How to spend a weekend in Hakone, Japan!
Updated: Aug 3
A trip to Hakone is a great way to get out of Tokyo for the weekend without having to go too far. About an hour and a half south of Tokyo, the region is situated near Mount Fuji. Hakone is a popular destination for both Japanese and foreign tourists alike thanks to its hot springs, outdoor activities, and art museums. When I was traveling in Japan I decided to check it out since I wanted to experience something other than Tokyo.
Getting there & getting around
Part of the reason that Hakone is so popular for a weekend getaway from Tokyo is due to the Hakone Free Pass. This pass can be purchased for a period of two or three days, and you can purchase it with or without the round trip journey from Tokyo. I purchased a three-day pass with transport from the train station in Tokyo and paid around ¥5500/$55. Now I know it is a bit on the pricier side, but I knew that going to Hakone was something I really wanted to do and the Hakone Free Pass was the easiest way for me to do that!
The pass covers unlimited transport in the Hakone region on eight different types of transportation, not limited to a cable car, busses, trains, and a pseudo pirate ship. You can also use your pass to get discounts at certain shops, restaurants, and hotels. If you have an existing rail pass or are renting a car, you can get the free pass without the train from Tokyo for a lower price.
Once you’re in Hakone, make sure you carry your free pass with you, as you will need to show it to ride all the transit options. They also give you a little map that’s very handy for figuring out which mode of transportation you need to get where. Google Maps also worked just fine for me for navigating public transport in Hakone!
Where I stayed
I stayed at the Irori Guest House Tenmaku, which was lovely. It’s one of the best-rated guest houses in the Hakone area. It felt very traditional, complete with the traditional Japanese Irori, or barbeque in the middle of the common area. They host a dinner every evening where you can barbeque your own food and chat with the other guests. I did this on one of my nights there and met some really cool people who I ended up chatting with over a beer (beer is not cheap in Japan so I did limit it to one for budget’s sake!) The dinner cost is ¥1000/$10, which I thought was definitely worth it - good food and a good experience, and affordable by Japanese standards!
They offer both private rooms and dormitory accommodation. I stayed in one of the dormitory rooms, which was very nice. It was around $32 per night - a bit pricey, but on par with the other budget accommodation in Hakone. Unfortunately, I can’t find any prices for private rooms - they seem to not be taking bookings right now because of COVID, but I’m guessing they’re in the $90-$120 per night range.
Irori Guest House right next to the Open Air Museum, which is one of the most popular attractions in Hakone, and it is easy to get to via public transportation. They also have a free parking area if you have a rental car.
There are also plenty of other really nice and fancy hotels in Hakone if you’re looking to splash out a bit more cash for a luxury vacation. Many of these hotels have private onsens and would make a great destination for a romantic getaway or a girls' trip. I’d love to go back to Hakone in the future to check out some of these hotels!
What to see and do
Experience an onsen
Hakone provided a great way to experience Japan’s famous onsens. Onsens are Japanese baths heated with geothermal hot springs that are open to the public. Traditional onsens are separate for men and women, and it is customary to bathe naked in them. If you’re not comfortable being naked around a bunch of other people you don’t know, many hotels and ryokans (a traditional Japanese inn) offer access to private onsens that you can enjoy as a family, with friends, or with a partner, and you’re more than welcome to wear a bathing suit if you wish.
Visiting an onsen was a must-do experience for me while I was in Japan, and is one of my most memorable experiences. In addition, on my trip to Japan in February, I used the onsen to warm up after a day of sightseeing on a chilly day. I visited the Tenzan Onsen, which is a traditional public onsen. I didn’t find the experience uncomfortable at all - in fact, it was so peaceful and relaxing! Japan is a very respectful society, so getting the most out of your onsen experience requires understanding several guidelines.
Your guide to onsen etiquette
In most public onsens bathing suits are forbidden. Don’t worry, no one will stare, and you’ll spend most of your time in the water anyway. If you want, you can cover up with a towel as you walk from bath to bath.
