From Tokyo, we travelled south west for a couple of hours via the Narita Express, a special weekend service, to the tourist hotspot of the five lakes that surround Fuji San. Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain and is revered around the country, a national symbol.
We were combining a couple of more treats into the trip. We were staying in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese home – the Onsenyi Yumedono) with an onsen (a hot Japanese spring). The room we were staying in had a private onsen, perfect for us westerners who are uncomfortable with putting the full body flesh on display in a public bath.
Having waited for a couple of hours for our check in time at the almost Alpine local train station, we immersed ourselves into full ryokan mode. Tatami mats, sliding screen, no central heating – the full shebang.
We started with a dip in the spring. First off, you shower yourself down in the adjacent washing area, before walking through to your onsen. Sinking into 40° water in the snow was one of the most beautiful experiences imaginable, the steam rising around us.
We left the onsen, dried off and changed into our traditional dress. The yukata is a more casual kimono, made from cotton rather than silk. It was perfect for sitting on the matted floor to eat the beautifully presented if slightly gastronomically challenging dinner. The food was immaculate and many of the courses were delicious. We found that the ones that we didn’t enjoy were texturally different to western food, either overly rubbery (such as abalone) or slushy (for example the conger eel dish).
The final course was served in the side room. Due to the lack of heating, the table had an electric heater underneath it and heavy linen to keep the warmth in around your legs as you sat on the cushions.
And this is where the comfort issues and my lack of flexibility came in. I’m a big bloke and cramming and curling myself into the space and floor mats was something that I couldn’t get comfortable with – note to self – sort some pilates or yoga out for when I get back to the UK.
As we finished our meal, the maids set up the sleeping area. This is where the minimalist beauty of the ryokan came into its own. The low table that we had been served our meal on was slid away into a cubby hole along with the low chairs that we had been sitting on earlier. From the cupboard above it, the bedding for the night was taken down and laid out. A place for everything and everything in its place.
We went through our sandal on/off/shoe on routine the following day and headed out to sample the local area.
First stop was the Kachi Kachi Ropeway, a cable car which takes you 219m up Mount Tenjo, stopping just short of the summit. We completed the rest of the journey to the summit on foot, slipping and sliding our way up the path. As the sun broke through, the snow on the trees melted, making the path even more treacherous.
The views of Fuji were stunning, beyond my wildest dreams. The conical top was snowy, the 3776m peak towering over the adjacent mountains. It was a sight that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, especially privileged given the clarity of the views. By way of an example on the following morning, she (the mountain is female) was visible from our hotel but by the time I had grabbed my camera, it had been lost behind the mists again.
After some wonderful noodles for lunch, in a joint which in the UK would have been serving greasy crap, we took a pleasure boat ride onto Lake Kawaguchiko. Having been lucky enough to visit Lucerne on business last month, it was interesting to see how the Japanese did lakes next to mountains – not much different to the Swiss was the answer but with much better value for money and less snootiness.
We were incredibly lucky to see Fuji in full glory and be able to afford the ryokan experienced, combined with the onsen – a once in a lifetime experience, as so much of this holiday is.