First published with Sunny Side Adventures – https://sunnyside-adventures.com/2017/06/16/admiring-mt-fuji-from-the-beauty-of-kawaguchi-ko-japan/
As the bus travels further from the hectic crowds of Tokyo the scenery becomes greener and increasingly mountainous. It is breath-takingly beautiful heading towards the Mt Fuji region, and I can’t help but make the comment aloud despite travelling alone.
The bus travels around a bend to reveal the first glimpses of Japan’s sacred mountain Fujisan (Mt Fuji).
The monstrous 3776 metre active volcano is perfectly symmetrical, and snow capped at this time of year. Fujisan is Japan’s tallest mountain, and has been worshipped as sacred for centuries. Making the trek to the top is popular during climbing season, which runs for a few months from early July. But it is said the best way to admire Fuji in all it’s beauty is not from its peak, but the surrounding towns.
I’m heading to Kawaguchi-ko, a town in the Fuji Five Lake region, which prides itself on some of the best views of Mt Fuji.
There are few clouds in the bright blue sky this morning. It is a travellers blessing to have a clear view of Mt Fuji, particularly in summer, when clouds, haze and poor visibility can mean visitors may leave disappointed without a good look at Fuji’s grand heights. I’m lucky I have arrived with a clear view, but the clouds don’t stay away for long. (TIP: Plan your trip to Kawaguchi-ko when clear skies are forecasted).
Kawaguchi-ko is a tourist town in a beautiful natural setting, with a large lake, Mt Fuji towering overhead, and lush green mountain ranges surrounding the region. It is a popular place for day or weekend trips from Tokyo (it takes about two hours on the bus and you can also catch the train), and a top choice for those who want to get away from the crowds of the city and experience the natural beauty Japan has to offer.
Here’s my top tips for two days at Kawaguchi-ko.
Hire a bike
For those who are fit and able, riding a bicycle is one of the best ways to see the sights of Kawaguchi-ko. There are three shops offering bike hire across the road from Kawaguchi-ko station. Most cost around $18 AUD for the day, but I spent around $30 AUD to hire a bike for 24 hours.
It is beautiful riding around Lake Kawaguchi, where you can admire the lush green mountain ranges, stunning Mt Fuji, and the beautiful lake. You will also have the opportunity to easily visit many tourist spots around the lake and go off the beaten track a little if that takes your fancy. The trip around the lake is around 20km, and will take roughly two to two and a half hours to ride. But allow at least half a day to make the journey, and stop at the multiple sightseeing spots along the way. If you’re not up to riding, there are a few sightseeing buses that make it easy to travel to various points around the lake.
Hoto originates from the Yamanashi region which encompasses the northern part of Mt Fuji. Flat udon noodles and vegetables are stewed in miso soup to make the simple dish which originated in farming households in times of poverty. Hoto has now gained popularity amoung tourists.
I recommend Kawaguchi-ko’s Hotou Fudo to enjoy this scrumptious local dish. Here you will not only savour the experience of working your way through a steaming bowl of goodness, but taking in the atmosphere of the busy restaurant where the staff run carrying steaming hot pots and continuously yell to each other in Japanese.
It is also worth the trip to the the north Kawaguchi-ko head store on a more residential side of the lake. The atmosphere changes here, and you will feel like you are riding through the Japanese countryside. But you may need to use Google Maps to find the restaurant.
It is only a couple minutes ride from the shore of the lake, but there are no English signs on the restaurant. You will know you are at the right place if there are people in an orderly line outside the door. Simply join the cue, and wait for an unforgettable regional Japanese eating experience. There is an English menu available, but there’s no real need to look too hard. There is only one main dish, hoto, and a few side options available. For me, the hoto dish was super filling, and I don’t think I could have fit in a side.
Visit the kimono museum
Next stop on my ride around Lake Kawaguchi was the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum which displays beautiful kimono’s created by artist Itchiku Kubota. Mt Fuji has provided inspiration for numerous artists throughout past centuries.
Kubota’s rediscovery of an ancient Japanese dying technique allowed him to create the beautiful kimono art on display at the museum. Walking through the small exhibition room truly is a uniquely Japanese experience of art which has a noticeable link to the Fuji region.
However, I found the entry fee to be a little on the pricey side for the short time I spent there. It cost 1300 yen for an adult entry which is around $16 AUD. But if you can spare the change, it is worth a visit. It is also enjoyable to wander the beautiful grounds and admire the unique stone building after being lost in the world of Kubota’s kimono art.
Embrace being naked amoung strangers at an onsen
You must be naked to bath in most Japanese onsen.
It may be an off-putting thought at first. It was for me, and I was definitely hesitant heading in. But there’s no need to feel uncomfortable – being naked amoung others of the same gender is a routine activity at Japanese onsen.
I stripped off at an onsen a minute up the hill from the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum. You will want to bath after riding (or walking your bike) up this hill!