About the towel: this isn’t a full-sized bath towel - those are also not allowed in the bath facilities, although I think you can bring one to dry off with at the end of your visit. To dry yourself in the bathing area or to cover yourself for modesty, you'll need a small towel similar size to a hand towel. You can bring your own or purchase one at the onsen. Make sure the towel does not go in the water - this is to keep it clean. To make sure it does not get wet or lost, simply fold it up and place it on top of your head. This may seem silly, but it’s the way the Japanese do it all the time!
Traditional onsens are usually against tattoos, but Tenzan Onsen can accommodate small ones. This may be because of the highly traditional culture of Japan, where tattoos are closely associated with the Japanese mafia. It is slowly changing, but if you or your travel companion has very big tattoos, or if you have a lot of them, opt for an onsen that allows tattoos or arrange a private onsen experience.
There will be a small room with many stools and showers before you enter the onsen bathing facilities. You should always wash before entering the onsen bathing facilities.
Make sure your hair stays out of the water! Even if you wash your hair every day, the Japanese frown upon allowing your hair to touch the water. If you have long hair, keep it up in a bun or ponytail.
While these all sound like a lot of rules, I promise that it is all worth it. Being surrounded by silence and nature, and soaking in the hot water, is so peaceful. Since onsens are nude facilities, I don’t have any pictures from my onsen experience, but that just means you should check it out for yourself!
You can enjoy unlimited soak time at Tenzan Onsen for ¥1300/$13 (you can also get ¥100 off if you show your Hakone Free Pass). The onsen is open from early in the morning until around 11 pm, though you should check the hours before you go! Located in the main town of Hakone-Yumoto, it is only a short walk, taxi ride, or shuttle-bus ride from the center of town.
Ride on a ‘pirate’ ship
If you have the Hakone Free Pass (which I would highly recommend to make the most out of your trip to Hakone) your ride across the lake on what looks like an old pirate ship is included. Since I was there in February, it definitely was a bit chilly, but the views are amazing! There is indoor and outdoor seating, but if you want a seat indoors in the cooler months, grab it as soon as you board! I can imagine this trip would be even nicer in the summer months when you could sit outside and really enjoy the warmth and the sunshine!
The crossing takes about 35 minutes, and the ship will drop you off in the town of Motohakone. Here you can walk to the beautiful Hakone Shrine or start your hike to the Amazake Tea House.
Hike to Amazake Tea House
Amazake Tea House is over 400 years old and is a well-known resting place for travelers along the route from Kyoto to Tokyo during the Edo period. They are known for and named after their signature drink, Amazake. Amazake is a type of non-alcoholic rice wine. The taste reminded me of liquified rice pudding - nice, but I wouldn’t be able to drink too much of it! I also tried mochi for the first time there. It was definitely not my favorite thing I’ve ever eaten, but I was glad I tried it.
The hike from Motohakone to the Tea House took about 40 minutes and it was very quiet and peaceful. I think in the summer it would have been a lot busier, but I really enjoyed having the trail to myself! You can also get the bus there from Motohakone or other parts of the Hakone area.
Visit the Pola Museum of Art
On my last morning in Hakone, I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do. There’s so much in Hakone, that it’s hard to narrow it down to your top options. I love art museums, so the Pola Museum of Art was my final choice. I was really impressed by this museum. They have a large collection of impressionist art, which is my personal favorite. It was also a very good mix of European and Japanese artists. They also had a sculpture trail outside to walk around. The air in Hakone is so fresh and clean that I wanted to take advantage of it!
The Pola Museum of Art is a bit pricey at ¥1600/$16, but I definitely found the cost to be worth it for a visit!
Some of my favorite pieces at the Pola Museum!
This guide has only scratched the surface of what there is to see and do in Hakone. It's a great region with a little something for everyone, regardless of your taste! It makes a great excursion from Tokyo on your trip to Japan or a good stopping point between Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka. Let me know if there's something I missed that you want to know more about!