MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Fuji Five Lakes”

Fuji Hakone Izu National Park

The Fuji Five Lakes region feels a World away from Tokyo, despite being within easy reach of Japan’s largest city. I’d already been to Kawaguchiko, a stunning lake with views of Fuji-san (Mt Fuji), and leaving Tokyo behind early in the morning, I had my sights set on another lake, the largest of the five, Lake Ashi. As a popular tourist destination, it is possible to get transport deals for the region and I highly recommend doing so if you plan to visit for 1-2 days. Whilst the location means it could make an extended day trip, I had booked accommodation in the region in order to enjoy it a bit more. It was still far from a leisurely trip though, as even with an overnighter, my commutes to and from nearby cities meant I still had to keep moving to pack it all on.

Heading out of Tokyo, I caught the train to Odawara where there was a seamless transfer to the Hakone Tozan line which took me to Hakone -Yumoto station which was nestled among rolling green hills on the edge of the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park. There I jumped platforms to the quaint little Hakone railway which took me deeper into the forested mountainside on a switch-back railway as it climbed higher and higher. After three switchbacks, we eventually came to my stop at Miyanoshita. With so much choice of accommodation, I had been driven both by price and ease of transit to stay at a hostel in the small village east of Gora. I headed a little down hill and along the deserted road to an old-fashioned hostel where I could dump my bags and head back to the station. The mountain train was relatively frequent, so it wasn’t too long a wait to catch one to go a few mores stops to Chokokunomori station.

 

It was swelteringly hot as I stepped onto the platform mid-morning, and I had a full day of sun exposure ahead of me. But it was worth it, as there was not a single thing I did that day that I would have wanted to have missed. A short walk from the station is the Hakone Open-Air Museum, an outdoor sculpture garden that was a delight to walk around. Nestled on the edge of a hillside, the location was stunning with rolling green hills surrounding the place and fascinating and beautiful sculptures at every turn within the extensive garden. There were lots of bronze figures, some abstract pieces and even some kinetic ones that moved and glistened in the sunlight. I took my time ensuring I covered as much of the walking tracks as possible. About halfway into the park, there was a large kids area and a pretty building that nestled beautifully into its surrounds.

 

At the far end, the path wound through some smaller sculptures and flower beds to come out at a large white building with the word Picasso emblazoned on its wall. A large sculpture typical of Picasso stood outside it and inside was a lovely air-conditioned art gallery that I perused through whilst cooling down. Back outside, the trail led up the hill to some pretty glass sculptures as well as a spot to have a foot bath in a stream. Nearby a large tower stood proudly, inside which was a spiral staircase leading up within stained-glass window walls to a raised viewpoint of the park and the greenery beyond. Neither the lake nor Mt Fuji could be seen but it was a stunning part of the country. As the trail circled back towards the main entrance building, I found myself among some very abstract pieces of art work and there was quite a crowd of people now as the morning had pushed on.

 

I walked deeper into Gora, the largest settlement in the area, cutting up into streets of houses to reach the entrance to Gora Park. A tiered garden, its centrepiece was a gorgeous fountain set within a gorgeous blue pond, framed by flower beds, hedges and park benches. A sign pointed me to a cafe and restaurant by its side and I took the opportunity to have lunch. Once refreshed, I circled back round the fountain and continued up the steps to the highest point in the park. Through rose gardens, rushes and under trees, I traversed the width of the park, heading down again to the fountain and on past a small shrine and under large spider webs guarded by large spiders to reach a conservatory housing hothouse plants. Eventually though I became aware of the hours pushing on and the time constraints that were ahead with the transport options so I left the park behind and continued through the back streets.

