If you decide to spend only 1 day in Hakone, you should leave Tokyo very early in the morning and plan on visiting just a few key attractions -- I recommend the Hakone Open-Air Museum, Owakudani Nature Trail, and, if time permits, Hakone Check Point and/or Narukawa Art Museum. Keep in mind that most forms of transportation (like the ropeway), as well as museums, close at 5pm.
If you're spending the night -- and I strongly urge that you do -- you can arrange your itinerary in a more leisurely fashion and devote more time to Hakone's attractions. You may wish to travel only as far as your hotel the first day, stopping at sights along the way and in the vicinity. The next day you could continue with the rest of the circuit through Hakone. Or you can opt to complete most of your sightseeing the first day, and then backtrack to your accommodations or reach it by bus from Togendai, Hakone-machi, or Moto-Hakone.
Odakyu Train to Hakone
Regardless of whether you travel via the Odakyu Romance Car or the ordinary Odakyu Express, your train will stop at Odawara Station, considered the gateway to Hakone. If you've never seen a Japanese castle and won't have another opportunity to see one, consider visiting Odawara Castle, Odawara Joshi-koen (tel. 0465/23-1373). A 10-minute walk from Odawara Station (take the east exit out of the station and turn right), this three-tiered, four-story castle dates from the 1500s, was dismantled in 1870 by the Meiji government because of its associations with the shogun regime, and was rebuilt in 1960. Its keep contains a small historical museum relating to the castle, including models of castles, palanquins used to transport people up and down mountains during the Edo Period, mirrors, Noh masks, lacquerware, and samurai armor and weapons. The tower affords a panoramic view of the surrounding park (which contains a free, small zoo). You can see it all in less than 30 minutes. Admission is ¥400 for adults and ¥150 for children. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm.
Scenic Railway to Gora
At Hakone Yumoto Station, the end stop on the Odakyu train, transfer to the Hakone Tozan Railway, in operation since 1919. This delightful, mountain-climbing, three-car electric tram winds its way through forests and over streams and ravines as it travels upward to Gora, making several switchbacks along the way. The entire trip from Hakone Yumoto Station to Gora takes only 40 minutes, but the ride through the mountains is beautiful, and this is my favorite part of the whole journey. The railway, which runs every 10 to 15 minutes, makes about a half-dozen stops before reaching Gora, including Tonosawa and Miyanoshita, two hot-spring spa resorts with a number of old ryokan and hotels. Some of the ryokan date back several centuries, to the days when they were on the main thoroughfare to Edo, called the old Tokaido Highway. Miyanoshita is the best place for lunch.
For relaxing hot-spring bathing en route, pay a visit to the thoroughly modern, sophisticated public bath called Hakone Kowakien Yunessun (tel. 0460/82-4126; www.yunessun.com/english). To reach it, disembark from the Hakone Tozan Railway at Kowakudani and then take a 15-minute taxi or bus ride (bus stop: Kowaki-en). This self-described "Hot Springs Amusement Park & Spa Resort" offers a variety of both indoor and outdoor family baths, which means you wear your bathing suit. In addition to indoor Turkish, Roman, and salt baths, there's also a children's play area with slides and a large outdoor area with a variety of small baths, including those mixed with healthy minerals and -- I am not making this up -- coffee, green tea, sake, and wine. For those who desire more traditional bathing, there's the Mori No Yu, with both indoor and outdoor baths separated for men and women (you don't wear your suit here). Most people who come stay 2 to 3 hours. Admission is ¥3,500 to Yunessun, ¥1,800 to Mori No Yu, or ¥4,000 to both; if you have a Hakone Free Pass, you'll pay ¥2,800, ¥1,400, or ¥3,200, respectively. Children pay half-fare. Upon admission, you'll be given a towel, robe, and wristband to pay for drinks and extras (rental suits are available), so you can leave all valuables in your assigned locker. Yunessun is open daily 9am to 7pm March to October, 9am to 6pm in November to February; Mori No Yu is open 9am to 9pm year-round.
The most important stop on the Hakone Tozan Railway is the next-to-the-last stop, Chokoku-no-Mori, where you'll find the famous Hakone Open-Air Museum (Chokoku-no-Mori Bijutsukan) (tel. 0460/82-1161; www.hakone-oam.or.jp), a minute's walk from the station. With the possible exception of views of Mount Fuji, this museum is, in my opinion, Hakone's number-one attraction. Using nature as a dramatic backdrop, it showcases sculpture primarily of the 20th century in a spectacular setting of glens, formal gardens, ponds, and meadows. There are 400 sculptures on display, both outdoors and in several buildings, with works by Carl Milles, Manzu Giacomo, Jean Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning, Barbara Hepworth, and Joan Miró, as well as more than 25 pieces by Henry Moore, shown on a rotating basis. The Picasso Pavilion contains works by Picasso from pastels to ceramics (it's one of the world's largest collections) and photographs of the artist's last 17 years of life taken by David Douglas Duncan. The Picture Gallery is devoted to changing exhibitions. Several installations geared toward children allow them to climb and play. I could spend all day here; barring that, count on staying at least 2 hours. Be sure to stop off at the "foot onsen" near the Picture Gallery, where you can immerse your tired feet in soothing, hot-spring water. The museum is open daily 9am to 5pm; admission is ¥1,600 adults, ¥1,100 university and high-school students and seniors, and ¥800 children. Your Hakone Free Pass gives you a ¥200 discount.
By Cable Car to Sounzan
Cable cars leave Gora every 20 minutes or so and arrive 9 minutes later at the end station of Sounzan, making several stops along the way as they travel steeply uphill. One of the stops is Koen-Kami, from which it's only a minute's walk to the Hakone Museum of Art (tel. 0460/82-2623). This five-room museum displays Japanese pottery and ceramics from the Jomon Period (around 4000-2000 B.C.) to the Edo Period, including terra-cotta haniwa burial figures, huge 16th-century Bizen jars, and Imari ware. What makes this place particularly rewarding are the bamboo grove and small but lovely moss garden, shaded by Japanese maples, with a teahouse where you can sample Japanese tea for ¥630. It is most beautiful in autumn. Open Friday through Wednesday from 9:30am to 4:30pm (to 4pm Dec-Mar); admission is ¥900 for adults, ¥700 for seniors, ¥400 for university and high-school students, and free for children. The Hakone Free Pass gives you a ¥200 discount. Plan on spending about a half-hour here, more if you opt for tea.
By Ropeway to Togendai
From Sounzan, you board a ropeway with gondolas for a long, 30-minute haul over a mountain to Togendai on the other side, which lies beside Lake Ashi, known as Lake Ashinoko in Japanese. Note that the ropeway stops running at around 5:15pm in summer and 4pm in winter.
Before reaching Togendai, however, get off at Owakudani, the ropeway's highest point, to hike the 30-minute Owakudani Nature Trail. Owakudani means "Great Boiling Valley," and you'll soon understand how it got its name when you see (and smell) the sulfurous steam escaping from fissures in the rock, testimony to the volcanic activity still present here. Most Japanese commemorate their trip by buying boiled eggs, cooked here in the boiling waters, available at the small hut midway along the trail.
Across Lake Ashi by Boat
From Togendai you can take a pleasure boat across Lake Ashi, also referred to as "Lake Hakone" in some English-language brochures. Believe it or not, a couple of the boats plying the waters are replicas of a man-of-war pirate ship. It takes about half an hour to cross the lake to Hakone-machi (also called simply Hakone; machi means "city") and Moto-Hakone, two resort towns right next to each other on the southern edge of the lake. This end of the lake affords the best view of Mount Fuji, one often depicted in tourist publications. Boats are in operation year-round (though they run less frequently in winter and not at all in stormy weather); the last boat departs around 5pm from the end of March to the end of November. Otherwise, buses connect Togendai with Moto-Hakone, Odawara, and Shinjuku.
