The small town of Hakone sits in the heart of the hilly Fuji-Hakone-Izu national park, in Kanagawa Prefecture. Its emblematic Shinto shrine, on the shores of lake Ashi, has a bright red torii (gate) that rises from the water like a symbolic gateway to the world of the sacred.
Famous for its onsen (hot springs), to most, Japanese Hakone is a spa town. Fortunately, being situated as little as an hour and a half away by train, a Hakone day trip is an easy getaway from Tokyo.
Nestled in and around Hakone are a number of art museums housing classic art from Japan and the Far East, a Picasso exhibition, and sculptures by Rodin, among others.
While a Hakone day trip is enjoyable, a single day is barely long enough to experience more than a fraction of what the town has to offer, and many visitors choose to stay overnight.
One of the most pleasurable ways to spend a night anywhere in Japan is in a traditional inn, or ryokan. In Japan, ryokans are an institution and Hakone ryokans do not let the side down. They offer accommodation in spacious tatami rooms and provide delicious Japanese food to suit all palates. Each ryokan has its own history and distinct feel. The Yoshiike ryokan, for example, is set in a large Japanese garden, while the Yamadaya is 2,625 feet (800 meters) above sea level, with a view over the valley.
Interestingly, before Hakone became a home to art museums, it was an inspiration for artists. In 1832, the painter Hiroshige traveled the Tokaido, or the ‘Eastern Sea Route’, the famous road linking Tokyo to Kyoto and which passes through Hakone.
Altogether, Hiroshige painted 53 stations of Japan’s famous post towns—towns where travelers would spend the night before continuing along their journey—on the Tokaido. The 11th is Hakone; his print, Hakone-juku, depicts a mountain with steep sides above a blue lake.
What to do in Hakone
Once accommodation is secured, you’re ready to enjoy the attractions of Hakone. The town offers a surprising variety of activities, from visits to old tea houses, the shrine, and tricycle rickshaw tours to hiking and mountain biking, via dressing up in a kimono. But while onsen, ryokan, and shrines are ubiquitous in Japan, what truly makes Hakone special are its extraordinary museums.
The Hakone Open-Air Museum is one of the most popular, perhaps because visitors can stroll around with the mountains as a backdrop while enjoying the colorful sculptures of masters such as Rodin and Calder. Or maybe because it also includes a Picasso pavilion, housing one of the largest collections of the artist’s work.
Almost more unexpected than stumbling upon a Picasso gallery in the shadow of Mount Fuji (the mountain is across the lake from Hakone), is the collection at the Venetian Glass Museum. This exhibition center showcases Venetian glass art from the 15th to 18th centuries. Glasswork techniques and more modern pieces are also on display, with a garden and restaurants for taking a break from glass-gazing.
Then there’s the Pola Museum of Art, which has an impressionist gallery housing works by Monet, Manet, Chagall, and other French impressionists, while the Little Prince Museum tells the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince within the setting of a French townscape and European garden. Truly, the museums of Hakone and its surroundings are not short of surprises!
To round off this exploration of unexpected art spaces, mention must be made of the truly mind-blowing Enoura observatory.
The town of Odawara, in western Kanagawa, backs onto the Hakone mountains. The natural heritage site where the observatory stands overlooks Sagami Bay. “Enoura Observatory” is the name given to the entire complex of buildings that make up the Odawara Art Foundation—an art gallery, garden, tea house, stone stage, and other spaces—designed by the master architect Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Compared to the Open-Air Museum, which fills its space in a riot of colour, the Enoura Observatory, built mainly using natural materials with traditional Japanese building styles and methods, blends harmoniously into the landscape in pastel shades.
The valley of Owakudani is one of the most famous tourist attractions in the Hakone area. Getting there is a minor adventure, since it involves taking a train, a cable car and then a ropeway.
To add to the amazement, the sulfurous Owakudani springs are used to cook hard-boiled eggs, which emerge from the water blackened. The eggs are said to extend life—which is most fortunate, since the noxious gases the sulfur vents produce does not—and are readily available for anyone willing to try.
Although the air can be hazy with the smell of sulphur on some days, good weather brings clear views of Mount Fuji and the site is postcard-perfect—it no doubt would have enchanted Hiroshige, and been worthy of his paper and brush.
The art in the shadow of Mount Fuji rivals the sculptures and installations on Japan’s art islands. Even the Enoura Observatory, for all its current functions, was originally a piece of land art itself. Few areas in the country, or perhaps even the world, bring together such a range and variety of art exhibits as Hakone, Japan. Herein, perhaps, lies its diversity and appeal.
Learn more about the unique art and culture you can find in the Land of the Rising Sun with our Japan Travel Guide.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.