With limited time to explore Japan, we decided to prioritise two of the major cities: the crazy Tokyo and more traditional Kyoto, but were fully planning to come back. However, in general, we’re both happiest in nature so wanted to make sure we planned a bit of a restful retreat in the middle of a full-on adventure.
Thanks to Air NZ’s amazing direct flights, we were able to fly into Tokyo and out of Osaka, meaning we could pick someplace to stop as we made our way by train from east to west. Our research pointed to Hakone, a town nestled in the same national park as Mt. Fuji, known for its lakeside tranquility, onsens (hot pools) and upscale ryokans (traditional Japanese inns). It sounded like the perfect place to reset after Tokyo’s neon lights.
Hakone was undoubtedly beautiful, but at the time we visited, it was anything but the serenity we were seeking.
One of Japan’s biggest sporting events had just finished in Hakone the day we arrived. The Hakone Ekiden is a two-day relay race from Tokyo to Hakone, covering the full 218 km distance we had just conquered in less than two hours by Romancecar shinkansen (bullet train). We had a great trip on the long-distance train, but once we arrived, the charm of Hakone’s small gondolas and “ropeway” cable cars was stripped away by the shear amount of people packing themselves like sardines into the local trains.
We were most excited about our stay in the ryokan, and were torn between having a truly restful day or seeing Hakone’s famous sites – a shrine, beautiful torii gates by the lake, a boat ride across Lake Ashi and ropeway ride to a sulphuric site and catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. I’m glad we didn’t miss out of any of these, but do wish we planned one extra day to enjoy the amazing amenities in the ryokan. Oh also, we both were at the peak of horrible headcolds and really needed to sleep.
Our ryokan experience
What an incredible place. We completely splurged and stayed at an extremely upscale take on the traditional ryokan – Hakone Tenyu.
Why? We were super excited about the onsen experience, and this one had an infinity pool hotspring overlooking the valley, as well as rooms with private open-air (outdoor) baths. The private tub was crucial because public onsen are separated by gender, understandably as you go stark naked! Attending public onsen involves a very specific etiquette. Pre-soak, you’re expected to clean yourself, showering in a small stall while seated on a stool. You’re given a tiny towel that many western guests use for modesty while walking to the pool, and the brave local guests rest on their head, for reasons we’re unsure of. No photos are allowed for obvious reasons, so I’ve included the (empty) private onsen on our balcony, that filled with natural hot spring water with the push of a button and overlooked the beautiful gardens below.
The floors of ryokan rooms are covered in soft plush tatami mats. You remove your shoes when you enter, so you’re given geta which are wood-bottomed slippers that prove very difficult to walk in. In the winter, you wear them with special socks to separate your big toe from the others. Ryokans also provide you with a yukata, which is a casual cotton kimono to wear for the entirety of your stay.
You can wear these to the onsen, to breakfast, dinner and anything in between. We even took ours for a spin in the gardens for a morning stroll, with a tanzan overtop to stay warm.
We loved everything about the ryokan stay. This was aided by the fact that it was high-tech and our “futon” was a the fluffiest bed ever that was just unusually low to the ground. Next time, I’d like to stay in a more traditional, less swanky place to get the real experience, but this was certainly a treat!
Next, it was back on a train to Kyoto for two more days of exploration!