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THE sun sinks behind the misty mountain ranges that surround Kawaguchi-ko, one of five great lakes in the foothills of Mt Fuji. Black-eared kites circle high above the water; the bird’s unique call is all I can hear from the viewing platform on Mt Tenjo. The sleepy calm of this small country town of Fujikawaguchiko in the Yamanashi prefecture (a landlocked cluster of cities about 100 kilometres southwest of Tokyo) refreshes my soul. It’s just what I needed after a lengthy stint in Tokyo.
TOKYO can be quite jarring for first-time visitors. The sea of nameless faces, and the cold indifference of the towering grey buildings can draw the life right from you. When night falls, Tokyo expresses another side of itself that isn’t normally seen, and this side is all the more apparent in the red-light district of Kabukicho. A chilling calm washes the streets, and neon signs flicker to life like fireflies emerging from a riverbank, gangsters show their twisted figures beneath the rainbow of lights, and drunken men with knotted faces stumble from building to building.
Tokyo can show you some of the highest highs of decadence and adventure, but this unyielding city can also wear you down. Thankfully, Mt Fuji and Fujikawakuchiko in its foothills are just a short train ride away.
The perfect city escape
If you plan on doing a lot of travelling while you’re in Japan, a Japan Rail pass will be a necessity. A single 14-day rail pass costs around $450AUD, but it is well worth it. The pass is provided by Japan’s national rail company and it gives you unlimited access to all JR lines, as well as many buses and ferries. Otherwise, a return trip to Fujikawakuchiko from Tokyo will cost about $70 and take two or three hours depending on which trains you take.
Fujikawaguchiko is a small town with a population of around 25,000, which is named after the nearby landmarks of Mt Fuji and Lake Kawaguchi. It also simply goes by Kawaguchi-ko. The area is known for its outdoor activities and beautiful views. I had lugged a tent in my backpack all this way so that I could immerse myself in the outdoors after spending so long in Tokyo.
Camping, rock climbing, water sports, and other outdoor recreational activities are fairly western interests, so Fujikawaguchiko offers experiences that you won’t often get the chance to do in East Asia. On the northern side of Kawaguchi-ko you can hire boats and fishing gear and purchase tickets, which are required for the sport in Japan – around $150 will get all that you need for two people. Black bass, Japanese carp and wakasagi are common in the lake.
Fishing isn’t for everyone, but most people who visit Lake Kawaguchi try their hand at wakeboarding or wakesurfing. On the southern bank of Kawaguchi-ko is a shop called Sativa Wakeboarding, which is oddly marijuana-themed for a place that doesn’t sell drugs. Here you can try a variety of sports on the lake with experienced instructors.
But the best and most famed activity in Fujikawaguchiko is hiking. There are dozens of hiking paths in the region and maps of each of them are available from the information center at the train station. Many of the hiking paths take you past old Shinto shrines, which are great backdrops for the amateur photographer.
After arriving, I made my way from the station to the lake in search of a campsite and was immediately overcome by an agreeable sense of calm. Neatly arranged plots of vegetables and sporadic patches of forest sat among the cramped clusters of houses. I could instantly recognise the purple summit of Mt. Fuji in the far distance, seemingly floating in mid-air as clouds hid the base of the mountain.
After a bit of searching, I found a campground not far from the bank of Lake Kawaguchi. Nyuburijji Camping Ground is on the southern side of Kawaguchi-ko, closest to the train station. As you make your way up the driveway, you may be lucky enough to spot the kind Ojisan (middle-aged gentleman) who runs the place. If not, you may need to search the grounds, which include a few cabins and a large forested area. To camp at Nyuburijji with a single tent will set you back $15-$20 per night, which is a decent price compared to a hotel room in Tokyo (though the coin-operated showers cost $1.50 for 90 seconds). When I visited it was nearing the winter months, so the grounds were completely empty. I selected a space in the forest and set up my tent. I didn’t see another person on the grounds until the day I left.
If you don’t want to camp, expect to pay quite a bit more than $15/night for your accommodation. Konansou is a luxury resort representative of much of the town’s lakeside accommodation. It’s an upmarket, all-inclusive hotel with stunning mountain views and prices can exceed $200/night. But to really get the complete rural Japan experience, it’s best to choose traditional accommodation. Akaishi Ryokan is a Japanese-style inn with tatami mat rooms, yukata robes for guests, and shared onsen bathing. It is located on the southern bank of Kawaguchi-ko, just down the road from Nyuburiji Camping Ground, and prices start at $100/night.
Scaling the beast
My goal, as I’m sure is the intention of many coming to Fujikawaguchiko, was to hike up Mt Fuji itself. The official climbing season spans the months of July to August each year, as the increased cold in later months makes the climb more dangerous to prospective hikers. When the snow starts, usually in November, guides will cease offering services to hiking groups altogether. Even though I had arrived in Fujikawaguchiko in late October, it hadn’t yet snowed. I went to bed with the mission to conquer the looming mountain first thing in the morning.
I struggled through the crisp, autumn night in my sleeping bag by downing can after can of hot coffee. I awoke just before sunrise, mopped up the rain that had made its way inside my tent, laced up my Timberlands and went straight to a viewing platform to take a look at the beast I was about to battle. To my dismay, it was topped with a generous coating of white snow. No wonder it had been so cold the previous night. “Fuji-san had its first snow of the year last night,” a Japanese-Australian woman said to me. “This is good luck!”
Though I had seen Mt Fuji the day before, it wasn’t until I saw it capped in snow that I was transfixed with an inexplicable sense of awe. I had seen this magnificent image so many times before, but I never imagined I would see it in person. Any disappointment I had felt over not being able to climb the mountain dissolved away. I stood before Mt Fuji covered in snow, in all its striking glory. What a sight it was.
Mt Tenjo is a tree covered mountain in the ranges surrounding Lake Kawaguchi – its peak sits 1000 metres above sea level, about one third the height of Mt Fuji. Since I was ready for a hike and Mt Fuji wasn’t an option, I decided Tenjo was my next best bet. Most people who visit the top of Mt Tenjo take the Kachi-kachi Ropeway (named after the Kachi-kachi Yama folktale), an enclosed chairlift that costs around $10. Alternatively, there’s a hiking path that takes you through impressive gardens and thick forests, past old shrines and an observatory to a platform with the best view of Mt. Fuji in the city. I chose the hiking path.
My first hike up Mt Tenjo had such a profound impact on me that I hiked the mountain each day that I stayed in Fujikawaguchiko. It became a morning ritual for me, and this ritual allowed me to develop a zen-like knowledge of the mountain. I learnt that, at least during autumn, the signs warning hikers of bears can be safely ignored. I learnt that the glowing, blue firefly-like bugs will follow you for the entire hike. I learnt that, when faced with a crossroads, the longer path is usually the most interesting. Most importantly, I learnt that nothing in this world can compare to a view of Mt Fuji at sunset.
I also learnt that if it looks like you’re not supposed to be on a certain path, then you’re probably not supposed to be there. Though I got caught up in the undergrowth a few times and got told off by a ranger, walking through an overgrown and off-limits path was one of the best experiences I had in Fujikawaguchiko as it was teeming with Japanese Macaques – the only non-human primate species native to Japan.
Refuel with food
One of the best things about Japan’s countryside, especially in the cold, is its food. Fujikawaguchiko has a range of eateries offering hearty traditional and contemporary foods to really warm you up. Sanrokuen is a cook-it-yourself Japanese BBQ with a range of traditional foods and Japanese beer, plus a stunningly traditional, fireside dining area making it a great place for groups.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth (like me) make sure to check out Uemon Cafe, a western-Japanese fusion cafe and bakery – Japanese cheesecake can’t be beaten. The most interesting thing I ate in Japan was horse meat udon noodles at Kawaguchi-ko Station Inn. The noodles are spongey, the broth is rich, and the meat is gamey and tender – and it’s only around $6 for a bowl. (If you’re really brave you can try horse meat sashimi – thinly sliced raw meat – across the road from the station.)
