Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns renowned for the ultimate zen experience. They typically offer comfortable rooms, traditional kaiseki dining, mineral baths (onsen) and wonderful customer service. Visitors to Japan should definitely plan to stay in a ryokan for a portion of their trip. Here is what to expect from a ryokan in Hakone, located just 55 miles (88km) southwest of Tokyo in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park.
Japanse Onsen (Mineral Spa)
Japanese onsens hit the spot for relaxation. Resort towns like Hakone, near iconic Mount Fuji, sit atop an abundance of hot mineral springs. So many traditional inns are fitted with indoor and outdoor hot mineral pools in their onsens. I visited Hakone a few days after I flew into Tokyo from Washington, DC. The world’s biggest and most technologically advanced city is spectacular, but it is also a little overwhelming when you are jet-lagged. So it was the perfect reprieve after a long flight and navigating the huge crowds and sensory overload of Tokyo.
Some Americans may struggle with the concept of onsens due to the dress code. It is totally au natural, in the buff naked. However, they are not set up in coed fashion like in the Netherlands, Germany and Finland. There are designated areas for men and women in all traditional Japanese onsens. It is a bit of an adjustment, but you quickly get used to it.
It was pretty cold in Hakone in December when I visited- albeit above freezing. But once your body heats up in the indoor onsen, you can comfortably go soak in the hot mineral bath in the outdoor section. At night, I found the onsen to be fairly quiet. There was usually only one or two other people an hour before closing time. And after spending some time in the hot mineral bath, it is actually easy and refreshing to walk around the enclosure naked in the cold. This is coming from a person that typically loathes cold weather and is sensitive to even moderately cool ocean water!
Ryokans: Traditional Japanese Inns
I stayed at Mount View Hakone. It is a charming moderately priced traditional Japanese inn with onsen. Unlimited use of the onsen is included in the price. Dining is a la carte. I liked that concept, because during my two-night stay, I enjoyed a lavish kaiseki dinner and breakfast the first day. Then I dined at some of the local izakayas (casual Japanese bar-restaurants) for ramen and katsu for other meals. For around ¥10,300 ($100 USD) a night in off-season, Mount View Hakone is the best value ryokan near Mount Fuji. During busy times like summer and holidays, expect to pay higher prices.
Japan is also famous for its luxury cabin and capsule hotels, often fitted with traditional onsens. Read my article on what to expect at cabin and capsule hotels in Japan. They are a quirky experience that many Japanese business travelers utilize. Check out the article for some unique places to stay in Tokyo and Osaka.
Multi-Course Kaiseki Dining
A highlight of international travel is unique experiences. Kaiseki cuisine is an elaborate production, similar to western haute cuisine, that is unlike any dining experience I have had outside Japan. It begins with the attire. Slip on the yukata (casual komono) and slippers provided in your room and head down to the dining room for a culinary feast.
Kaiseki dining is high end multi-course Japanese cuisine. There is an emphasis on seasonality, freshness and excellent presentation. It typically consists of around 9 courses of small dishes, with various meats, seafood and vegetables. It is very detail oriented and the food dazzles the eyes and palate.
I arrived to find a stylish card atop my reserved table, with my name written in both English and Japanese. It was probably the most unique dining experience of my life, and it is something you have to try at least once during a trip to Japan. It is well worth the ¥3,500 yen (around $34 USD) cost at Mount View Hakone. In fact, it was probably the best $34 I have ever spent on a meal. Note that the ryokans typically ask you to reserve a table for kaiseki, so they know how much food to prepare.
Kaiseki dining is much more worthwhile than many of the overpriced Kobe and wagyu steak houses in Japan. You definitely have to do your research with those, as there are some tourist traps in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and elsewhere. But even at the worthwhile steakhouses, the cost of Kobe beef is so high that it can easily run you triple the cost of a luxurious Kaseiki dining experience. A lot of people leave a kobe beef dinner feeling like they were ripped off. It is hard to imagine many people leaving a kaiseki experience feeling that way. Also, you can enjoy delicious steak in Japan for reasonable prices, as long as it’s not kobe, which is always extremely expensive.
Hakone: A Japanese Resort Town Built Atop 40 Sulphuric Hot Springs
Hakone has a great selection of resorts with onsens to suit various budgets. There is even a hostel with an onsen! It has a nice variety of restaurants and shops dotted around town. This is the part of your trip to Japan to de-stress and get a break from big crowds. I enjoyed Hakone just as much as Tokyo and Kyoto for that reason.