 

One of the things I’d most looked forward to doing in the region was taking the Hakone Ropeway over the nearby volcanic zone and having a wander round bubbling mud pools. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit in October 2019, an increase in volcanic activity had closed the middle section of the ropeway and a bus replacement service round the mountain was operating. Heading away from Gora Park, it wasn’t far to reach one of the lower stations on the Hakone Cableway. After some time, the cable car pulled up the slope and proceeded to take me up the incline to the top station where normally the ropeway would leave from, but instead we all got parceled onto waiting buses. There was nothing to see apart from trees as we drove the windy round around the slope of the mountain. Thankfully the lower section of the ropeway was functioning and we pulled in there to join the very large queue to board.

As the queue headed up a flight of stairs to the loading platform I could finally see Fuji-san with its necklace of cloud poking up above the treeline. I was able to secure a seat on the right side of the ropeway car and as we set off down the mountainside towards the lake I could watch the mountain taunt me as the cloud threatened to hide the summit. It finally disappeared out of sight again by the time the car reached the lake. I was eager to get on board the 2pm ferry that trails across the length of the lake but the queues were massive and I wasn’t sure until the last minute whether I would make it. This region doesn’t do halves when it comes to the transport as having already been on a normal train, a switchback train, a cable car and a ropeway, I was about to board what could best be described as a pirate ship. A large frigate was moored up at the pier complete with large masts and pirates. It was a novelty in its self, and I nestled into the stern of the vessel to watch the World go by as we sailed.

 

Sailing the length of Lake Ashi was sublime. Although the ship itself was busy, it felt remote with only a handful of boats on the water and forested hillsides framing the water’s edge. At the far end of the lake there are two stops, one at the southern end which it visits first and the other to the south-east which the ship reaches last. As we approached the first stop, I noticed the summit of Fuji-san come back into view and as we berthed at the pier, the waterfront was abuzz with activity from people paddling near the shore, and others enjoying a stroll. We paused long enough to let people pile off and others pile on and then we were on our way to the second stop, passing one of the region’s most photographed structures, the Hakone Jinjya Heiwa-no-Torii. Nestled close to the trees but just sitting out in the water, there were people in swan-shaped paddle boats sitting close by to admire it from the water. As we got closer to the second stop, the torii gate and Fuji-san lined up perfectly for a postcard-perfect view.

 

There was as much activity as the first pier and I was quick to get off and head round to the shrine where the torii gate was. But upon reaching it I was astounded by the queue of people snaking up the stairs through the forest that were waiting to have their photograph taken standing by the torii. It was a Saturday, so I’d probably picked one of the worst days to be in the national park but I’d definitely been naive about the crowds here. With nobody to take my photograph anyway as I was travelling alone, I first climbed the steps up to the shrine itself to take a nosy at the brilliant red building. The queue was just as long when I returned to it and I passed everyone to reach the shoreline, finding a spot off to the side that I could grab a quick photo of the large vermillion torii inbetween the many people that wandered into shot for their posed photograph.

 

Leaving the crowd behind I meandered back round the foreshore, stopping in a cute little cafe to have a chilled snack while contemplating my next move. The last boat left the 1st stop at 4.30pm and I decided that I would walk round the lake to catch it from there, rather than wait for it to come to me. I started off at a leisurely pace, stopping to take photos of the lake and Fuji-san until I suddenly realised I was at great risk of missing the last sailing. I had to leg it through the streets to make it on time, jumping aboard with little time to spare. The sun was still on this part of the lake but the western shore was already in shadow as the sun had dropped low. It lended a nice tint to the hillside as we set sail past the shrine once more to pick up the last of the passengers, and as we ploughed the long length of Lake Ashi we gradually fell into shadow. Back at the ropeway it was just a matter of retracing my steps to the cableway, this time taking it all the way to the bottom at Gora train station where I could hop on the train back to Miyanoshita for a quiet night in in the traditional-style hostel, ready for an early rise and another day of exploration.

