Here’s part two of my recommendations for Japan! I’m going to include three sections in this one: Hakone, Kobe, and Nara, as we only spent a short time in each. To read about what we did/what I’d recommend in Tokyo, click here. And check back on Monday for recommendations on Osaka and Kyoto!
We got lucky on the flight in and had a great view of Mount Fuji above the clouds, which was good because there was no sign of the sacred mountain while we were in nearby Hakone overnight between Tokyo and Osaka. This was slightly disappointing because it had been a primary reason for choosing to make the trip, but the rest of Hakone was so lovely that we really didn’t mind too much. Hakone is famous for its onsen (hot spring baths) and its beautiful, mountainous landscapes.
Where we stayed: Mount View Hakone
Mount View Hakone was our big accommodation splurge of the trip (it cost about a quarter of our total accommodation budget), but it was worth every penny. When we checked in we were provided with yukata (a lightweight, casual kimono worn in summer) and slippers and shown to our traditional Japanese-style room. In the evening, we had an amazing multi-course dinner (see below, an equally amazing breakfast was included as well), and then came to the reason we chose this place to stay: for a small fee, they offered time in a private onsen. Because of my tattoos, I’m restricted to tourist-friendly or private onsen, and public onsen are usually gender segregated, so this was the perfect way for Steve and I to relax together for the evening.
What we did:
There’s a lot to do in Hakone ranging from luxury shopping to museums to hikes, but with a limited amount of time we followed the most common route, taking a number of different transportation types in a route around the city. We began with a steep ride up a mountain in a cable car, followed by a bus ride replacing a closed section of ropeway (due to a possibility of volcanic activity!) and then a ropeway ride back down the other side of the mountain. A kitschy but fun boat ride in a boat decked out like a pirate ship followed, and then we walked around the edge of Lake Ashi to the famous red torii gate of Hakone shrine.
What we ate:
Because we were given dinner and breakfast at our accommodation, we didn’t eat much outside other than a few snacks. However, the food at Mount View Hakone definitely deserves a mention. A multi-course dinner (but served all at once in a series of small dishes), the meal consisted of hot pot, sashimi, tempura, various preparations of tofu, and more, all incredibly delicious. They also took into account my pescatarianism, serving me extra fish dishes in place of some of the meat items Steve received. Breakfast was similar, with small dishes including fruit, yogurt, fish, omelet, potato salad (for some reason this seems to be a breakfast food in Japan), and of course plenty of green tea.
General tips and information:
If you’re planning to do the transportation loop, the Hakone Free Pass is a must buy. You can get it in the Odawara station (or add on a trip to/from Shinjuku if you’re going to Hakone on a day trip or not getting a JR pass) and it covers all of your forms of transport around Hakone. As I mentioned, we also booked in for a private onsen at our hotel. If you’re not staying at a hotel that has an onsen or if they only have public baths and you have tattoos or are uncomfortable (you have to be nude) or want to be with your opposite-gender travel companions, I believe there are a few around town you can book into privately without staying in the hotel they’re at or that aren’t attached to an accommodation site.
We visited Nara as a day trip from Osaka. You can take a JR line train there in about an hour (or it’s about the same distance from Kyoto if you’d rather make it a day trip from there) and we spent the afternoon, about five hours. I felt like that was enough to see everything we wanted to see, although I’m sure you could spend a full day or even overnight. Mostly I just wanted to pat the deer.
What we did:
Like I said, we went to Nara to pat the deer. I’m pretty wary of animal tourism, not wanting to do something unethical like riding elephants or swimming with dolphins (and elsewhere in Japan I definitely didn’t visit any owl or hedgehog cafes as they are not domesticated animals like cats), but the Sika deer of Nara have been protected and fed, first as sacred animals and post-WWII as national treasures, for hundreds of years. So I bought a couple of packs of shika-senbei (deer crackers) and made some new furry friends. The deer roam freely throughout the park, and at the first sign of a snack they all rushed over (sometimes to hilarious result like trying to eat people’s shirt or purse, although remember that they are still wild animals and can cause injuries). We also visited the shrines Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji before hopping on the train back to Nara.
Kobe made the list not because we had any great desire to visit but because the Kobe Misaki Stadium was the site of the Ireland-Russia RWC we were attending. Since unfortunately anyone reading this won’t have the option to go to that, I would say to leave Kobe off your list and head on to Hiroshima (I wish we’d had time to visit) or stay in Osaka/Kyoto. Kobe was nice, but it’s a small city and doesn’t have the big attractions of some of the other spots you could check out (although it’s apparently a great place for sake and of course beef, if you’re into that). Kobe was also the only place we had bad weather during the trip, with on and off lashing rain throughout our visit, so we didn’t do too much exploring.
I’ll be back on Monday with more recommendations from Osaka and Kyoto, and if you have any favourite Japan recs of your own, please share them in the comments!