Our story starts with my love for autumn foliage in Japan. This past weekend, my partner and I were craving an escape from Tokyo. Desperate for some mountain air, we planned an impromptu escape the next day as a day trip to Hakone. Me being the proverbial travel planner, I was anxious about the spontaneity of the trip. However, the prospect of taking some beautiful photos of a place I’d never been before romanced me even further. The plan was set. But how should we get there?
Being a Tokyoite of three years, the obvious answer was to take the train. But which train? And therein begins a story of tragedy and frustration that proceeded throughout this particular day trip. Frustration that I not only faced, but that many others have as well.
Due to autumn being a peak travel season, tickets for buses and trains were sold out well in advance, which left my companion and I relying on local express trains. Taking the JR East Shonan Shinjuku line (9:53 am), it took us an hour and forty minutes to reach Hakone-Yumoto Station. Our goal for the trip was to get to Lake Ashinoko by Hakone Ropeway, then take the sightseeing cruise, and a trip to Hakone Shrine.
We stopped for lunch after we arrived at the station (11:42 am), going to Yama Soba, as it had many good reviews, and then continued our journey. At 12:30 pm we started our journey by train up the mountain with the Hakone Tozan Railway. The trains are not so frequent, so seats were limited and train cars were packed to the brim with people. It was slow-going. What I thought was a fifteen minute train ride actually took about forty-five minutes.
The arrival at Gora station was marked with haste and confusion as the flood of people tried to get off the small platform and into line for the cable car to continue their journey up the mountain. The small town of Gora is marked by small shops and food vendors, and while we waited the twenty minutes to get on the cable car, we treated ourselves to some freshly made red bean manju and toasted rice cracker (1:44 pm).
As we boarded the train, we realized the need for tickets and had to step out of line, buy the tickets and cut back in. The signs clearly stated no Suica or Pasmo, but did not state that tickets were needed, or that it was a separate line, which caused some confusion among first time visitors. This happened again at the top of the mountain for continuing our journey along the ropeway.
Finally it was our turn to shove into the packed cable car and start our achingly slow climb, dotted by frequent stops at stations on the heavily inclined railway. My partner and I just decided to laugh about it. We joked that if a train ever went that slow, or was that infrequent in Tokyo, we’d never make it to work. But thank goodness it was our day off and we were just along for the ride.
At the top of the hill (2:10 pm), we ran to the gates to grab new tickets. We used the ticket vending machines which stipulated that credit card could be used when in fact it couldn’t. So we scrounged up the cash (which we were now running low on) and got in the tremendously long line for the ropeway.
The ride was short, and the views were incredible! However the eight minute ride did not prepare us for our disembarkation and the hour and a half wait to continue our journey. The wait forced us to reconsider our travel goals for the day, realizing that the ropeway closed at 5:00 pm. Was there a way back? Would the things we were hoping to see still be open? The prospect of turning back after coming so far was extremely disappointing. And so we stayed in line and waited.
At 3:35 pm we got into our gondola as we journeyed down the mountain. Another short ten minute trip, and we were at Togendai Station. Wasting no time, we grabbed some cash at the ATM, secured bus tickets for our return to Tokyo, and went to book our sightseeing cruise. At the ticket window (4:03 pm), I was told that there was no return ticket for the day, and that Hakone Shrine closed at 4:30 pm. It was at this point I had realized my companion and I had gambled on the Hakone Ropeway and lost.
With an hour and a half to kill before our bus from Togendai, we sat down near the river. Upset and frustrated with our lack of success with our getaway from Tokyo, there weren’t many words to be said. Thankfully, some stray feline friends took some pity on us and joined us by the river, letting us pet them. They saved the day, and lifted our spirits. I also got some wonderful pictures of them.
After this, we walked around the lake, almost all shops had closed by 4 pm. We spent the rest of that evening walking, waiting, and shopping in a gift shop at the station before making our journey home.
Sad story right? I share it here, hoping that our mistakes aren’t repeated. The lessons I learned are down below.
Hakone Do’s and Don’ts
- Don’t plan last minute
- Do book your train/bus/hotel well in advance
- Don’t try to do Hakone as a day trip
- Do plan for two or three days
- Don’t rush it (especially during peak season)
- Do plan for lines, traffic, and crowds no matter where you go
- Don’t sleep in
- Do get an early start in the mornings, everything closes at 4 pm
- Do have a travel plan
- Don’t be spontaneous
And just remember, RELAX! And enjoy the ride!