: From Shinjuku station, take the Odakyu line to Hakone Yumoto station (about 85 minutes on the “Romance Car” limited express train, ¥2,080 each way). Alternatively, take the JR Tokaido line from Tokyo, Shimbashi or Shinagawa stations; the JR Shonan Shinjuku line from Ikebukuro, Shinjuku or Shibuya; or the JR Tokaido Shinkansen from Shinagawa station to Odawara. From Odawara, change to the Hakone Tozan Railway or the Odakyu line and continue to Hakone Yumoto.

Accommodation: The Hyatt Regency Hakone Resort and Spa offers both Japanese and Western style rooms and suites, as well as a handful of dog-friendly rooms. For more information or to reserve online, please click here.

More info: To learn more about sightseeing in Hakone and the various transport options available, please click here.