One of the most familiar images of Japan is that of the perfectly symmetrical
cone of Fuji-san, capped with white snow. It's worth taking a few days to climb
the mountain and explore the surrounding area. Although there will be plenty of
tourists - and yes, of course there's a souvenir store on the summit - you'll
still see a side of Japan that’s very different from the frenetic high tech
bustle of Tokyo or Kyoto.
When the weather's good you get some wonderful views of the
elusive mountain from the Hakone region. An interesting way to tour the region
is to take the 'toy train' from the hot spring resort of Hakone-Yumoto to Gora,
then the funicular and cable car up Mt. Soun-Zan, and back down to Lake
Ashino-ko. A boat around the lake to Moto-Hakone will let you walk the historic
Tokaido highway back to Hakone-Yumoto, passing a Teahouse and the Soun-ji
Buddhist temple along the way. Yumoto is the region's most popular hot spring
resort and a good place to experience onsen - bathing elevated to an art form.
When you're in Gora, stop off for food at the Gyoza Center - a
famous Japanese dumpling shop. You might also want to stroll through the moss
gardens of the Hakone Art Museum and see their fine collection of Japanese and
Chinese ceramics. There's a French Rock Garden only a short way up Mt Soun-Zan,
not far from the funicular tracks. Interrupt the cable car descent from Mt.
Soun-Zan to take a look at the volcanic hot springs at Owakudani. It's a
steaming, bubbling, smelly cauldron of mud - you can buy black boiled eggs that
have been cooked in the stuff which are supposed to have health-giving
properties – looking at them, you might be a little skeptical.
You can hire rowing boats and pedal boats on Lake-Ashino-ko. If
Fuji-san is visible, the view of its shimmering snow-clad slopes across the
water is worth the journey in itself. Another unmistakable landmark is the
Hakone-jinja Shrine, with its red torii (entrance gates) rising from the water.
The setting, in a wooded grove, is hauntingly atmospheric, and giant cedars
line the approach to the shrine itself. More great views of the lake and
Fuji-san can be had from Mt Komaga-take, cable cars and a funicular run to the
summit. This will give you a chance to see the wonderful thirteenth century
relief carvings in the rock close by. There are numerous Buddha figures and a
large carving of the Japanese patron saint of travelers and departed children.
The Five Lakes region to the north is another good area for
viewing Fuji-san. It's surprising that so few foreign visitors come here,
although Kawaguchi-ko town is a popular departure point for ascents of
Fuji-san. Climbing Fuji-san used to be a pilgrimage, not a tourist event and a
visit to the Sengen-jinja Shrine at Fuji-Yoshida was a necessary preliminary.
Other attractions in the area are the Ice Cave and Wind Cave formed by lava
flows from a prehistoric eruption of Fuji-san, the tiny, but exquisitely pretty
Lake Shoji-ko, the view of Fuji-san across the Sea of Trees on Mt Eboshi-san
and the Shiraito-no-Taki waterfall.
On an exceptionally clear day Fuji-san can be seen from Tokyo,
but this reclusive mountain is more often shrouded in grey mists. It's possible
to do the climb all year round, although at 12,385 feet high (3776
meters) Fuji-san is not to be messed with, and in midwinter it's for
mountaineers only. However, the 'official' climbing season is July - August and
this is when hordes of Japanese from tiny children to aged grandparents make
the ascent - about three thousand of them every night. There are ten 'stations'
from base to summit, but most people start from one of the stations that can be
reached by road. An ascent is usually an overnight affair, timed to reach the
summit at dawn for the sunrise - when the mountain is least likely to be
cloaked in clouds. If you need a break or there are numerous 'lodges' -
mountain huts - dotted up the mountainside where you can get a mattress on the
floor for a brief rest or top up your energy level with a bowl of steaming
ramen noodles. Once you reach the summit it'll take an hour or so to make the
circuit of the crater - a useful way to pass the time if you're too early, or
want to hang around to let the morning sun burn off the mist so that you can
see the views. The descent is much quicker, especially if you opt for
sunabashiri - sliding - down one of the sand trails on your backpack!
The Japanese say you're wise to climb Fuji, but a fool to climb
it twice - the wise climber will make it a trip to remember.