My wife and I are currently taking a couple of weeks holiday in Japan. I’ll post more about some of the urban aspects later but I thought I’d start with a day trip we took to Hakone that ended up in us using eight different forms of transport.

We were staying in Tokyo in Harajuku so the first step was to get to Shinagawa. Staying only a couple of minutes walk from the local station and then super frequent services every couple of minutes on the busy Yamanote Line – which stops at Shinagawa – this step was easy.

According to the fountain of knowledge that is Wikipedia:

  • The Yamanote Line is a circle line around central Tokyo linking many of key destinations, playing a similar role to the Inner Link in Auckland but on a much larger and busier scale. According to that fount of knowledge that is Wikipedia, it is one of the busiest lines in the world with an estimated 3.6 million trips every day. That’s more people than the entire London Underground carries (3.4 million a day). Tokyo’s fairly extensive subway network is mostly located within the ring of the Yamanote Line
  • Harajuku station is a fairly simple affair with just a fairly narrow island platform. Even so it is estimated that over 70,000 people use it daily, that’s more than our entire rail network on a busy weekday.

After a brief 16 minute journey, we were at Shinagawa and from here we could transfer to a high speed Shinkansen to allow us to cover the 70km distance to Odawara in just 27 minutes, reaching top speeds in places of around 270km/h.

  • The Tokaido Shinkansen line – between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka – is the busiest (and most profitable) high-speed line in the world. Every day more than 430,000 trips are taken on it. There are multiple service patterns that run and has have trains in each direction every few minutes
  • Shinkansen on some lines can reach over 300km/h and the Chuo Skinkansen (maglev) under construction is expected to run at over 500km/h



At Odawara we purchased a pass allowing us to use all other different transport modes listed below. We transferred to small local railway to start our journey up into the hills to the town of Hakone-Yumoto. This train is effectively run as a shuttle service following a river valley up to the hills and taking only 15 minutes with a couple of stops along the way. From about 26m above sea level at Odwara, Hakone-Yumoto sits at 108m. It was a midday on a Saturday and the service was fairly busy, like a morning peak in Auckland.


Upon reaching Hakone-Yumoto it was a short hop along the platform to change to the Hokone-Tozan Mountain Railway. The three car trains that are used are able to climb up the steep sides of the mountains at grades of up to 8% (rising 1m for every 12m travelled) but it definitely doesn’t do so very fast with speeds of only around 15km/h. It takes about 40 minutes to cover 8.9km and along the way there are a handful of stops at mountain villages. There were a couple of switchbacks along the way to help it get up the mountain and which also served to allow trains to pass trains heading in the opposite direction. Winding through the steep bush clad hills the railway was apparently designed to be as hidden as possible.


The train was full of passengers for the ride up to 553m above sea level at the town of Gora.


At Gora it was a transfer to a furnicular for a trip up the side of the steep mountain. This is about 1.2km over which it rises 214m to Sōunzan. The transfer from the mountain train to the furnicular is easy and part of the same building.


At the top of the furnicular it was then a transfer to a gondola to reach even higher up the mountain to the tourist area of Ōwakudani.


Ōwakudani is a geothermal hotspot and is famous for the cooking eggs in the sulphuric hot springs which turns the shells black.

Not a scene from Lord of the Rings but works to stabilise the side of the mountain
The shell might be black but they still taste like normal eggs

From the side of the mountain it is also a great spot on a good day to get views of Mt Fuji. It just so happened we had a great day for it.


After bite to eat it was time to continue and a second gondola takes riders down to Tōgendai on the edge of Lake Ashi. From there we transferred to one of three pirate ship themed ferries that run along the lake. I have no idea why they are themed as pirate ships but they are. We also had some fortuitous timing, the ferries only run every 40 minutes and we arrived with about a minute to spare, a perfect un-timed transfer.


