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An amazing retreat only 1.5 hours outside of Tokyo

 

Just West of Tokyo, lies Hakone – a picturesque Japanese town famous for its views of Mt Fuji, ryokans and onsen (natural Japanese volcanic hot springs). While one can go year round, undoubtedly the most popular time of year is summer.

Hakone itself is very easy to get to – only an 80 minute ride on the JR Express train from Shinjuku to Odawara, then a quick transfer to a switchback train at Odawara to Hakone Yumoto. Yumoto is the area of Hakone with the most popular onsen, hot spring resorts. Honestly, there is not much else to do here besides soak up the local scene, literally and figuratively.

We stayed at the Kansuiro Ryokan, just a short shuttle ride by bus from the train station. A few things about Ryokan…they are seriously expensive at $400-800 per person, per night and offer a more traditional Japanese experience of tatami flooring, sliding doors, eating while seated on the floor and sleeping on futon mattresses. If you are not Japanese or are not travelling with a Japanese friend you may really miss out on all the finer points of the service from your dedicated hostess due to issues with communication (typically no language other than Japanese is spoken). The customs and exchanges are perplexing and I have no doubt we unknowingly offended our hosts at some point or another by either not reciprocating properly or missing some subtleties in exchange. That said it is a totally unique experience, one that is quintessentially Japanese.

We chose the Kansuiro primarily because of the onsite onsen. If you go to an onsen in Japan and have no previous experience, the best thing to do is to get a primer either from your host, by reading about it or by watching your fellow onsen-goers. Onsens are often (but not always) separated by gender and after that any and all modesty goes out the window. Before you can enjoy the onsen, one must indelicately scrub themselves within an inch of their lives to ensure absolutely cleanliness before entering. There are all manner and size of scrub brushes and soaps at one’s disposal in order to complete this task. Often an onsen-goer will spend 30-45 minutes scrubbing every inch of the body before entering the volcanic hot springs. And a warning for the modest – all of this happens in full view of the other guests. Once in the onsen, it is a supremely relaxing experience and definitely one not to be missed when travelling through Japan.

After having scrubbed and soaked, we decided it was time to check out the small village of Yumoto, Hakone. There’s truly not much beyond some small restaurants catering to foreigners (with burgers and Italian pastas and pizzas). Of course, for us, when in a Japan one must try the local food, so we opted for a very traditional udon noodle shop (the only one in town) where we slurped noodles with a stunning view of the valley.

All in all, while the onsen experience in Hakone is certainly unique, the thing that most impressed us was the simple yet stunning pieces of natural beauty. From small rocky streams and simple bridges to the cloud covered peaks of Mt Fuji, Hakone was a memorable example of picturesque Japanese landscapes and beauty.

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