One popular tourist spot in Japan, located about two hours southwest of Tokyo, is Hakone (箱根, はこね), a mountainous area in Kanagawa prefecture known for its hot springs, greenery and spectacular views of Mt. Fuji. While I wouldn’t normally recommend going to the main tourist locations in Japan, Hakone is a lovely, quiet area if you avoid the most touristy spots, or at the very least, avoid the common ways tourists travel the region.
You can journey around Hakone and experience the area in different ways (bus, car, hiking, etc.), depending on your personal interests. One common “course”, as they say in Japanese, takes you in a circular loop around Hakone, and it’s often recommended in English. This main loop is provided by the Odakyu Railway Group’s transportation options, and one can purchase the Hakone Free Pass (箱根フリーパス) to save some money on transportation while in Hakone.
But did you know there are other ways to travel around Hakone, including another type of pass similar to the Hakone Free Pass? I didn’t find out about this until after my first trip to Hakone, when I also decided not to do the main loop again because of all the tourists, long waits for the ropeway and a not-so-interesting “pirate ship” ride.
Odakyu Hakone “Main Loop”
This main loop typically starts in Hakone-Yumoto (箱根湯本) if you’re coming from Tokyo or Odawara, where you take the Hakone Tozan Railway up to Gora Station (強羅). At Gora, you ride the Hakone Tozan Cablecar up the mountain to Sounzan (早雲山), where you transfer to the Hakone Ropeway (箱根ロープウェイ). The ropeway takes you from Sounzan to Owakudani (大涌谷), known for its enormous sulfur pit and black sulfur water boiled eggs. After you’ve downed an egg and extended your life seven years, you take the ropeway again from Owakudani to Togendai (桃源台), where you wait for your turn to ride a “pirate ship” (i.e. the Hakone Sightseeing Boat) to Hakone-machi (箱根町) and Moto-Hakone (元箱根). After some sightseeing, you hop on the Hakone Tozan Bus back to Hakone Yumoto.
Of course, you can do the loop backwards, only do part of it, or start anywhere you feel like (which I recommend!). The trip could be divided into two or three days depending on how much of Hakone you want to see. When a friend and I first went to Hakone from Shizuoka prefecture, we hopped on a bus from Mishima station (三島駅) to Moto-Hakone, took a bus to Yunessun (a water amusement park and spa), stayed the night at a nearby inexpensive hotel, and then bussed it to Gora in the morning, where we did the cable car, ropeway and pirate ship back to Hakone-machi before heading home.
We used the Hakone Free Pass I mentioned above, which cost us each 3,900 yen for two days. If you intend to do the main loop or some variation of it, the Free Pass can save you money and is easier than fumbling around for cash all the time.
However, after doing it once, I can’t really recommend it all unless you absolutely have to ride the cable car, ropeway or the gimmicky pirate ship. The ropeway views are fantastic though, so I can’t blame anyone for wanting to check it out — just be prepared to wait. We spent about 45 minutes or so waiting to get on a ropeway car at Sounzan station, as it was a weekend and busy, even for a rainy, cold April day. It wasn’t until after I returned home that I realized it was also possible to take a bus to all the recommended places.
I also learned about another “loop,” which run by the Izu Hakone Railway Group.
Izu Hakone “Alternative Loop”
If you do a similar loop coming from Tokyo, you start in Hakone-Yumuto and take the bus from there all the way to Kojiri (湖尻), which is near Togendai. From Kojiri you can take the Hakone Boat Cruise to Hakone-en (箱根園), Hakone-Sekisho-ato (箱根関所跡) in Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone. If you have your heart set on riding a ropeway, the Izu Hakone Group runs their own version from Hakone-en up Mt. Komagatake (駒ヶ岳). From Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖, Ashinoko), you can then take the bus back to Hakone-Yumuto (or Odawara). Of course, you can also start anywhere on the loop or go the opposite direction, etc.
A two-day free pass (箱根旅助け) to use Izu Hakone transportation is 2,800 yen for adults, or, if you plan to ride only buses, a two-day, bus-only pass is 2,000 yen.
You could avoid a pass and the loop altogether and just take buses or any other mode of transportation to wherever you want to go, although if you visit more than two or three places, a pass will probably be more economical and convenient. If you rent a car or drive your own, you can easily access all the same places, just from the road instead of in the air or by rail (keep in mind you’ll usually have to pay for parking though).