At the other end of the lake was Moto-Hakone where we took a quick break before boarding the last new mode of the day, a bus. It also happened to be the least enjoyable because it was a small bus, smaller than the stupid small ADL buses NZ Bus use, and was also completely packed with people. They seemed to have a moto that you can always fit one more person on – although even that had its limits. This wasn’t helped by the buses only running ever half an hour and meant that some people got left behind. To go with the cramped conditions, the route was through some mountainous terrain with steep hills and frequent sharp bends.

After getting very personable with others on the bus for about 45 minutes – especially when someone sitting at the back wanted to get off – we arrived back in Hakone Yumoto. From there it was simply a reverse of the first three legs to get back home.

Here is a quick map of the journey


Back at Odawara we had a little wait for our Shinkansen back to Tokyo. The stations are each designed with at least four tracks so that stopping services don’t hold up ones that aren’t stopping. While waiting a number of services in each direction flew past at speed

Scenery wise, it is very reminiscent of various places around the centre of the North Island, which is why I guess Hakone has a sister city relationship with Taupo.

It was mostly just a day of travelling but it was enjoyable and despite not really being planned and using lots of different services, the transfers seemed to work fairly well. I know a few readers have done this trip too, if you have, what did you think of it.

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  1. There is also a limited express train that runs from Shinjuku, the busiest train station in the world, direct to Hakone-Yumoto. However it is a private line not covered by a JR pass.

  2. I see they use 2 standard gauges ,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) gauge and 1,067 mm (3 ft, 6 in) gauge the same gauge we use in NZ, I suppose the wider gauge is for high speed something we could do if we were to rebuild a rail network, probably we couldn’t afford it now we have lashed out billions on roads.

    1. Yeah there is a mix. Most of the network is 1067. The shinkansen and some private lines use standard gauge. The tracks to Hakone-yumoto were 1067 but the mountain rail was standard

        1. Each metro line can be different. Some are 1067, some standard, don’t investigation revealed it depends on the route and whether they could link them to private lines allowing for some through services which I imagine helps provide revenue

          1. The Shinjuku Line is the traditional Japanese gauge of 1372mm (4’6″) gauge to provide through running with the Keio Corporation’s lines to the west of Tokyo, as are the two remaining tram lines. All other metro lines are 1067mm or 1435mm, most with through running at one or both ends.

            Robert Schwandl’s Metros & Trams In Japan volume 1, Tokyo Region, is an excellent guide to the astonishingly complex network. His other similar books covering Europe, North America and Australasia (inc. NZ!) are also valuable works of reference –

  3. The Odakyu Odawara Line from Shinjuku is the way I always travel down to Hakone, as it requires no transfers until Hakone-Yumoto and if you go by Romance Car, you can ride right up the front of the train with a full 180 degree view of the track / scenery ahead. The Hakone-Tozan Line is one of my favourite rail routes, the way it snakes up the mountain sides. Its worth a stop off at Chokoku no Mori to see the Open Air Art Museum. Another out of town trip worth doing Matt, is the Keio Line from Shinjuku to Takaosanguchi and then the chairlift from there up Mt Takao. The temple on the top of Mt Takao, the view of the mountains and surrounds, together with the overall spirituality of the place, makes it a worthwhile journey and Mt Takao is a hell of a lot closer to Tokyo than Hakone…and cheaper to get there / back.

  4. Could you do a follow up post on the private train lines? Coming from NZ where all train lines are public I’d like to learn more about this concept.

    TRM has been on the Shanghai Maglev and it’s pretty cool travelling past the motorway with cars going at 100kmph looking like they’re standing still. Not a cheap piece of technology I’m sure but certainly has some get up and go.

    1. From what I understand, all lines in Japan are effectively privately owned after the the former national railways we split up and sold off in the 80s but many still see the various JR companies as a national entity. Some of the metros seem more like our CCOs though. The private lines referred to are the ones not other by a JR company. One big difference is Japan’s 0% interest rates and no set repayment periods so capital costs are less of an issue.

      Also the private lines are often only one part of a larger business I.e. Okadyu which runs the Hakone transport is a massive conglomerate with many different aspects leveraged off and working with the rail arm. At their main station at Shinjuku they have a massive mall development.