A statue dedicated to the goddesses Konohanasakuya-hime and Iwanaga-hime sits on the lakeshore of Kawaguchi-ko. It was sculpted in bronze by Gakuryo Nasu, the disciple of one of Japan’s greatest sculptors, Seibo Kitamura. The sister-goddesses are worshiped by the people of Fujikawaguchiko, and revered by all Japanese, as guardians of the region who bring eternal love, peace and prosperity to the people.
Interestingly, this legend contradicts another extraordinary location I visited during my time in Fujikawakuchiko. I had wanted to visit Aokigahara since I heard of its existence a couple of years before my trip, even though it has been dubbed by many as the “suicide forest.” Historically though, Aokigahara is known as the “sea of trees”, as it is a 35 square kilometre mass of vibrant growth sitting atop the ancient wave-like hardened lava flow of Mt Fuji.
The “suicide forest” moniker came about more recently. It’s said that as many as 100 people every year have taken their lives in the giant expanse of forest since the 1960 publication of Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees), a book in which a young lover ends his life in the forest. For many years, Aokigahara has been known to the locals as an area full of demons and bad spirits. Many believed that is was because of these spirits that those who wandered into the forest would lose their way, fall into caverns or sinkholes created by the lava, and become tortured spirits themselves due to the unnatural ends they reached. Due to the large magnetic deposits in the volcanic rock, compasses don’t work correctly – something that has been attributed to the Yōkai (supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore). This birthed the legend of the forest: if you enter, you won’t be allowed to leave.
The thrill, perhaps combined with some kind of morbid curiosity and the urge to see all sides of Japan, made it a must-see for me. I walked along the banks of both Kawaguchi-ko and Sai-ko (another of the five great lakes) for two-and-a-half hours in the rain to reach Aokigahara, and hiked through the woods for at least another three hours. I didn’t come across another person in the vast deep forest, nor any bears or foxes despite the warnings, but what I did see touched my heart. I was surrounded by curved black rocks and high-stretching trees, all covered in luminescent green moss. The occasional deer shot off into the distance when they noticed me. Ribbons of coloured string linked tree to tree. I had previously learned that the string serves as a path for those thinking of ending their lives to find their way out if they change their minds. I chose not to follow them, and to keep walking.
I made it back to the path and as I neared an exit, I came across a hand-made wooden sign that read in Japanese: “Hang on! Is this really the end?” It held an implied meaning of “do you really regret nothing?” Signs like this are common throughout the forest, made by the caring and devoted locals who urge visitors with to reconsider their intentions.
I left Aokigahara humbled, with a heavy heart, and a deep appreciation of the hallowed ground on which I’d been fortunate enough to walk. The experience was so touching that I recommend it to all those heading to Japan – don’t let the forest’s macabre history put you off.
There are also three caves in the vicinity of Aokigahara which are popular with tourists, but if you plan to visit them, be sure to bring a jacket (even in summer) as they can reach subzero temperatures. The caves, called Bat Cave, Ice Cave and Wind Cave, were all formed by Mt. Fuji’s lava flow, and due to the temperatures were previously used as communal storehouses for the region. Admission is around $4AUD per cave, the Bat Cave is closed through winter.
When to visit (and you should really visit)
The best time of year to travel to Fujikawaguchiko really depends on what you want to do. If you want to climb Mt Fuji, go in July or August to fit into the narrow window of the official climbing season – this is also a great time to experience watersports on the lake. If you want to see some cherry-blossoms, then Spring (March-May) is the only time you will get the chance. If you have your heart set on seeing the iconic image of Mt Fuji capped in snow, go between the months of November and February. Remember, many experiences in country Japan are subtle and fleeting – if you get hung up on the details you will miss them.
