I celebrated the New Year by going to bed early and waking up early… for a solo adventure! Destination: Hakone! One of my favorite places in Japan.

The “Free” Pass

A few days before this trip, I visited the Hakone Open-Air Museum. Transportation + museum ended up costing more than I anticipated. On the way back, I stopped a the Hakone Yurio Onsen (hot spring bath), where they asked me if I had a Hakone Free Pass coupon. I didn’t that day, but I now knew to get one!

There is an information center at the Odawara Station where they sell these. This Free Pass is essential! It gets you onto all the transportation in Hakone (I’ll cover all the varieties below) as well as all museum entrances and includes coupons to restaurants and other attractions. The cost is around $35 per day, but it’s more than pays for itself - trust me!

They also give you a handy map of all the attractions in the area!

To the Ropeway!

My main goal for the trip was to go on the Hakone Ropeway to see the views of Mount Fuji! To get there, I had to take a variety of fun transportation…

I started by boarding the red Hakone-Yumoto train at the Odawara station:

At the Hakone-Yumoto station, I had to switch to the Hakone Tozan Train:

Right away, you’re in the forest:

I kept being impressed that they built a train through a mountain forest! The train had two conductors - one in the front and one in the back. At two points, the train had to reverse and go backwards to go up the mountain, at which point the conductors switched. So if you’re in the front car, prepare to be in the back for a while. And those in the back get to be in the front!

“This is the only mountain railway in Japan. The train departs from Hakone-Yumoto station (at 96 m above sea level) and takes about 40 minutes to arrive at the final stop, Gora station (at 541 m above sea level). Halfway up the line there are switchbacks, where the driver and the conductor change shifts and the train switch to reversed travel direction. It is a special experience that can be enjoyed only with the Hakone Tozan Train.” - The Hakone Tozan Train website

The train is slow, but the scenery is spectacular.

At the Gora station, we had to switch into a cable car!

“This cable car links Gora Station to Sounzan Station, a distance of 1.2 kilometers, in 10 minutes. The cable car races effortlessly up the steep slope, and even the station platform at the top is sloping.”

Riding in Cable Cars is always fascinating, and this one had a great view and fun toy-like controls:

Finally, we arrived to the Ropeway!

Into Volcanic Gasses

Before boarding the gondola, we were given special towels… to cover our face from volcanic gasses…

I had no idea what this meant, so I was enjoying the views of Mt. Fuji - amazing as advertised!

But soon enough, our gondola was going right through the volcanic gasses!

And we could see the amazing view from above!

Everyone had to get off at the Owakudani Station for a chance to fully enjoy the volcanic gasses :)

Black Egg

At the Owakudani Station, you get a chance to take in the wonder of volcanic gasses from yet another angle:

There is also usually a walk where you can see more, but it was closed this time (I’ve been there 4 years ago during my first trip to Japan).

For good luck, you can buy 5 black eggs. They’re black from the chemical reaction of being boiled in the volcanic-gasses-powered hot springs! Don’t worry, inside they’re white, and they taste just like any other hard-boiled egg :)

Yes, there’s even a Black Egg Hello Kitty! The absurdity of it makes this my favorite Hello Kitty of all!

The Lake

I was hungry at this point, so I took the ropeway all the way down to Lake Ashi:

This is where you can rent one of those cool swam paddle boats… in nicer weather. It was too cold for that, but I did see one or two boats out there…

I had lunch at this restaurant with an incredible view of the lake:

From there, it is recommended to take the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise (on a pirate boat!) to the other side of the lake:

I had a plan to take the boat, look around (amazing sites at the drop off point!), then take a bus to the suspension bridge, but I decided to take it easy, and go to an onsen instead…

So I went back to the ropeway, and went up one station to Ubako Station.

The Good-Smelling Forest

The onsen was only open to the public between 1:00 - 3:00 pm, so I had a little time to explore. I saw a sign for the Kintarouiwa View Point to hike to, so I went into the forest!

The forest was made up of mostly cedar trees, and it smelled incredible!

The path was covered with fallen leaves, still orange from the fall:

After about 10 - 15 minutes of delightful walking, I reached the view point!

I sat in the forest for a bit longer, just enjoying it all, then went up to the onsen :)

Onsen with a View

On Onsen is a Japanese public bath house. It’s a different experience, so make sure to read up on onsen etiquette before you go in. For one, you have to wash yourself naked in front of strangers. But don’t worry, after the first few times, you get used to it and love it!

Hakone has a lot of onsens, but I specifically wanted to go to possibly the only one with a view of Mout Fuji, at the Hakone Green Plaza Hotel. Sitting outside in hot springs looking at the view was an incredible experience :)

The Perfect Cafe

I made my way back to Gora on the ropeway and then the cable car. At Gora, I wanted to visit the Hakone Gora Park… but I got off at the wrong station and had to walk up a little (it wasn’t a big deal!). I was hoping there was a cafe in the park.

But, as luck would have it (it’s not all bad to miss a station!), I noticed a cute-looking cafe in a small alley - plaisir de l’oeuf.

Unfortunately, some people were smoking outside, so I was forced to go inside, where I was greeted with the cutest and coziest space!

The owner was super warm and welcoming. It just felt good to be in the same place as her! The cafe reflected her amazing personality. I ordered some tea and a soba (buckwheat) + walnut dessert (I had no idea what to expect, but it was delicious!):

She told me that the dessert was shaped like Mt. Fuji, which made me super happy! She also had me pick a random fortune out of a cardboard box, and I got 10% off my meal!

I learned that she owns the cafe, while her husband, a photographer who grew up in Hakone, runs the photography museum attached to the cafe. I visited the museum, which had incredible photos of Mt. Fuji on the second floor. What a great random experience in a small alley!

A Deserted Park

I headed over to the Gora Park, which didn’t have much growing, as it was winter… The most exciting thing there was probably this grass lol:

But there was nobody there, and it was nice and quiet. So I sat down in the gazebo and took the time to chat with my mom - it just hit midnight in Chicago!

No Food

I took the mountain train back to the Hakone-Yumoto station, hoping to get dinner there. But all the restaurants were either closed or completely booked. It is winter and not tourist season!

But I did my best with this situation, and got some dessert instead :)

Japanese cheesecake is so much better than the American version!

For the main course, I got gourmet meal of unagi (a seaweed rice and fish sandwich) at 7/11. It was glorious!

Full Moon

My search for food was not a complete waste. If I hadn’t looked, I wouldn’t have seen the breathtaking full moon that was in the sky that night, completing my perfect first day of 2018: