Parks Beyond Borders: Take the Romance Train To Valentine’s Day In A World-Class National Park

Hop on board for Hakone National Park (top to bottom). The "Ropeway" cablecar over to Lake Ashi is one of the multimodal mass transit venues that make up the Hakone "Sightseeing Course." I tackled the hike to Mt Kami and was inspired by the misty scenery. The Mt. Kami trail sign had a little English. "Onsen" spa facilities (like this one at Yumoto Fujiya Hotel) are available at almost any hotel you choose along the route that circles Hakone. I peeked into spirit houses on the Kami Trail. The steamboat ferry gave me one of those "global goofiness" moments. All photos by Randy Johnson.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, who wouldn’t lean toward cuddling up with someone special for a "Romancecar" train ride to a spectacular national park, especially one known for outdoorsy options where spas and great food are part of the program.

That’s what you get when you zip out of Tokyo for a multimodal loop of Hakone National Park (pronounced Ha-Cone-Ay), one of the great national parks in the world that’s easily accessible by mass transit from a capital city. Best of all, the fact that the trip starts from a multilingual tourist service office right by the railroad tracks makes it a no-brainer to tackle a national park trip in a country not always known for easy travel—if you don’t speak Japanese!

Tokyo Schmokyo

Granted—the passionate park visitor—may not jet off to Tokyo to do this tomorrow. But hey—more and more people travel—and one trip to Japan will convince you how many Americans and other international visitors end up there on trips for business. Whether or not your spouse ever joins you, and many do, it’s easy to fall in love with tacking on a fast national park adventure to your next business trip.

Here’s How—and Why

Japan is a land defined by its mountains. Even sprawling Tokyo can’t avert its eyes from Mount Fuji, floating over the haze on clear days. If you’re visiting and want to head for the hills, don’t be cowed by the city’s congestion. Mass transit makes it easy for the adventurous to quickly find themselves afoot. As I discovered, Hakone National Park and even Fuji itself are accessible breakaways.

Hakone is 90 minutes southwest of the city. A trip out to the park and back is doable in a day from Tokyo thanks to high-speed rail, a mountain-climbing train, aerial cable cars, buses, and ferries—all employed on a single, spectacular, circuitous visit. But if you don’t want to join the mass of locals who are moving ever onward via this popular motorized “course” of Hakone (the circuit I mentioned), you can pause at key points and spend the night along the way. If so inclined, it’s easy to find quiet trails that lead to mountaintops where Shinto shrines sit in the vaporous ebb and flow of fog.

To start your getaway, catch a cab or a train to Tokyo’s Shinjuku station. Japanese department stores started rail lines to bring in customers, so the Odakyu line to Hakone begins beneath the towering Odakyu department store (perfect for last-minute trail and travel items). I bought a knee brace there, festooned with Japanese writing. Despite expecting to use it the next day, I could not dissuade the service-oriented sales staff from their polite and polished hand-wrapping of my purchase.

We Speak Your Language

Shinjuku’s English-speaking Odakyu Sightseeing Service Center is right downstairs. The attentive staff (they also speak Korean, Chinese, Russian ...) can answer all sorts of questions and provide a hiking map and the all-inclusive Hakone Free Pass transportation ticket (a great deal explained here). It is NOT free, it just frees you up to skip like a stone easily on your way through the circuit of this park. The Ltd. Express Romance Car train is steps away and takes you to the first transfer at the mountain hot-spring spa town of Hakone Yumoto.

It is particularly easy to stretch a one-day circuit into a perfect three-day weekend. A variety of hotels participate in packages that are also available at the service center. Many who make Hakone Yumoto their base, or stop there along the way, stroll the bridge across the rocky, emerald-green river from the railroad station to take a cliffside elevator up to the Fujiya Hotel.

That’s where I stayed—sadly without a significant other. Nevertheless, I wined and dined, I mean, “Saki’ed” and dined, myself for a great evening. My package at the Yumoto Fujiya Hotel included a wonderful Japanese meal (the kind you have to go to Japan to find). This multi-course meal, fastidiously prepared—but modestly portioned—was a truly Japanese experience. This wasn’t the Kaiseki full-gourmet meal you’d find at an astronomical price in Hawaii or elsewhere in the United States. It was just a memorably diverse Japanese dinner. It and Yumoto Fujiya Hotel were a highlight of my trip.

Japanese hotels in the park area are also known for their indoor and outdoor hot-spring public baths—onsen. I hadn’t even taken my first hike—but I took my first onsen bath before turning in.

Next Train On

The switchbacking, gorge-straddling Hakone Tozan Train was my next vehicle, headed up the valley to the small touristy hamlet of Gora. A mountain-climbing cable car train took me to tiny Sounzan. A variety of trails originate along the course route—maps have walking times and directions to the trail from the station. The map brochure also indicates when each train or conveyance stops running.

From Sounzan station, I strolled 100 feet to a trail bound for nearby Mount Kami. This hike was straight up but worth it as I climbed into mist-shrouded, exotic vegetation and passed shrines along the way. The trail leaps up to a cloud-bound summit, an excellent leg workout for my next target—Mount Fuji. I could sniff the sulphur being emitted by a nearby volcano, Owakudani. My post-hike lunch was a local specialty: sulfurous-smelling eggs, hard-boiled black in the volcano’s vents.

Back at Sounzan, the “ropeways” came next: aerial cable cars like those seen at many of the world’s ski areas. The lifts were “destroyed” by special effects in the 2001 movie battle between Godzilla and Baragon. Now nicely intact, they soar over the mountaintop above steaming volcanic vents (also reachable on foot). The ride ended on Lake Ashi, where I hopped on a kitschy pirate ship ferry to cruise to the other end of the lake. On the way, we passed the inspiring red torii of the Hakone Shrine that seemed to float near the shore. Believe it or not, there’s was another ferry—a Mississippi River–style sternwheeler—incongruously flying a Japanese flag.

Every stop on the Hakone circuit touts attractions—the Steamed Fish Paste Museum and the Gotemba Sports Car Garden are among many that are offbeat and intriguing. But at the far end of the lake, don’t miss the Hakone Checkpoint and the avenue of cedars, landmarks for 17th-century travelers along the Tokaido Highway between Tokyo and Kyoto.

The Hakone Free Pass affords unlimited on-and-off transport everywhere, even to remote trailheads. From the lake, a bus heads back to Hakone Yumoto, where it’s another foolproof connection for a Romance Car ride to Tokyo.

More than One Park

Rather than being a specific spot, Hakone is one of a five park complex west and south of Tokyo that includes Mount Fuji. Wikipedia describes it as “a collection of dispersed tourist sites that dot the region.” The broader park “includes a variety of geographic features including natural hot springs, coastlines, mountainous areas, lakes, and more than 1000 volcanic islands. Vegetation in the park ranges from species of mountainous trees to subtropical.” The park is “one of the first four national parks established in Japan ... Due to its proximity to the Tokyo metropolis and ease of transportation, it is the most visited national park in all Japan.”

Quite A Circuit

The great thing about Hakone’s “model sightseeing course” is that for an international visitor, its “no-brainer” easy to just follow the various forms of transportation, immerse in the scenery and culture, check out the attractions—and you’re back in Tokyo with a wonderful taste of Japan’s national parks.

Maybe the best thing? If the weather’s right, and in early spring it often is, the massive snowcapped cone of Mount Fuji floats in the near distance, leaving no doubt which country you’re in and which of the world’s most iconic mountains you’re gazing at. It’s hard to find a better view of Fuji than from the closest national park to Tokyo.

And it’s only better if you share it with your valentine.

Take the “Course”

Don’t miss a simulated tour of the course with a great map found at the Odakyu Website. Scroll down and the photos and descriptions do a great job of recreating how exciting, and easy, this national park experience is. Put yourself in the front seat of the Romancecar in this very cool movie.