Like much of rural Japan, Fujikawakuchiko is steeped in history, and there is a very apparent connection to the spiritual world of Shintoism – Japan’s indigenous religion. Shinto is so deeply ingrained in most aspects of Japanese life that these days, for most, it has become less of an active faith and more a set of rituals that are inherent to being Japanese. Shintoism stresses simplicity and coexistence with nature. In the countryside of Japan you will be confronted with the tranquility of Shintoism – a difficult-to-explain feeling that things are being influenced spiritually, and a general sense that the impact you have on your surroundings actually means something. I felt this presence of Shinto when I saw the Macaques playing on Mt Tenjo. I felt it when I saw baby deer in Aokigahara and I felt it whenever I heard the gentle sound of bells rattling at shrines.
When I was spiritless in Tokyo, a small country town touched my heart and saturated me with the energy and courage I needed to face the rest of my journey. I saw children smiling, fisherman lazily sitting on the banks of the lake and monkeys playing on a mountain wall. I felt both the deep calm of Shinto and the eerie presence of Aokigahara. I saw the prominent peak of Mt Fuji, floating above the clouds. Many people who visit the town say it feels like they’ve “come home”, and I can understand that fully. I left Fujikawaguchiko feeling more uplifted, more refreshed and more attuned to my surroundings than ever before.
Other things to do around Mt Fuji
#1 Ski resorts at the base of Mt Fuji
At the base of Mt Fuji you will find two small ski resorts with great facilities, fresh snow and excellent views of the mountain. The larger of the two is Fujiten Snow Resort, which sits along the northern base of the mountain in the Fuji Five Lakes region. The resort will suit both rookie and pro mountaineers with a respectable selection of beginner and advanced runs. There’s also a large kids park with sleds, innertubes and trampolines for the young at heart.
#2 Fuji Q Amusement Park
Thrill seekers unite at Fuji-Q Highland, a major amusement park located at the northern foot of Mt Fuji, that boasts some of the most thrilling and record-holding roller coasters in the world. Be sure to check out the haunted attractions, The Haunted Hospital and the newly built Hopeless Fortress, as well as the anime-themed rides and the 4D roller coaster Eejanaika. Your last stop has to be the Takabisha roller coaster, which contains a 121-degree free-fall and a 43-metre drop. Hold on to your lunch.
#3 Paraglide Mt Fuji
If you’ve ever wanted to see Mt. Fuji from 300 metres above ground then try your hand at paragliding. Head over to The Asagiri Plateau in Fujinomiya for a breathtaking paragliding trip that will take you around the impressive lengths of the mountain. You’ll be trained in the morning and fly with an experienced instructor around the scope of the mountain. Pack your long johns for warmth and your camera strap for some impressive aerial shots of Mt Fuji up close.
#4 Wakeboarding at the Fuji Five Lakes
While the Fuji Five Lakes that surround the mountain are an excellent spot to capture an unobstructed photo of Mt Fuji, more recently they have begun hosting a number of water sport facilities for adventurous travellers. Head on over to Lake Kawaguchi or Lake Yamanaka for wakeboarding, flyboarding, fishing and even a spin in the biscuit boat. Afterwards, relax and unwind in the Lake Yamanaka Onsen and Hot Spring.
#5 Forest Adventure Mt Fuji
On the northside of the mountain, just ten minutes from Kawaguchicko is Forest Adventure Mt Fuji. Built through the trees, Forest Adventure is an aerial course comprising of various ladders, bridges, swings, nets, trapezes and zip lines that allows you to swing from tree to tree around the forest. There are two equally exciting courses, The Canopy Course and the Adventure Course, and each are fun and challenging in their own way, but remember to stretch beforehand – you will be sore.
(All unlabelled photos except header by Jacob Lynagh)
(Lead image: Photo by Daniil Vnoutchkov on Unsplash)