Thursday, July 3, 2014

Discovering Mount Fuji and Its Environs

 Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Mount Fuji and Its Environs 

            Today would have been a most disappointing day but for three occurrences that redeemed it at the very end of the day.

            We awoke, as usual, about 6. 30 am, made our way to the Dining Hall of the Hotel Via Inn by 7. 00 am for our last breakfast in this most comfortable of lodgings. The reception staff had been extremely kind to us and despite having almost non-existent English had managed to communicate adequately with us and meet our every need. After breakfasting on ham and cheese bread, croissants with marmalade and butter, corn soup, salad and cocktail sausages, we said our goodbyes and thank-yous to the staff who had made our home away from home in Kyoto such a pleasant experience for over ten days. And then we were off.

 Arrival at Kyoto Main Station:

            We took the subway down two stations south to Kyoto Main Station from where we used our Japan Rail Passes to procure reserved seats on the Shinkansen (bullet) train headed for Tokyo. We were instructed to get off at Odawara (which was about two hours away on the super express bullet trains that simply zip across the country at astounding speeds—Amtrak can learn a thing or two about promptness, courtesy and general efficiency from this amazing system. Hats off to the Japanese!

            We found our platform easily enough and boarded our train for Tokyo. The journey was extremely comfortable, but it was once we got to Odawara that the dreariness began. From Odawara (where we waited about 20 minutes for a connection), we took a train to Mishima (also Japan Rail, also using our Passes). Once we alighted at Mishima, we had no option but to take a bus to climb the mountains. The bus took us as far as Gotemba, about 45 minutes away (a journey that cost us about 600 yen each). From Gotemba, we connected to another bus (after a wait of a half hour) that cost us about 1,140 yen each and took us to Fuji-yoshida. The bus journey was wearying as it was slow and painful and offered nothing by way of scenery or local color.

At Fuji-yoshida, where we arrived at about 2. 00 pm, we had to take a taxi to our lodgings for the night—a very modest Western-style hostel called Michael’s (obtained through Lonely Planet). It is run by an American called Michael Castella who is married to a Japanese woman called Kasuko. Michael also runs an American-style Pub and Café at the base of his hostel that serves $13 burgers! The Tourist Information Center at Fuji-yoshida informed us that the walk to Michael’s would take us twenty minutes—with baggage (even though it was minimal baggage), it would be impossible to reach on foot—so we hailed a taxi and reached there for 1000 yen (about $10)—a very well-spent tenner! Basically, it was a long-drawn out, tiring journey from Kyoto that put us off the beaten track completely and cost us about $25 each in addition to the cost of our Japan Rail Passes. Mind you, throughout the journey, although mountains loomed all around us, there was not a sign of Mount Fuji that we had traveled so far to see.

            Just as soon as we were checked by a sweet Japanese girl called May into Michael’s where we were given a private room with showers and toilets down the hallway, we hired the cab again to take us to Kawaguchi-Ko Station where sightseeing buses were available to take us around Mount Fuji.

 Touring Mount Fuji and “Fuji Five Lakes”:

            After making a brief detour at the bank to exchange some dollars for yen (because almost no one accepts credit card in Japan, apart from the hotels), we arrived at the Kawaguchi-Ko train station where the Green Line Sightseeing Bus would be leaving in ten minutes to take us for a driving tour around the lakes.

            So here’s the beef: Mount Fuji is a dormant volcano based on a towering mountain that rises 3776 meters above sea level and is, therefore, often obscured by clouds. Therefore, chances of catching a glimpse of it are rare--as was the case today. We could not see it at all and I felt shattered. It was a terribly overcast day which meant that there were, at best, remote opportunities for sighting. Mount Fuji is ringed by five beautiful lakes. The only way you can appreciate the scenic beauty of this area is by driving around the region. Since we had no car at our disposal, we were left with no option but to take the sightseeing bus. Since the second-last one of the day left at 3. 35 (the last one left at 4. 35), we raced to the bus-stand to board it and off we went.

 A Sightseeing Drive about Fuji Five Lakes:

                The bus drive took two hours. We did not get off anywhere as we had very little energy left for exploration after our day-long travels to get to this spot and there was only one more bus which would arrive after a whole hour to take us back—so overall, the bus tour was a bit of a loss for us. It would have been a good deal (at 13,000 yen each) had we boarded it in the morning and stayed in the area for 2 days (as the bus ticket is valid for 48 hours).

            Still, we made the most of our brief stop here and took in the scenic beauty of the two lakes through which we drove: Lake Kawaguchi and Lake Saiko. As the bus curved around the banks of the lakes, made detours into the cypress and cedar clad forests and made stops at museums, shrines, herbal centers, Bat Caves and Lava Caves to pick up passengers, we got a very good sense of the scenic attractions of this place with its boating, kayaking, fishing, water-skiing and other offerings. In many ways, we were constantly reminded of Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand and the other glorious drives we had taken as we had scoured the South Island, two years ago. But there was still nary a sighting of Mount Fuji for Llew although I do think I saw one side of its conical shape as we had turned a corner.