Which pass is best?
Let’s assume you plan to travel a loop and visit more than two or three places in Hakone via public transportation. Should you get the Odakyu Hakone Free Pass or the Izu Hakone Pass (bearing in mind that there are other more specific passes available)?
As explained above, the Odakyu Pass allows you to travel on the Hakone Cablecar, Hakone Ropeway, and a “pirate ship”, in addition to the Hakone Tozan Railway and their affiliated buses. If you go to Owakudani, you’ll have the best view of the sulfur pits from the ropeway car versus if you take a bus to the top, but the wait can be lengthy. The pirate ship isn’t more than a ferry once you’re on board (albeit it has a few pirate statues). Although you might be lucky to catch some good views of Mt. Fuji on a clear day, and you can see Hakone Shrine’s torii, but other than that, not too exciting.
If you purchase the Izu Hakone pass, you can’t travel via any of the Odakyu-affiliated modes of transport, and although the Izu Hakone Group offers their own lake ferry (not in the form of a pirate ship) and ropeway (in a different location than the Hakone ropeway), you can’t take a cable car unless you head south of Lake Ashi. So if you wanted to take the Hakone Ropeway, for example, you would have to pay separately to do that. On the plus side, the Izu Hakone pass is cheaper than the two-day Odakyu Hakone Free Pass in the same area (from Odawara or Atami for both, and also Mishima and Numazu for the Odakyu version).
The Izu-Hakone pass only offers its two-day pass, while the Odakyu Hakone Free Pass offers a two-day or three-day version. Traveling through Hakone is definitely doable in two days though, assuming you don’t try to go to every spot. Izu Hakone also offers bus-only, two- and one-day passes.
If you do decide to primarily rely on buses, keep in mind that on busy days, like holidays or weekends, traffic might slow things a bit. For example, when my husband and I drove up to Owakudani on a recent trip to Hakone, we were waiting about 800 meters from the top to park, as the parking lots were full (and it was just before closing time).
A bonus for using either pass is that you can get discounts with associated vendors throughout Hakone when you show your pass. The Odakyu Hakone Free Pass can be used at about 50 places in the area, and the Izu Hakone pass, around 30.
If you’re coming from the Tokyo area, the Odakyu Hakone Free Pass (two-day version) can also be bought to cover a trip from Shinjuku for 5,000 yen (adults) and 1,500 yen for kids, taking either the Odakyu Romancecar or the Odakyu Hakone Highway Bus (surcharges apply). The three-day pass from Shinjuku is 5,500 yen and 1,750 yen, for adults and children, respectively. The Izu Hakone pass only covers transportation in Hakone between Odawara station and Atami station, north-south.
So in sum, the Izu Hakone pass is the cheaper option (either the multi-transport, two-day pass or one of the bus-only passes) but the best choice ultimately depends on what kind of experience you want.
There are numerous other passes one can use in the Hakone area, but unfortunately, most of the information is listed in Japanese. The Odakyu website lists several of its passes in English, although only a few apply to Hakone. Hakone Navi (by Odakyu) and Izu Hakone have their pass and ticket information in Japanese. (The Hakone Navi website is available in English, also, but only has information for the Hakone Free Pass.)
The Izu Hakone Pass can be purchased at Odawara, Yugawara and Atami stations (at the Izu Hakone travel offices), or any travel agent in Japan. A two-day pass costs 2,800 yen for adults and 1,400 yen for children. Alternatively, a bus-only pass for two days costs 2,000 yen for adults, 1,000 yen for children, and a one-day bus-only pass is 1,700 yen for adults and 850 yen for kids.
The Odakyu Hakone Free Pass can be purchased at the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Centers in Shinjuku and Odawara or any Odakyu line station. A two-day pass from Odawara, Hakone-Yumoto, Yugawara, Mishima, Numazu or Gotemba costs 3,900 yen for adults and 1,000 yen for children. The three-day pass from the same locations costs 4,400 yen for adults and 1,250 yen for children. If you buy from a station further away, such as Shinjuku, the price is higher.
You can find maps of the Hakone area here.
If you have a travel tip or question you’d like to see addressed in this column, drop me a line at email@example.com
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