Today we travelled from Narita to the Five Lakes region near Mt Fuji. According to the internet, Mt Fuji is generally visible (not obscured by cloud) from December - February. All weather forecasts predicted a clear day so we crossed our fingers and headed off.
Thank goodness for the JR passes and the ticket office, otherwise it would have been a bit overwhelming to complete all the connections. We rode the Narita Airport Express to Shinjuku than changed for a Rapid service (a train which stops at a limited number of stations) to Otsuki. We had reserved seats to Otsuki but rather than wait another hour we hopped into the unreserved car.
The week leading up to New Year is a peak holiday season in Japan. The train is packed with people heading home for the next few days to visit family and pay respects. Over the next hour we head further west through the sprawling metropolis that is Tokyo. Mt Fuji teases us with glimpses as we approach the hills which hold in the western spread of the city.
Once through the tunnels and the narrow passes, the built up areas fade away and we are treated to wonderful vistas of forest, lakes and gushing streams. In some respects we are lucky - the weather is mild (approx. 10 degrees celcius) for this time of year and there is no snow on the ground, although frost lingers in some areas where the sun doesn't reach.
We reach Otsuki at midday, having already been travelling for three hours. There we join the crush of holiday makers heading to the Fujikyu Railway, which is a single line track which connects Otsuki on the JR line to Kawaguchiko in the lake district. This is a local line serving the little villages dotted along the valley. Here we take our first sample of Japanese vending machine culture with a hot chocolate which comes from the machine with the top already on!
On the train we meet a couple from just outside of Milan. She is six months pregnant but certainly didn't look it. They're having a quick week in Japan (we sense the last holiday for a while for them) and are travelling impressively light with just a wheelie carry-on bag and a backpack. We chat about the mild weather both here and in Europe at the moment. It's not long before Mt Fuji reveals herself again, rising up over 3700 meters. We're at about 750 meters on the railway line.
Both the Italian couple and us have the same destination and we get off the train at Simone-Yoshida. Where?!? A tiny village that just seems to have houses. However on the hill is a small pagoda with an amazing view of the mountain. There's a problem - actually 397 of them. This is the number of steps up the hill to the pagoda. The Italian couple bound up suitcases in tow. It takes us a little longer.
However at the top the view is indeed amazing. The sky is perfectly clear and we can see the entire mountain. Cloud is forming on the other (western) side as the sun heats up the snow but we are blessed with a crystal clear view. We can even see the hiking trails zig-zagging up to the summit.
We have stumbled onto a secret. The Italian couple and us are the only Westerner's there. A Japanese couple are taking wedding photos with the mountain view - the bride has white woollen gloves to keep her hands warm. The only other people seem to be locals. There is not a tourist bus to be seen.
The light is tricky as we are looking directly at the sun, so getting a good photo is difficult. The Italians are experts (his father was apparently a photographer) and manage to take multiple exposures with the intent of stitching them together later on. A couple of tips later and we manage to get a passable photo.
From there we head further along the line to Kawaguchiko but not before passing the Fujiyama Highland theme park with some very scary looking rollercoasters. Somewhat out of place in such a beautiful setting.
At Kawaguchiko things are a lot more touristy with sight seeing buses, restaurants, souvenir shops and lots of hotels along the shore of the lake. We can see why - it's a very pretty area. The lake is about a 10 minute walk down the hill from the train station. We're already noticing the number of shops closed for the holidays. At 3:30pm the sun is already setting and the temperature is dropping rapidly - it's already down to 6 degrees. At the lakeside we have some indecision over the sightseeing boat or the cable car before settling on the cable car to the top of one of the surrounding hills.
We're now at 1000 meters and the view is different again. A slightly different angle and also the sun in a different position creates a whole new perspective on the mountain. Cloud is now forming halfway up the slope, looking like a wispy necklace around a long neck. We choose to go down about 5 minutes too early - as we're waiting for the cable car the mountain is bathed in the pink light of the last sun.
Before we can head home we need some more cash and experience our first mild panic of the trip. None of the ATMs will recognise our international debit card. Fortunately a sign at the currency exchange tells us the 7-Eleven branded ATMS (and the Japan Post) do accept international cards so problem solved. Surprisingly, Japan is a cash economy. Every small shop, convenience store, supermarket, ticketing machine and just about everything else won't accept credit cards. The vending machines will take the Suica card (an NFC travel card with preloaded credit). Your credit card might come out in a major department store and certainly for your accommodation. Be prepared.
It's 3 degrees as we re-trace our steps back home to the opposite side of Tokyo. A super express train takes us from Otsuki through Akihibara where we see shoppers strolling the streets in the bright lights of the advertising signs before heading east out of the centre of the city. On approach to Chiba we get a glimpse of the nightly fireworks display from Tokyo Disneyland and from there it's onto Narita where things have warmed up to 5 degrees.
794 steps up and down a hill, 380 kms of train travel over 8 hours and 1 truly magical mountain. Absolutely worth every magical moment of the iconic Mt Fuji, inspiration of Japanese religion, art and natural beauty.