If you have only one day to visit Hakone and are traveling by mass transportation, the ‘Hakone Circuit’ is the best way to see many of the area’s top sights. Starting and ending in Hakone Yumoto, travel is in a circle, with no backtracking, and is easy to follow even if you don’t speak or read Japanese.
The Hakone Free Pass is good for two or three days, but is worth buying, even for one day, if you follow this route. The pass allows unlimited use of: Hakone Tozan Railway, Hakone Tozan buses, Hakone Tozan Cable Car, Hakone Ropeway, and the Ashi-no-ko sightseeing cruise boat.
It also includes a round-trip ticket on the Odakyu Line (between Shinjuku & Odawara) and a variety of discounts at tourist facilities within Hakone. The cost is 5140 yen. I also recommend booking reserved seats on a Special Express ‘Romance Car’ in each direction (1090 each way). Total: 7320 yen.
Travel by Romance Car from Shinjuku to Odawara, then change to the Hakone Tozan Line to Hakone Yumoto. Upon arrival in Hakone Yumoto, exit the station, cross the street, and line up at the bus stop for Hakone-machi. Get off at the Hakone Sekisho-ato bus stop. If there is no traffic, the ride takes about 40 minutes. The Hakone Tozan Bus Company now offers an excellent English website.
Upon arrival at the bus stop, walk down the brick paved road to your first sightseeing spot, the Hakone Barrier Gate. It was an important checkpoint that controlled traffic along the old Tokaido Highway linking Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo era.
After a visit to the gate and its mini museum, take a walk to Moto-Hakone along the ancient cedar avenue, a section of the old Tokaido Highway.
In Moto-Hakone, an optional stop after the cedar avenue is the Narukawa Art Museum, famous for its collection of Nihonga (Japanese-style paintings) and its spectacular view of Mt. Fuji.
After the cedar avenue, stroll along the edge of Lake Ashi. If Mt. Fuji is visible, this is the site of Hakone’s most iconic photograph – Fuji-san behind lower green mountains and a red torii in the lake itself.
Walk toward the torii gate and visit the Hakone Jinja, which is hiding in the trees above it. Originally founded in 757 at the top of Mt. Hakone, its current location dates to 1667.
Stop along the way at the Tamamura Toyoo Life Art Museum. There is no fee to view the lovely paintings, and if you like one of them, they are all for sale. If hungry, enjoy lunch at the lovely open-air Italian restaurant there. There are also many other restaurants in this area. Try the local specialty – breaded, deep-fried wakasagi (smelt) caught in Lake Ashi.
After visiting the shrine, head back to the boat docks for a cruise across Lake Ashi by pirate ship. At the port of Togendai, transfer to the Hakone Ropeway. Get off the ropeway at Owakudani and walk out to steaming sulfur pools. Enjoy an egg boiled there and add seven years to your life!
Continue on the ropeway from Owakudani to Sounzan and transfer to the cable car. Ride the cable car to Gora. If it is autumn, consider getting off at Koen-kami Station to visit the Hakone Museum of Art, famous for the vibrant red leaves that contrast with its moss garden.
In Gora, board the Hakone Tozan train. If you’ve been sightseeing at a fast pace and still have time, consider a visit to Hakone’s most famous museum, Chokoku-no-mori, also called the Hakone Open Air Museum.
The terminus of the Tozan Line is Hakone Yumoto. The main street is lined with souvenir shops, restaurants, and cafes. Or, visit a lovely outdoor onsen before heading back to Tokyo by disembarking at Tonosawa Station. Follow the short trail through the forest to Hakone Yuryo. After bathing, catch their free shuttle to Hakone Yumoto Station.
It is impossible to see all the sights mentioned above in one day, so it is important to pick and choose what most interests you. How much you can see will also depend on your pace. Stay a night or two to see everything mentioned and more!