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Fuji-san

Fuji-san/Fuji-san, Japan

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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.

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