Although it’s hardly off the beaten path, my favorite overnight trip outside Tokyo is Hakone. It has all the right ingredients for a great escape: easy accessibility, beautiful mountain scenery, historic sites, great museums, hot-spring resorts, and “just when you least expect it” kitsch to make you laugh. Best yet, getting there and around is a huge part of the fun.
The trip begins in Shinjuku Station, aboard the Odakyu Romance Car (sorry to report, I’ve never actually witnessed any romance going on) for a 90-minute ride to Odawara. Sometimes I disembark here for a 10-minute walk to Odawara Castle. Like many castles in Japan, the original castle, built in 1416, was dismantled by the government in 1870 because of its associations with the shogun regime but was reconstructed in 1960 as a faithful replica and houses a museum with artifacts from the shogun era.
Otherwise, the next stop on the Romance Car is Hakone Yumoto Station, where travel switches to a delightful, mountain-climbing two-car electric tram that takes me right back to another era. My favorite historic hotel in all of Japan “the Fujiya Hotel” is along this route. Established in 1878 and nestled on the side of a wooded mountain, the old-fashioned, majestic lodge seems little changed over the decades, just the kind of place I can imagine my peripatetic grandparents unpacking huge suitcases after months on the road. There’s a grand old dining hall, built in 1930, a sprawling garden complete with a river-fed pool, an indoor thermal pool, and hot-spring baths.
But for bathing I always hightail it to the nearby Yunessun Spa Resort, where bathers wear swimsuits (perfect for the shy, or, if they’re my age, the simply embarrassed) and can dip in both indoor and outdoor baths, some filled with ingredients good enough to drink, sake, coffee, and wine. Purists can head straight to the adjoining Mori No Yu, with traditional Japanese hot-spring baths.
But the absolute best attraction in Hakone is the nearby Hakone Open-Air Museum, which displays some 100 sculptures in a spectacular setting of formal gardens, glens, and grassy meadows against a canvas of mountain ranges. It also boasts more than 300 works by Picasso, as well as one of the world??s largest collections of Henry Moore.
After tromping around to see everything, I love sitting down at the outdoor hot-spring footbath, where I can soak my tired feet and feast my eyes on beauty both natural and manmade.
Next on the agenda is a cable car for a long, uphill haul, but I always get off about halfway up for a stop at the Hakone Art Museum, where there are displays of Japanese pottery and ceramics from ancient times to the Edo Period, as well as an enticing bamboo grove and moss garden complete with a teahouse with the requisite green tea. At the end of the cable-car ride, a ropeway lifts travelers to Owakudani (note: the ropeway to Owakudani is undergoing repairs until May 31, but a bus transports travelers to the peak until then), a barren peak of bare rock and sulfurous steam escaping from crevices. A hiking path leads past the fumes to a hut where wizened women sell eggs boiled in the hot waters. After reboarding the ropeway, travelers find themselves deposited at Lake Ashi, where they climb aboard??get this??replica pirate ships that sail onward to Hakone-machi.
In Hakone-Machi there’s the Hakone Check Point, with a replica of a guardhouse once used to check travelers and inspect goods along the Tokaido Highway connecting Kyoto with Edo (Tokyo) during the Edo era. Nearby is a section of the old highway itself, lined with magnificent cedars planted as far back as 1618 and stretching 1.5 miles to the next town, Moto-Hakone, where there’s the small but sweet Narukawa Art Museum, specializing in modern works in the traditional Nihonga Japanese style of painting, developed more than 1,000 years ago.
Sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji from this end of Lake Ashi before heading back to Odawara by bus, where I then catch the Romance Car back to Shinjuku. After two days in Hakone, I’m definitely feeling more refreshed and romantically inclined, especially if I reflect back on that pirate ship, which naturally brings to mind Johnny Depp.