Enjoying Autumn Colours with the Hakone Free Pass
Autumn is a great time to visit Japan. The weather is neither too hot nor too cold and everywhere you look, there are vivid green, red, orange and yellow colours. Even at random car parks! The weather starts cooling down from north to south, and there are many famous spots across the country that you can visit during a relatively extended period. One such spot is the Hakone area (Kanagawa prefecture).
The Hakone Free Pass
I took a train from Shinjuku to Odawara (Odakyu Line; the limited express Romance Car is more expensive) and bought the Hakone 2-day free pass when I got there. There is the option to get the free pass for 2 or 3 days and it turns out you can even buy it at Shinjuku station and in that case the transportation to and from Tokyo is also included. Better yet, if you have time, there is a 3-day Fuji-Hakone pass that allows you to freely move between/within these two zones.
The passes allow you to use hop-on-hop-off unlimited transportation within the chosen areas and it’s quite interesting to use a big variety of transport: train, ropeway, cable car, bus, or boat (See the map on Odakyu's site here). There are quite a few rules though. For example, you can only go from Tokyo once and come back once (so, you should plan to sleep in the area, which makes sense if you want to maximize your time anyway). Also, you must go by bus or train and then come back by train or bus. I would advise you to study the rules in advance (listed on the above website), as well as plan out what to see on each day, so that you can make the most of your visit.
Hakone Tozan Train
The adventure started with a normal train ride between Odawara and Hakone-Yumoto. From then on, we were basically cruising through the woods and gaining altitude. On both sides the trees were very pretty and once we were high enough, the views of the valley below and the mountain in front were quite spectacular. The train ride itself is a sightseeing point. You can go all the way to Gora to continue to the Hakone Tozan cable car or you can get off at several points along the way. If you have time, I would advise the Hakone Open-Air Museum (you can catch a glimpse of it from the train, but it’s not the same as visiting).
Hakone Tozan Cable Car
As soon as you get off the train at Gora, you are also at the cable car station. Be prepared for loads of people queueing! The best spot for photos is the lowest part of the car, as it will go up quite steeply and there is a big glass window there. If you get stuck in the middle, it will be difficult to get nice photos without lots of heads in them. There are a few stops on the way and you can even do some workshops at the Hakone Craft House. The leaves on the way were beautiful, with very vivid autumnal colours. In case you don’t manage to take good shots on the way up, there is a nice spot when you get off the car, where you can see the other cable car, the steep tracks and the trees lining both sides of the path.
The ropeway has two parts, from Sounzan to Owakudani (大涌谷, great boiling valley), where you must get off to transfer (there are a few walking trails and a souvenir shopping area here) and then from there to Togendai, where you can do a boat tour on Lake Ashi, via Ubako. As the day was coming to an end, I got to see a lovely sunset over the lake. The ropeway goes over volcanic fumaroles with sulphureous gas (hence the name of the valley) so the landscape is kind of beige, but lovely. The Hakone area is famous for its onsen and you can get off at Ubako to experience bathing in water that is very rich in minerals. This is a great spot to take a break and relax. You can also enjoy black eggs boiled in these hot waters.
Boat Ride on Lake Ashi
The boat ride was very scenic, but it was already getting dark, so I decided to do it again the next day. This was a totally different experience, as the weather was very foggy. I got very eerie pictures, which I really like but I’m glad I got to see the scenery the previous day. You can either get off at Hakonemachi-ko or Motohakone-ko. If you are interested in history, make sure you pay the Hakone checkpoint a visit.
When the boat arrived, there was just about enough time and daylight to watch the sunset from the Mishima Skywalk, which is the longest rope bridge in Japan (400 m). I took the Tokai orange bus shuttle towards Mishima (if you go late, make sure you don’t miss the last bus back or that your accommodation is near the bridge). There are a few shops with delicious food as well (ice cream, coffee, honey cheese tart). Supposedly there are several spots from where one can get some pretty nice views of Mt. Fuji, including the skywalk and the ropeway, but I, with all the fog didn’t see it. I did get to see plenty of fall colours via different modes of transportation through incredible scenery, so that was more than enough for me!