Day-tripping to Hakone
If you've been following my blog, you already know about my love for the healing waters of Hakone. Its natural wonders are just a stone's throw from Tokyo - all it takes is 90 minutes to transport yourself from a frenetic train platform in Shinjuku to the quiet bliss of a private onsen (hot spring) hidden in the forested hills of this mountainous little town. We recently took advantage of our close proximity with a day trip to Hakone Yuryo, a traditional countryside hot spring resort.
In addition to several large communal baths, Hakone Yuryo has 19 private open-air baths that are available for rent by the hour. Private baths are perfect for those who may be feeling a little shy about stripping down with strangers, and they're also a great option for opposite-sex couples wanting to enjoy a dip together (public baths are segregated by gender).
Sporting ink? Private hot springs are your savior. Tattoos in Japan have long been associated with yakuza (mafia) gangs, and inked patrons - including foreigners - have been banned from onsen in an effort to keep out the riffraff. Some spa facilities will allow a small tattoo if you're able to cover it with a bandage, but sleeves and other extensive artwork are a different story. Since Bandaid-ing my ribcage tattoo is out of the question, I am restricted to private hot springs.
Poor me in my private bath.
Hakone Yuryo has three different types of private baths which vary in size and price. We opted for the mid-range "Type 2" bath for JPY 4,900/USD 45 per hour. Towels and yukata (casual kimono for use around the resort) are available for purchase at the reception desk. The check-in process here does involve signing a wavier stating that you don't have any tattoos, so be forewarned that visible ink might result in you getting shown the door. Knowing that no one would see our tattoos, we elected to fib. A little white lie later, the keys to our private onsen were in hand.
With the help of a resort map provided by the front desk, we navigated ourselves to a heavy wood door bearing the kanji symbols of our room name. I excitedly unlocked the door, which opened to reveal a spacious, tranquil changing room featuring a sitting area, vanity and small fridge with water and tea available for purchase. I cracked open a chilled green tea, quickly shed my dress and headed straight for the outdoor shower.
The most important step in onsen etiquette is the pre-wash: bath visitors must always clean themselves before entering the hot springs. Our private onsen included a single outdoor shower station equipped with a hand-held shower head, tap, stool and bucket. Although I'd brought along my own shampoo and conditioner, I opted for the resort's collection of luxurious Shiseido products. My wavy bleached hair (lovingly referred to as my lion mane by David) is constantly tangled and requires a pretty heavy conditioner - this stuff did the trick.
After a record breaking pre-wash (my at-home showers drag on for upwards of 30 minutes), I was ready to submerge myself in the transforming hot spring waters. Hakone Yuryo is situated on a hillside, and our particular onsen looked out onto a densely forested valley. Aside from the odd train weaving its way through the mountains, I could hear nothing but the sounds of nature: leaves rustling in the wind, birds chirping overhead and the bubbling of glorious geothermally heated water. Sunlight filtered softly through the trees and the damp, earthy smell of moss filled the air. Even if soaking in hot spring water does absolutely nothing for you, the sereneness of Hakone is sure to leave you feeling revitalized.
When we initially booked the reservation for our private onsen, 60 minutes seemed rather long for a bath. But once we were happily soaking that hour flew by. David and I momentarily regretted not reserving the room for longer before remembering that more excitement awaited us: food. Hakone Yuryo's onsite restaurant, Irorisaryo Hachiri, serves irori (hearth-cooked) cuisine prepared on sunken tabletop charcoal grills. We went for the meat-heavy course: crispy skin-on chicken, thick slabs of bacon and luscious cuts of marbled beef grilled alongside fresh shishito peppers and shiitake mushrooms. And, of course, frosty mugs of Sapporo to wash it all down.
Unless you're in a hurry (in which case, you're doing this whole day trip wrong), you can while away another hour after your meal with desert or drinks from the resort's takeaway food counter. The property has a beautiful Japanese-style courtyard garden with plenty of seating from which you can enjoy an ice cream cone, coffee or tea.
On your way back to Tokyo, take a small detour to squeeze in one of my favorite scenic spots in Hakone: the Hayakawa River. Grab a cold beer from one of the many vending machines you're sure to cross paths with and head to the river bank for happy hour. You can frolic in the river if you like - or simply enjoy the view of its cascading waterfalls. We were mesmerized by the birds who'd congregated over the water in search of dinner, their bodies gliding effortlessly just inches above the undulating river. To get there, take the resort shuttle bus back to Hakone-Yumoto station. Exit the station and cross the main road that borders it to the south. On the other side of the road you'll find the Hayakawa River - follow its banks west for the best views.
Located at: 4 Tonosawa, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture 250-0315
Open 365 days a year: weekdays from 10AM to 9PM (last admission at 8pm); weekends and public holidays from 10AM to 10PM (last admission at 9pm)
If you are planning to book a private room, it's best to make a reservation. Contact the resort by telephone to book up to one month in advance.
Japan is a country with a lot of rules, and bathing in particular has a rather long list of do's and don'ts. Here's what you need to know:
Strip down to your birthday suit
Wash yourself with soap before entering the bath
Tie up your hair if it's long
Cover up small tattoos with a bandage
Hydrate during your bath with bottled water or tea
Stand while washing yourself (use the shower stool provided to sit)
Wash or shave yourself in the onsen
Wear swimwear in the bath
Put your bath towel in the hot spring
Enter a public bath with visible ink
From Tokyo, the Odakyu line will take you directly to Hakone-Yumoto station (the region's transit hub) from Shinjuku station via a relaxing 90-minute ride on their 'RomanceCar' train. When you've arrived at Hakone-Yumoto, follow signs for Hakone Yuryo's free shuttle bus. The bus runs every 15 minutes from 9AM to 8PM on weekdays, and every 10 minutes from 9AM to 9PM on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. Once aboard the shuttle, it's a quick 3-minute uphill journey to the resort.
For more ideas on things to do in Hakone, check out my previous weekend guide here.
Note: This travel guide is available as a GPS-enabled map with offline navigation. Click here to download the guide and receive turn-by-turn walking directions between sights - no data plan or WIFI required!