Hakone is a weird place. Or rather, it’s a fantastic place that, as it’s sold, isn’t for me. As you might have gathered, I rather prefer to imagine myself as having an active lifestyle. The idea of spending a weekend soaking in hot tubs and hanging out in posh hotels while spending money at an unconscionable rate instills in me a deep uncomfortableness.
And the thing is, I completely and totally enjoy those onsens. But I feel like I have to earn it. There has to be that physical exertion, that pushing your body to a point where you can sink, satisfied, into the hot tub.
That was the plan the time before the last time I went to Hakone. And then we discovered that all of the trails along the volcanic areas between Gora and Lake Ashinoko were closed. So we didn’t hike so much as sit in hot tubs while looking at Mt Fuji, take amazing photos, and spend money at an unconscionable rate. Doesn’t matter; Got the photo.
It was also the plan the last time I went to Hakone. The plan was to backpack through the mountains, and show up at those hot tubs all gross and sweaty and ready to be clean. But the zombie typhoon had other plans. I can’t complain, because the heavy rains that it dumped on Hakone and Tokyo were nothing like the heavy rains that caused serious flooding and disaster further south. But looking at the weather, we judged that changing our plans to a rainy day hike were probably a solid choice. Since seeing Mt Fuji was 100% clearly off the docket, trying to head up to the gondola didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, so our goal was the hot tubbery in the onsen town of Hakone Yumoto, along the river, a touch closer to Tokyo than the Lake with the torii that you think of when you think of Hakone.
Access for most people coming from Tokyo is a no-brainer. There’s an Odakyu Line express train called the “Romance Car” that runs from Shinjuku station out there. We didn’t do that. Since my friend was visiting, she was able to take advantage of the Japan Rail Pass, which is awesome. But what it means is that we took a slightly more convoluted route via JR, changing to the Odakyu Line / Hakone Tozan Line at Odawara Station. It’s the cheap way if you’ve got that JR pass, but I don’t recommend it otherwise.
Hakone, and Hakone Yumoto are excellent at catering to the people who have cash to spend. If you want to spent a month’s rent on a hotel room for the night, you can do it easy. But for people looking to explore on the cheap, the magic word here is “higairi onsen,” day-use natural hot spring. When you’re looking on line at the onsen prices, a common reaction is sticker shock. But the higairi onsen are quite reasonable, particularly if you’re a tourist who’s never done the public bath thing and you’d like to give it a try.
One caution, though, and a bit of advice. Japanese onsen and their artificial compatriots, the sento, generally have a no tattoo rule. Now, this really depends on the location. Some are welcoming of tattoos, some are dead-set against even the tiniest tattoo, and others will offer an amount of leeway, particularly to foreigners. But you can’t plan on that leeway, and you can’t try to reason with the staff when you’re there. One thing you can do, however, is get yourself a roll of the tape that gets used for tendon and other sports injuries. It’s waterproof, sticks really well, and no one will ask you if it’s covering a tattoo. Certainly, Joe Rogan isn’t going to be able to pull that trick off, but if you’ve got a couple tats and want to experience the onsen, here’s your in. Just put the tape on before you go, and no one will ask unless you peel it off while you’re still there.
Calling what we did in Hakone Yumoto a hike is greatly overselling it. But we did adventure a bit in the rain. Enough so that by the time we started our soak in the hot tubs, I was of the opinion that it was badly needed. I was stinky.
There are tons of excellent restaurants in Hakone Yumoto, but they all close early, so don’t make the mistake that we did, enjoying a long soak, and expecting to pop into a restaurant before grabbing a train back to Tokyo. We managed to do well, but the “late” hour severely limited our choices. A lot of the onsen towns in Japan are like that, with most people eating at their hotels, and very few people eating a late meal out. Everything closes up early so people can enjoy their hotel time, I guess.
But yes, Hakone is more than just a torii in a lake. There are hot tubs. And even better, there are gorgeous mountains with hiking trails. I’ll tell you all about that. I promise. Just as soon as I get a couple of days with great weather.