Less than 2 weeks into my month-long December trip to Tokyo, it was time to visit Hakone!
After getting fitted for engagement/pre-wedding photos on Monday, on Tuesday we were off to Kanagawa prefecture 神奈川県 for a honeymoon (shinkon ryokou 新婚旅行). No, we are not married yet, due to the fact that my fiance and I applied for a US K-1 visa. On a K-1 visa, he has to enter the country unmarried, and then we get married within 90 days once he arrives. But, since his arrival in the US will coincide with my graduation, I will be pretty busy doing job hunting, and I won’t have a lot of time or money for a honeymoon. So, a 3-day trip to Hakone 箱根 was our plan for an early honeymoon!
Kanagawa prefecture is next door to Tokyo, making it an ideal spot for a short vacatation. Hakone is well-known for its natural hot springs (onsen 温泉), natural scenery, and views of Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san 富士山)! Hakone is also a UNESCO Geopark, designated because of its geological heritage of international significance. The natural hot springs exist as a part of an active volcano which underlies Japan, concentrated near the Hakone region, and has led to some of its more remarkable features – Mt. Fuji, caldera lakes, etc.
It takes about 2 hours to get to Hakone from Ikebukuro-area Tokyo, and we stopped off on the way for snacks at Donki (Don Quixote aka ドン・キホーテ), a store that sells pretty much everything, and for the sweet potato soft cream at Mini Stop (a conbini コンビニ or convenience store). My fiance is addicted to soft-serve ice cream.
When we arrived at Hakone, the area was pretty deserted. Mid-December is definitely not peak tourist season, and the shops closed up very early. Hakone’s popularity peaks around the spring and fall, because of the elevation of the area and the beautiful fall foliage. In the middle of winter, even though the weather was mild, there is not much more to do than to sit in the hot springs. The New Year is a popular time for the ryokan 旅館, or traditional Japanese inns, because well-to-do families like to spend the end of the year in hotel hot springs and rotemburo 露天風呂, or open-air hot springs.
Our ryokan was a traditional style inn called Hotel Kajikaso ホテル河鹿荘. Traditional Japanese inns have the modern conveniences such as running water, the fancy toilets you expect, and all the amenities, but they also include the Japanese traditional hospitality or omotenashi お持て成し. This is where the host anticipates the needs of the guests, and creates an experience that meets those needs without prompting. It’s also an intangible sort of hospitality which you need to experience to understand. My fiance and I experienced omotenashi at its finest in Hotel Kajikaso.
The hotel has two large hot spring baths, one on the lower floor and one on an upper floor, which are open for men and women separately. The women were in the lower bath in the mornings and in the upper bath in the evenings, which allows for watching the sunset and the moon. There is an indoor portion of the bath and an outdoor portion of the bath. It’s cold outside, but the cool air on your face while you are submerged in a hot spring bath is very refreshing. I wish it had snowed, because hot spring in the snow is something that I think of as a very Japanese experience. Alas, no luck, it didn’t snow in Hakone in December.
Our room was a deluxe room, with a rotemburo (open-air hot spring) attached in a garden area. This means a private bath that you don’t have to share. Understandably, this is more expensive than a regular room, but if you have the means and the opportunity, I recommend a rotemburo. I know that some foreigners find it ideal because of the private nature of the bath, although I had no trouble finding privacy in the women’s bath during my stay. Since it was the off-season, the guests were primarily men in work groups, so while the men’s bath was intermittently crowded, I had the women’s bath all to myself. I must have missed the other female guests entirely. Also, the public baths closed rather early since it was off-season.
The use of the rotemburo is just like the regular onsen. You undress completely (no swim suits, no pants, socks, etc. – my fiance was just looking out the door at the rotemburo in the above photo ^^) and wash your body and hair with the shower arm while you sit on the small square stool provided. I usually tie my hair up so that I don’t get hair everywhere (no one wants to see hair floating by in the clear onsen water). You rinse off all soap as well, using the round bowl to help rinse, so that you don’t bring soap into the clear water. You can bring a small towel if you’d like in the public bath, but there’s no need in the rotemburo. I usually put the towel on my head (yes, like in anime), but you must balance the towel so that it doesn’t fall off into the water, so if you don’t need it don’t bring it!
Another part of omotenashi that comes with the ryokan experience is the food. Included in your room price is traditional Japanese breakfast and dinner, with a set menu that changes daily. While the menu is set, they will accomodate food preferences and allergy. Say you don’t eat raw fish, they will substitute something else for you. They can do vegetarian options as well. Usually you should make any allergies or food preferences known when you make your reservations. Hotel Kajikaso traditional meals have many courses, with much more food than I could ever eat at one meal. Every dish is delicious and most I had never had before, so I didn’t want to waste any of it.
Since everything closed up so early, there was not much to do but to relax and enjoy the room. While the hotel has TV in each room, there is no WiFi service except in the lobby. This is to separate your ryokan stay from work or other worries that you have. You don’t usually go to a ryokan to work, but to relax, so keeping WiFi out of your room is a way to enhance that experience. I don’t mind it, but it’s something to keep in mind when booking a traditional Japanese inn.
Next time, day 2 of our Hakone trip! Thank you as always for reading!
Have you been to Hakone? Have you stayed in a ryokan? What was your experience like?