Kawaguchiko

Still not content with staying in Tokyo, and with legs still aching from the previous day’s 8hr hike, I had another day of walking ahead of me. But my first challenge struck before I even got out of the city. I’d based myself in Yotsuya, initially because it was near where my conference had been on those first few days in the country, but secondarily because it had turned out to be an easy base for transit around the city to where I wanted to go. I’d arrived at my new hotel in darkness, so waking up that morning I’d finally been able to experience the view from my small balcony. It was hot and stuffy and I was surrounded by a sea of buildings stretching out for miles.

It was by now a familiar saunter to the train station and I headed west a few stops to Shinjuku station, one of the larger transit hubs in the city. Despite having studied station maps online at my hotel, I stepped off the platform and very quickly found myself in a maze of artificially-lit corridors. There were signs everywhere, and a sea of people to sweep you along in the wrong direction if you weren’t careful, and I was also in a hurry, trying to make a connection. I needed to get to the bus terminal, but after following the signs, they sort of petered out and I ended up having to backtrack a bit and experiment a little before eventually I found a sign pointing out onto the street. It turned out I had to cross the road and enter another a building, and as a result of getting lost in the Shinjuku maze, I had missed the bus I had planned on catching.

The bus terminal was crowded, and my next challenge was finding the one I wanted. Unable to speak Japanese beyond basic pleasantries, and always feeling guilty about having to speak English, I chose to use a ticket machine over a person. However, it quickly transpired that I couldn’t pay with my prepaid card and so I had to go to the counter after all. But it turned out my destination was so popular that the next bus was fully booked, and I had to wait for the one after that. It felt like an age before I was finally onboard, and leaving the city behind. Although I’d already been out to a national park, this trip felt different, and from a bus, it felt a bit more immersive, and the scenery a bit more interesting to travel through. It was a 2hr drive into the Fuji Five Lakes, and I was super excited when Mt Fuji, the country’s highest mountain appeared in view with a ring of cloud below its summit. From that point onwards, I couldn’t wait to get off the bus, and finally, after a detour to Fuji-Q Highland theme park, I was deposited at Kawaguchiko bus station.

The walk from the bus station to Lake Kawaguchi led me downhill through winding streets of shops and businesses for about 10 minutes, until finally I found myself staring out at a gorgeous lake with rolling green hills on the far side. Paddle boats shaped like swans lay stacked up in the foreground and just past them, a paddlesteamer was berthed, loading up ready to take day-trippers across the lake to Oishi. It felt so different to Tokyo, and I immediately loved the place. The foreshore was easy to follow, mainly on a separate path away from the road, and in the glaring sun, I started the anti-clockwise walk around the lake. Understandably given the scenery, I became rather snap happy. I couldn’t stop taking photographs. The lake itself had a gentle ripple on the water, and the reflections of the surrounding landscape and the blues of the water and sky against the green of the hills created an amazingly scenic location. Then, after a few curves of the lake had been passed, I looked back and realised that Mt Fuji was poking up in the background, and the smile on my face grew wider.

 

Mt Fuji remained in view as I continued to circle round this end of the lake. The cloud continued to swirl around its top, sometimes obscuring the summit, other times sitting just below it like a collar. When I’d initially booked my trip to Japan, I had thought I would hike up Mt Fuji, but upon researching the hike, I discovered that there was a short official hiking season, outwith which the hiking huts were shut, transport to the hiking routes limited, and indeed it wasn’t recommended to hike it at all because of safety concerns. There was no snow on the summit whilst I was there in October 2019, so in reality I probably could have done it, but I had opted for common sense and following advice as it was over a month past the end of the hiking season. But also in reality, I didn’t actually have time in my two week trip to Japan, and frankly the views of the mountain were probably more appealing to me than the views from the mountain would be.