Take off your shoes as you enter and use the machine on the left to buy an entry ticket. You can also hire a towel for 300 yen. Then head through to the women’s area on the left or men’s area on the right. Strip off in the change-room, place your bag in a locker, and head through to the washing area. It’s important visitors wash before entering the baths. Sit naked on a small stool and use the hand held shower and soap to wash yourself clean while others do the same immediately around you. Be sure to wash off all soap before heading to the baths as any contamination of the water is frowned upon.
There are a few baths to chose from, one inside and a couple outside. In the hot soothing water you can relax, breath, and take in the lush green scenery. But don’t expect anything flash at this onsen. It’s not touristy, and it seems to be mainly a bathing place for locals.
Just sit and watch
As you continue your ride around the lake there are ample places to park your bike along the way which offer a chance to simply stop, take a breath, and admire the scenery. Take advantage of the moment if the skies are clear by stopping to take in the wonder of Mt Fuji. You never know when the clouds will arrive. I had beautiful clear views of Mt Fuji on the morning of my arrival, but by the afternoon, clouds were covering its peak and the next day saw extremely poor visibility due to haze and cloud.
Experience Japanese barbecue at Sanrokuen
Like Hotou Fudo, Sanrokuen is another eating experience that is worth waiting for. After cycling to the restaurant about five to ten minutes from Kawaguchi-ko station (again using Google Maps) I was told the restaurant was full and was asked to wait about 20 to 30 minutes for a spot.
It was definitely worth the wait. You will be guided to your own fire pit where you must take off your shoes and then take your seat on a floor cushion. Select from the menu and staff will then bring out a plate packed with raw skewered food and a white glove, while attempting to explain in Japanese how to cook the food over the hot charcoals in your fire pit.
It is likely that, like me, you will have no idea what you are doing, or how long to cook your food for – especially when you get to the whole rainbow trout – but it is all part of the fun. So put on that white glove, and barbecue away!
Enjoy a tour at the Ide Sake Brewery
Sake is the national beverage of Japan and a trip to the country without a taste would be a lost experience. I recommend Kawaguchi-ko’s Ide Sake Brewery as a way to fully embrace the sake experience. Here you will learn how sake is made at this family owned brewery which has been passed through the family for 21 generations. The nation-loved drink is produced by fermenting polished rice, and at Ide Sake Brewery you will come to admire the meticulous process mostly completed by workers rather than machines. Sake is only brewed in the winter due to the cold temperatures required, but a tour around the brewery in summer was just as valuable, with videos and explanations complementing tours through the brewery rooms.
Then comes the sake tasting, perhaps the highlight of the tour. The crystal clear liquid is poured into small glasses which visitors can keep as souvenirs. You will be poured three glasses of different tasting sake and then have the opportunity to make purchases as the tour finishes.
At 500 yen per person (around $6 AUD), this tour is probably the most value for money you will find anywhere in the area. The tour lasts for around 50 minutes, and includes the chance to see the owners’ traditional Japanese house and garden. The three half glasses of sake during the tasting and a souvenir sake glass are included.
Tours run once, sometimes twice daily depending on the day, at 9.30am or 3pm. Visit the website for more details and to make a tour reservation. (The website warns the owners are not good at speaking English, but I understood everything our tour guide said).
Eat lavender ice cream
Where else have you ever seen lavender ice-cream? Exactly. Kawaguchi-ko is your chance to experience the taste of lavender. There is a shop on the right hand side of the street near Lake Kawaguchi if coming from Kawaguchi-ko station.
Take the Mt Kachi Kachi Ropeway
Hopefully the skies are clear when you take the Mt Kachi Kachi Ropeway, because the three minute cable car ride to the top will provide spectacular views of the lake and Mt Fuji from a height.
A return ticket costs 800 yen. Visit the website for more details.
Make the trip to Fujiyoshida to visit a World Heritage listed shrine
Fujiyoshida is a short six minute train ride from Kawaguchiko station. It is a less touristy area, but it is worth making the trip to visit the World Heritage listed Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine.
The shrine lies in a dense green forest about twenty minutes walk from Mt Fuji (also called Fujisan) station. The main shrine building dates back to 1615 and was used as a common starting point to climb Mt Fuji throughout history. Two sacred trees outside the shrine are over 1000 years old.
If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a traditional style Japanese wedding ceremony which often take place at the shrine.
If you have time to kill after your visit to the shrine, Oshino is a beautiful historic village which I have heard is worth a visit. I began my journey there by taking a bus from the stop outside the shrine before realising I had not cash so had to get off half way and walk the rest of the way back to the station in an attempt to find an ATM at a 7/11 store. Top tip: always make sure you have enough cash in a country where cash really is king. But as one of my favourite quotes says, ‘bad decisions make good stories’ (would you believe I saw this outside a real estate agent’s office?!). Getting off the bus and walking for kilometres meant I could explore the backstreets of Fujiyoshida, a town where rice fields are metres away from supermarkets.
I have the most fun travelling following a philosophy of researched spontaneity. Know what’s on offer, then allow yourself to get lost and make rash decisions – who knows what treasures you will find along the way.