If like me you sometimes need a change of scenery or you just want to create some invaluable memories and awesome photos… Then you’ve probably stumbled across both Hakone and Nikko. If you’ve ever wondered which of the two is better for you, you’ve come to the right place.
For most, Hakone is the best choice. Lake Ashi is unforgettable with the infamous views of Mt Fuji and the lake’s torii gate. Located only a short drive from the Five Lakes, you could easily spend a few nights in Hakone. With the activities available and the majestic views, Hakone is unbeatable.
Of course the answer is totally subjective and if you’ve already seen Mt Fuji in the flesh, Nikko could be the place for you. Both are gems in their own right and offer similar experiences so let’s take a look at each of them so you can decide which is right for you!
What to do in Hakone
- Lake Ashinoko – If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll witness one of the best possible views of Mount Fuji from here. If not, you’ll still be in one of the most atmospheric places imaginable. Whether you’re taking a sightseeing cruise, kayaking, walking or cycling around the lake, you’re in for a treat. As an added bonus, the Hakone Hotel has romantic lakeside views and a great breakfast to boot… I recommend staying the night if you get the chance!
- Hakone Shrine – The shrine’s most famous ‘entrance’ is the torii gate in Lake Ashinoko. If you visit on a weekday, you should be able to get some good photos of the gate without it being too busy. The actual shrine is a short walk up the steps from the torii gate and is well worth the trek.
- Hakone Tozan Railway – Get a unique ride on Japan’s oldest railway. These tiny pieces of history link Odawara to Gora and stop at 11 stations. The trains are slow and offer spectacular views through the mountains. Between the bridges, tunnels and steep climbs you may want to enjoy both the ascent and descent routes of this amazing little railway.
- Hakone Onsen – With over 10 hot spring sources, Hakone is brimming with onsen. There are private onsen available for those of you who are uncomfortable being naked around strangers, or there’s also Hakone Kowakien Yunessun where you can wear bathing suits. I was initially skeptical about the benefits of essentially sitting in hot water but give it a go, it’s deeply relaxing and enjoyable.
- The Hakone Open Air Museum – Walk the grounds of the museum and experience sculpture overload. You can easily spend anywhere from a couple of hours to a full day here, especially if you’re a fan of Picasso. There’s an indoor activity area for kids and a restaurant, whether you’re excited by artistic sculptures or not, this highly rated museum is worth a visit.
Hakone: The ‘bad’ stuff!
If you plan on visiting during the holiday season or the weekend in summer it can be especially busy. Your time would be much better spent if you travel during the week or slightly off season if possible.
That being said, it shouldn’t affect your experience too much… I visited with my partner during Golden Week and we had an incredible time!
How to get to Hakone and how many nights you should stay
The easiest way to remember for people coming from either Tokyo or Osaka is to take the Shinkansen to Odawara station. From Odawara station, you can easily get a number of buses to either the southern or northern ends of Lake Ashi depending on your needs.
To get the most out of Hakone you’re going to want to stay for at least 2 nights, or 3 if you want to go at a relaxed pace. Some crazy people visit just as a day trip from Tokyo (maybe they enjoy the stress of trying to take a thousand photos for Instagram and missing all the fun?) so if you’re a crammer one night will do!
What to do in Nikko
- Edo Wonderland – Travel back in time and become an Edo period samurai or princess for the day. Dress as a lord and feel the respect of the commoners. Find out how it felt to live in the Edo period by trying out a few jobs or kick back and enjoy one of the live shows. Edo Wonderland is a great day out for the family and while it is a little expensive at ¥4,800 per adult and ¥2,500 per child for admission alone… I’m sure any kid running around in a ninja outfit would agree it’s worth it! (The costumes range from ¥2,000 to ¥9,000)
- Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine – The shrine was built in honor of Tokuwaga Ieyasu, one of the Great Unifiers of Japan. Tosho-gu shrine is made up of many buildings, the most noteworthy being the Five Story Pagoda that was destroyed and also rebuilt in the 1800s. Another popular attraction is the carving of the Three Wise Monkeys, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” and the “imagined elephants” carving where the artist had never seen a real elephant before.
- The waterfalls of Nikko – Nikko is blessed with four impressive landmarks, the Kegon, Yudaki, Ryuzu and Kirifuri waterfalls. If you plan on visiting all 4, you can buy a 2 day unlimited bus pass for ¥3000. I’d recommend seeing at least the most popular Kegon Falls if you were only going to see one as it’s located right beside a charming village with plenty of restaurants and cafe’s in the area… It’s also right near Lake Chuzenji!
- Lake Chuzenji – When looking at this idyllic lake, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was in Switzerland. At the base of the volcanic Mount Nantai, Lake Chuzenji is surrounded by mountains and sets the perfect scene for outdoor activities in the summer months. From walking trails to kayaking, if you love the outdoors you’ll certainly love this area. There are quite a few reasonably priced lakeside hotels with onsen here so it’s the perfect location to stay overnight.
Nikko: The ‘bad’ stuff
Much like Hakone, the holiday season and weekends can get busy in Nikko.
There’s also not as many ‘famous’ photo spots as other areas in Japan… Because of that, there’s a lot less international tourists than you might expect so maybe this isn’t actually a bad point at all!
How to get to Nikko and how many nights you should stay
The fastest way from Tokyo is to use the Tobu line from Asakusa to Tobu Nikko station. To go direct from Asakusa, use the Kegon trains. These cost about ¥2,860 and take just shy of 2 hours each way. Other trains are cheaper but require up to 3 changes so I can’t recommend them unless you’re on a budget!
As for how many nights you should stay in Nikko… I’m going to recommend 2 again. If you want to fit everything worthwhile in, 2 nights should give you plenty of time to do that.
Why you should stay in Hakone over Nikko
Hakone simply put, is near so many iconic spots when you think of Japan that it’s the winner hands down. It gives a little bit of everything… History, culture, nature, time to relax, outdoor activities.
I’m not saying Nikko is a bad option at all. If you go you’ll have an amazing time.
I’m just saying that for the vast majority of you, Hakone is better.