I neared and then passed under a row of accommodations that would have great views of Mt Fuji from their balconies, and I continued to follow the path round towards the broad expanse of the Kawaguchiko Ohashi bridge that cut across this end of the lake, transecting it. The whole lake is huge, and there was not a hope of covering the full circumference of it, so the circle that was created by the bridge and the eastern foreshore was enough of a taster that day. Before I cut up to the bridge itself, I found myself down at the lakeshore near the legs of the bridge, sitting among some locals who were fishing, eating my lunch as the clouds swirled across my view of Mt Fuji. Looking under the bridge, I could see through not only to the far side of the lake, but I was able to watch the paddlesteamer chug across, peacefully sailing across the calm water.

 

Crossing the bridge, I didn’t know where to look. The view in both directions was divine, and I jogged back and forth across the road as I wandered, taking a ridiculous amount of photographs, and sweating in the incessant heat. To my left was the foreshore I’d just walked round as well as the dominating outline of Mt Fuji. To my right, was the large expanse of lake and the gorgeous rolling mountains that stood tall beyond it. In fact I took so long to cross the bridge that the paddlesteamer was making its return journey from the far side, and I was able to watch it return to the original pier I’d passed it from earlier that day. Reaching the far side of the bridge, there were more locals fishing and the path immediately turned into a park, skirting round to Oike Park where there was a small shrine, and some statues nestled among the trees. Flying overhead a large bird of prey caught my attention which I later discovered was a black kite.

 

The final section of the lake continued to give me views across the lake before it cut back to streets. From this angle I could see the ropeway that went up the nearby mountain, and as I reached the street that would lead me there, I spotted the same black kite perched atop the roof of a nearby building. It was nearing lunchtime by the time I made it to the Mt Fuji Panoramic Ropeway. The queue was frustratingly long and also in direct sunlight making for a slightly unpleasant experience. It was possible to hike up the mountain but I didn’t have time for that, and so the ropeway was going to have to be worth the wait. It was a slightly disorganised affair to buy a ticket from a machine, which was a surprise considering how organised Japan usually comes across for absolutely everything, and when my time finally came to board the ropeway I was incredulous at how many of us they squeezed on there. It was roasting, and despite the open windows, there was little air circulation in the cabin, making it a little unpleasant to breathe. We were crammed in so badly that I couldn’t actually move. For the entire ride up I was stuck in the position I was in, unable to shift my weight or even lift my camera up to my face to take photos. I don’t get claustrophobia but with the lack of personal space, the inability to reposition myself and the stiff, hot air, it was hard not to get a little panicked, and I couldn’t wait for the ride to be over.

 

But it was all soon forgotten once I’d spilled out at the top and saw the view. From the top station I had a gorgeous view across the lake and then once I’d walked round to the entrance of Kawaguchiko Tenjozan Park, I could see across to Fuji-Q Highland theme park and Mt Fuji behind it, albeit now hidden behind some clouds. I treated myself to a matcha float complete with foam rabbit, before swapping my trainers for hiking boots and heading into the trees. The initial track up to Mt Tenjo was packed, with most of the people that had taken the ropeway up heading here, as it was only a 10 minute walk to the summit (1140m/3740ft). I was expecting an awesome view but in actual fact the trees were so tall here, that it was mostly closed in, apart from a gap that allowed Mt Fuji to be seen, framed by the tall trunks of the trees. I could see on my topographical map that a track from here led off across the nearby mountains, and I had my sights set on nearby Mt Shimo (1302m/4272ft).

 

There was little view as I walked deeper into the tall forest, following the ridgeline as it undulated and gradually gained further altitude. I had little respite from the heat and my energy began to wane. It took me longer to reach the road crossing high up the mountainside than I’d anticipated, and after an hour, I found myself at a lookout just shy of 1300m (4265ft). As with my hike the day before, I’d brought some 7Eleven dried squid, a Japanese snack that I ate a lot of whilst out and about. It was just the taste I wanted after all the sweating and it gave such an energy boost. That being said, I spent a lot of time eating whilst studying the topographic map, arguing in my head whether I wanted to push on to Mt Shimo. I’d learned on the hike the day before that a summit doesn’t necessarily equal a view, and where I was sat was specifically marked as a viewpoint. Indeed I had an uninterrupted view of Mt Fuji from where I sat, and I reckoned the summit push would add at least another hour roundtrip. With it already being after 2pm, I made the executive decision to let the summit go, and once I was satiated, I pushed back down the gradual slope, to return to Mt Tenjo.