After the boat ride, if you're heading back to Tokyo, buses depart for Odawara near the boat piers in both Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone. Otherwise, for more sightseeing, get off the boat in Hakone-machi, turn left, and walk about 5 minutes on the town's main road, following the signs and turning left to Hakone Check Point (Hakone Seki-sho) (tel. 0460/83-6635), on a road lined with souvenir shops. This is a reconstructed guardhouse originally built in 1619 to serve as a checkpoint along the famous Tokaido Highway, which connected Edo (present-day Tokyo) with Kyoto. In feudal days, local lords, called daimyo, were required to spend alternate years in Edo; their wives were kept in Edo as virtual hostages to discourage the lords from planning rebellions while in their homelands. This was one of several points along the highway that guarded against the transport of guns, spies, and female travelers trying to flee Edo. Passes were necessary for travel, and although it was possible to sneak around it, male violators who were caught were promptly executed, while women suffered the indignity of having their heads shaven and then being given away to anyone who wanted them. Inside the reconstructed guardhouse, which was rebuilt on the site of the original checkpoint using traditional carpenter tools and architectural techniques of the Edo Period, you'll see life-size models reenacting scenes inside a checkpoint. A small museum has displays relating to the Edo Period, including items used for travel, samurai armor, and gruesome articles of torture. Open daily from 9am to 5pm (until 4:30pm Dec-Feb); admission is ¥500 for adults and ¥250 for children. Your Hakone Free Pass gives you a ¥100 discount. It shouldn't take more than 20 minutes to see everything.
Just beyond the Hakone Check Point, at the big parking lot with the traditional gate, is the Hakone Detached Palace Garden (Onshi-Hakone-Koen), which lies on a small promontory on Lake Ashi and has spectacular views of the lake and, in clear weather, Mount Fuji. Originally part of an Imperial summer villa built in 1886, the garden is open to the public 24 hours and admission is free. It's a great place for wandering. On its grounds is the Lakeside Observation Building (daily 9am-4:30pm), with displays relating to Hakone Palace, destroyed by earthquakes.
If you take the northernmost exit from the garden, crossing a bridge, you'll see the neighboring resort town, Moto-Hakone down the road. Across the highway and lined with ancient and mighty cedars is part of the old Tokaido Highway itself. During the Edo Period, more than 400 cedars were planted along this important road, which today stretches 2 1/2km (1 1/2 miles) along the curve of Lake Ashi and makes for a pleasant stroll (unfortunately, a modern road has been built right beside the original one). Moto-Hakone is a 5-minute walk from the Detached Palace Garden.
In Moto-Hakone, Narukawa Art Museum (tel. 0460/83-6828; www.narukawamuseum.co.jp) is worthwhile and located just after you enter town, up the hill to the right when you reach the orange torii gate. It specializes in modern works of the Nihonga style of painting, developed during the Heian Period (794-1185) and sparser than Western paintings (which tend to fill in backgrounds and every inch of canvas). Large paintings and screens by contemporary Nihonga artists are on display, including works by Yamamoto Kyujin, Maki Susumu, Kayama Matazo, Hirayama Ikuo, and Hori Fumiko. Changing exhibitions feature younger up-and-coming artists, as well as glassware. I wouldn't miss it; views of Lake Ashi and Mount Fuji are a bonus. Open daily 9am to 5pm; admission is ¥1,200 for adults, ¥900 for high-school and university students, and ¥600 for children.
When You're Done Sightseeing for the Day
Buses depart for Hakone Yumoto and Odawara from both Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone two to four times an hour. Be sure to check the time of the last departure; generally it's around 8pm, but this can change with the season and the day of the week. (The bus also passes The Fujiya Hotel and Ichinoyu, as well as Yunessun hot-spring baths; another bus will take you to Fuji-Hakone Guest House.) Otherwise, the trip from Moto-Hakone takes approximately 30 minutes to Hakone Yumoto and 50 minutes to Odawara, where you can catch the Odakyu train back to Shinjuku.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.