 Early Dinner of Hotoh:

            By the time we got off the sightseeing bus, two hours later at Kawaguchiko Station, we were starving (as we had contented ourselves with granola bars for lunch). Lonely Planet had recommended that we try a local dish called Hotoh—a miso soup with mushrooms and butternut squash and thick udon noodles served in a steaming iron pot at the table. It was about 5. 30 pm and we found a very nice restaurant right opposite the station where we decided to try the local delicacy. As luck would have it, the restaurant was located right opposite the gigantic mass of Mount Fuji which, somewhat obligingly, decided to reveal itself to us in slow stages as we ate! Cloud cover from the conical crater lifted and in about ten minutes, we were able to see Japan’s most iconic sight. How thrilled we were! We raced around to the window and left the restaurant, after placing our order, to take pictures of the mountain and, quite suddenly, I felt as if our laborious excursion to Fujisan (as the mountain is known in Japan) became worthwhile.    

            And then the hotoh arrived—and it was absolutely delicious! The broth was extremely flavorful and the amount of additions to the soup made it a hearty stew and enough for the two of us to feast on. Twenty minutes later, we were replete and decided to go on to the next item on our agenda—a soak in one of the volcanic hot springs at the base of Mount Fuji in a traditional Japanese pastime known as ‘Onsen”. We had already experienced it at the Buddhist monastery in Koyasan but that had been a religious ritual—we decided to try out this secular traditional activity at a commercially-run onsen.

 Back on the Train to our Hotel and Off for Onsen:

            We found a train, soon enough, that took us very cheaply back to our hostel from Kawaguchi Station (our station was three stops away and was called Gekkouji). Once at the hotel, at the Reception Desk, we met a very sweet American lad called Nate, who recommended an Onsen place and called a cab to take us there—it cost us 1,000 yen to get there (please note that there is no local transport in this area and wherever a location lies beyond a walking radius, one needs to cab it out).

 Onsen and After:

            The cab driver took us directly to our commercial baths and once inside, we were quickly shown the drill. The Baths are gender-segregated. Llew and I found lockers to stash our belongings, got keys which we wore around our wrists (so as not to lose them). Then, we showered and bathed thoroughly so as to clean our bodies completely and then entered the onsen. This place offered two kinds: indoor ones featuring three different temperatures of water—cool, warm and hot (like in the ancient Roman baths). And outdoor ones—that on a clear day—actually overlook Mount Fuji. The outdoor pool is like a giant hot tub surrounded by volcanic rocks and beautifully landscaped Japanese gardens. I was enchanted.

            For the next one hour, I gave myself up entirely to the sheer pleasure of an outdoor hot soak in a steaming bath without a stitch on my body. But for the towel that we had rented (for 300 yen each), you carry nothing into the pool. I soaked for about ten minutes, then emerged in the cold night air, cooled off and then dipped myself in the hot pool again. Japanese women chattered away all around me. One tried to make friends with me. She conveyed to me the certainty that I would sleep well tonight after my hot soak—she was right! And so it went on and on. In and out and in and out for the next half hour I went. I was suspended in a state of bliss so relaxing, so completely liberating that I felt as if I were floating on Cloud Nine. Certainly this was a major redeeming factor in our day.

 Melon Ice-Cream Before Bed:

            It turned out, when I was reunited with Llew, that he had enjoyed the onsen just as much as I had. He too had opted for the outdoor bathing experience in the male section. When I met him on the wooden slat bench outside, he handed me a warming cup of green tea as the onsen does tend to make you feel dehydrated. Overall, it had been a marvelous experience and we were so glad we did it.

            Then, spying a McDonalds just a block away, we entered it looking for dessert. I chose the Melon Shake (which the Korean immigrants of New York introduced to the world) and, boy, was it great! The cold ice-cream, thick and sweet, made the perfect foil to the steaming onsen. About fifteen minutes later, the staff at McDonald’s called us a cab and in ten minutes we were back in our hotel.

 End of a Mixed Sort of Day:

            So, at the end of the day, the glimpsing of Mount Fuji, albeit hazily with its streaks of snow running down the conical sides, the delicious bowl of hotoh and the heavenly soak in the onsen, had certainly redeemed the day for us.

Would we recommend this excursion to anyone? I’d say Not Unless You Intend To Climb Mount Fuji—which most visitors come to do. If all you are seeking is a glimpse, then perhaps the height of summer, when cloud cover is rare, might be a better time.

            We sank into our bunk beds quite gratefully at the end of the day and looked forward to a relaxed start tomorrow as we make our way to Tokyo—and perhaps a better sighting of Fuji Yama.

Until then, sayonara   

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