      1. Indeed, all lines in Japan are now effectively privately owned, but there is still a large amount of government influence on all railway operations, a clear example being on fare levels.
        One way to understand how private lines are still distinct from JR lines is that private lines have been in private hands for much longer, so have a much deeper level of integration with development activities in their areas. They tend to be heavily involved with real estate development along their lines such as by owning and developing the land around stations for commercial and real estate use, running attractions (e.g. theme parks, sports teams) along their lines to attract riders from other areas, etc. etc. (The revenues from these stable. long-term developments then fuelled growth into many other activities.)
        As part of this tendency, private lines tend to have more stations than JR lines, presumably to maximise their real estate development opportunities from an early stage.
        As development along many JR lines had already occurred when the national railways were privatised in 1987, there were fewer opportunities for the newly privatised JR companies to do so (though they have made some amazing developments in the land they do have, such as main stations and old railway yards, and a few housing developments on infill stations.)
        I’m sure Matt and Rob can develop this more coherently, but hopefully this gives TRM an idea 🙂

        1. Even the JR companies make around 50% of their revenue from non-rail activities. As you said the major stations almost always have a shopping mall or two, offices and possibly a hotel.

          When I was in Osaka a couple of years ago they were clearing the rail yard next to Osaka station (already full of shopping and offices) for a new development. Thankfully they left the old underpass in place so you could get across the worksite.

          For the private companies as Matt said are even further along this path. Tokyo Sky Tree, the tallest building, is owned by one of the private lines and a station on one of the lines owned by that company. As you can’t buy tickets for the Sky Tree online without a Japanese credit card the only way most tourists can skip the long ticket queue is to buy a ticket from the terminal station on that line, which includes a day pass for the line.

    2. From what I understand, all lines in Japan are effectively privately owned after the the former national railways we split up and sold off in the 80s but many still see the various JR companies as a national entity. Some of the metros seem more like our CCOs though. The private lines referred to are the ones not other by a JR company. One big difference is Japan’s 0% interest rates and no set repayment periods so capital costs are less of an issue

  5. Oh and Matt, if you have time, go check out a J.League football game while you’re there.
    Even if you’re not into the game itself, seeing thousands of people moving efficiently by PT before and after is inspiring that we can do better here in Auckland. Stadium food is much better in Japan too.
    Here’s the schedule
    This Saturday (tomorrow) at 2PM is good match card.
    FC Tokyo vs Kashima should be a good game between two big teams, and at Tobitakyu Station is not far from you down the Keio Line from Shinjuku which Rob referred to.
    Alternatively, if you wanted to see the cavernous Nissan Stadium (at Shin-Yokohama Shinkansen stop you would have passed through the other day) used for the 2002 football World Cup final and planned to be used for the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, Yokohama F Marinos are playing Gamba Osaka, two more big teams.
    Or for a smaller scale J.League experience, Yokohama FC are playing Thespa Kusatsu Gunma (who used to be based ina hot springs resort!) at1PM Sunday at the compact and intimate Yokohama Mitsuzawa Stadium. Enjoy!

    1. Otherwise Matt, if you’re heading down Hiroshima way, baseball teams Nippon Ham and Hiroshima Carp are playing at the Mazda Stadium on 29 & 30 Oct…should be good games! Baseball and PT network development in Japan have a longstanding shared history.

  6. Many of the private Japanese railway operators tend to also be department store companies, the likes of Tokyu, Hankyu, Odakyu etc. They got into the rail business in order to be able to transport customers from the suburbs/countryside to the department stores that were at the hub and then as the cities have grown they’ve been more active in developments at local stations.

    Hakone is a lovely place 🙂 and such an easy trip from Tokyo either by train or as I did a couple of years ago by car.

  7. Personally Japan is great when it comes to PT…we should model our train network off theirs…Maybe try the peak hour trains and see how it is a testament to the success of their system

  8. I have booked romance car from shinjuku. lucky enough to get front seat.I hope the day is clear and I can see mount Fujji. very excited about Hakone.

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