By the time I reached the gap in the trees at Mt Tenjo it was 3.30pm and the summit of Mt Fuji was visible once more. Back at the cafe I bought a snack that was translated as raccoon balls. In the 5 days I’d been in Japan, I’d eaten a lot of unrecognisable foods in a multitude of new textures that I’d never experienced before. I’m fairly up for trying a variety of cuisine and love to experiment abroad, so I was intrigued to see what raccoon tasted like. I still have no idea what exactly it was that I ate, but it didn’t appear to have any meat in it at all, but it was food and it was edible so I hoovered it down all the same. The sun was lowering towards the mountains at the far side of the lake but still the crowds came up the ropeway.

 

I discovered that you could go up to the roof of the cafe where I could see down towards the lake as well as Mt Fuji, and where I could do a bit of people watching as I ate. I hovered between the rooftop and the viewing area below for a long time, getting my photo taken against the backdrop of Japan’s most famous volcano, and watching as people put prayers on the local prayer wall. A bell hung within a heart-shaped frame that was great for framing Mt Fuji, and again I took a lot of photos as the shadows got longer. I started to realise that the mountains beyond the lake would lead to an earlier sunset, and I still had to hike down the mountain back to the lake. After an hour of soaking up the view, I started the descent through the forest. The track switch-backed downhill, occasionally providing views of the lake. A few side tracks led off through gardens, but I stuck to the main track, by now sore on my feet and tired.

 

I reached the lake at dusk, and I sat watching the lights across the lake twinkle on as I swapped my hiking boots for my trainers once more. When I had bought my return bus ticket, I had had to select a specific bus to catch. I left the lake in plenty of time to slog back up the hill to the bus station, and as I reached the road across from it, in the darkening night I could just see the summit of Mt Fuji looming above the station roof. Locating my bus stop, I waited impatiently for it, tired of being on my feet, and always a little unsure that I was in the right spot. The time came and went and by now there was a crowd of us waiting. Eventually the Tokyo bus arrived and everybody surged forward, ignoring the Japanese rule of queuing. But the driver wouldn’t let us on. The bus that had arrived was the one after ours, and there was no way he was letting us on the bus. His English was broken but his message was clear: our bus was delayed and we just had to wait. Confusion and frustration rose when the same scene played out with the next bus. I was shattered, and just wanted to get back to Tokyo, a nearly 2hr drive away.

When the third bus arrived, I was overjoyed to be let on, but immediately concerned to discover that I was the only person that the driver let onto the bus. There were those that had waited as long as me, by now, nearly an hour, and I was immediately doubting that I was going to end up in Shinjuku. I could see some of the other passengers getting riled up and the language barrier was clearly causing some problems. But all I wanted was to sit down and get to Tokyo, so as much as I couldn’t understand why no-one else was being allowed on, I stayed rooted to my seat and watched the drama unfold. Within 5 minutes, in pitch darkness, we were on our way, leaving Kawaguchiko behind. I followed our route on my GPS until I was satisfied we were heading towards Tokyo and felt I could relax. We pulled into Shinjuku bus station at nearly 8.30pm having made good time back to the city. The city lights were shining bright in what is one of the popular night-time spots in the city. I was tired and hungry, but couldn’t completely ignore all the lights and sounds, so took a detour as I crossed between the bus station and the train station to get a brief view of the goings on. Back at my hotel in Yotsuya, I was excited to discover a vending machine that sold beer, a complete novelty, and another of those oh-so-Japanese things that I loved so much. I loved my choice of fruit beer so much that, like the dried squid, it became a regular consumption on my travels around the country.

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