Be sure to catch the Hakone Ropeway cable car for epic views of Mount Fuji. The Owakudani stop offers the most dramatic views of Mount Fuji. You also get a great glimpse of volcanic activity in the area.
Owakudani is famous for black eggs (kuro-tamago). They are boiled in the hot sulfur spring, which turns the shells black. Bags 0f 5 fresh boiled eggs are sold and they’re worth trying. The eggs taste fresh, with a hint of sulfur. I enjoyed a couple of the eggs while they were warm, and saved the others to snack on later.
You can catch the Hakone Ropeway one way or roundtrip. Some people catch the ropeway one way and hike back down. I was short on time when I visited, so I opted to take the ropeway roundtrip.
Hakone Sightseeing Cruise
Another highlight is the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise across Lake Ashi. It offers a wonderful view of volcanic Mount Fuji (on a clear day), and the torii gates and shinto shrines that dot the lake. You can take the 25-minute sightseeing cruise one way, or roundtrip. I opted to take the sightseeing cruise roundtrip, so I could catch the same bus back to my ryokan. I otherwise could have caught a different bus, and changed buses to return. Or caught a taxi. It is a comfortable and picturesque boat trip, so worthwhile to take roundtrip.
Hakone Public Transportation
Buses serve Hakone and the Lake Ashi area. I did not have a rental car and managed well utilizing the buses. There are bus stops right near Mount View Hakone that take you directly to Lake Ashi. From there, you can catch the Hakone Ropeway and Hakone Sightseeing Cruise. Be sure to take note of the timetable. Many of the bus lines finish for the day relatively early.
These are a couple other great ryokans to stay in Hakone during a couples trip, or with family or friends.
Hotel Musashiya is one of the best ryokans to stay in Hakone. Their hot spring baths look right out at picturesque Lake Ashi. Every room is fitted with tatami (woven-straw) flooring and traditional futon beds. Rooms are also equipped with refrigerators, TV and an electric kettle.
Hakone Airu is another of the best ryokans to stay in Hakone. Rooms have balconies with lovely mountain views. They also have air conditioning and satellite TV’s. Guests can choose between a western or Asian breakfast. Traditional kaiseki multi-course meals are served at dinner.
Budget Ryokan Hostel in Hakone
Emblem Flow is a stylish hostel in Hakone. This is a great choice for backpackers looking for a ryokan experience on a budget. The hostel offers 4 and 6 bed bunk rooms, along with private rooms. The property features a hot mineral bath. Continental breakfasts are served in the mornings.
How to Get to Hakone from Tokyo on Public Transportation
I took the high-speed Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Odawara. Then I transferred to a bus at Odawara station to reach Hakone. I was a little confused about which bus to take when I arrived in Odawara. Fortunately, the bus station attendant was extremely helpful. Not only did he ensure I got on the right bus, he even lifted my heavy bag aboard the public bus for me!
You can also rent a car, but I would skip driving in Tokyo if you can. Public transportation in Tokyo and Japan in general is extremely efficient, comfortable clean and safe. For example, high-speed trains run every few minutes between Kyoto and Tokyo during peak times, a journey that takes around 2 hours and 2o minutes to cover 457 km (283 miles)!
Traveling Japan Independently, as an English Speaker
English is not prevalent in Japan, but people are generally very helpful and friendly. It is also one of the world’s safest countries. So it is an ideal destination for solo travelers to navigate with peace of mind. Yes, sometimes you will get lost in the maze that is their mega train stations/underground shopping malls. But you will eventually find your way, and you will discover some cool new things in the process!
Travel to Japan on Miles or Points
I redeemed 70,000 Delta skymiles for a roundtrip economy class Delta ticket from Washington, DC to Tokyo. It was an excellent redemption to fly beginning of December last year, at an off-peak time. I was also surprised to see such colorful autumn foliage in Japan in the first week of December.
I flew into Narita Airport and out of Haneda Airport. Narita Airport is further from Tokyo but is served by a high-speed train. I was curious to fly in and out of both airports and the times worked well to do that. The only downside to that is having to figure out one more thing during your journey. If you’re more the routine type, pick one of the airports to fly in and out of if you have the choice.
If you have any questions on planning a trip to Japan, or tips on maximizing points, drop me an email at alex(at)wanderlustmarriage.com. I’m happy to assist with future trip plans!