It was a long detour with only one goal; we wanted to see Mount Fuji. Whether it was worth the night bus to and from the area was something we would only find out by trying. In one of our more decisive moments we decided to just go for it. Mount Fuji (or Fujiyama or Fuji-san) is THE most iconic symbol of Japan and is regocnised the world over. Rising 3,776m above the sea, it is the highest mountain in the land of the rising sun. It is also a volcano and almost perfectly cone-shaped. What makes it even more impressive is the fact that it is completely alone, a huge stand alone marvel. Add to this the five volcanic lakes which Mount Fuji created by spewing lava rivers and you have a great place to go hiking. Sadly the hiking season for Mount Fuji itself is a short few months of the summer so we would have to make do with some other mountains and hope for good views. For our base we chose Kawaguchiko in the five lakes region.
Kawaguchiko is a bit of a transport hub for tourists with buses connecting it to Osaka,Tokyo and quite a few other cities. It hugs the shore of the lake and is in turn surrounded by mountains. We enjoyed the atmosphere which was obviously touristy but not too much so. This might be partially due to the time of year but even in mid-November there were still 20 coaches parked next to the lake and many visitors coming and going to and from the train/bus station. Again we found the local tourist office to be a great source of information and we even got a free hiking map with a handful of walks up mountains around the town.
After checking in we walked down to and along the lake to explore and enjoy the scenery. It was very cloudy so we only had the lower half of mount Fuji to see. Fuji often hides in the clouds as early as 9am so it wasn’t a surprise to us. On the far side of the lake was a autumnal food and craft market which we decided to explore. It turned out that most stalls sold food, but since we had decided to cook in the hostel, we stuck to free samples. Next to the market area was a walkway along a water channel. We had been told that it was was something famous (locally) thanks to allcthe maple trees but at the time of our visit the peak colours were already over. We enjoyed the handycraft stalls before heading back along the shore. That evening we went to bed quite early to catch up on sleep in preparation for a super early start the next day.
We got up at 6am because we wanted to have a good breakfast before heading up some mountains since. We were treated to a beautiful sunrise view of the iconic volcano. The rising sun turned the white snow cap pink made the whole scenery a bit fairytale-like. While Zoë got the view from the kitchen making pancakes (a long time miss and craving), Matthias climbed up onto the roof terrace to get some nice photos. We had timed it very well and by the time all the other guests came down from the viewing platform into the kitchen we were already eating. It was clear that we did not need to rush up the hills as there were no clouds in sight to hide Fuji.
Our goal for today was mount Mitsutoge (1785m). We took the long way via mount Tenjo to get some more walking time and views out of it. On the way up to Tenjo there were already two fairly big viewing platforms (the higher one can be reached by cable car). From there the path wound through nice forest and for the majority of the distance followed the broad ridge line.
In the quiet of this forest we found something really bizarre. It looked to us as though icicles were growing upwards out of the ground. At first we only found a few, but the further up the mountain we got the more we saw. They were in huge bunches of fine delicate ice. We had never seem anything like it and couldn’t figure out just how they came to be. Thankfully, uncle google knew just what they were. Needle ice is a phenomonen where the difference between the cold air and warm soil temperatures caused ground water to move to the surface where it freezes into needles or pillars. The Japanes even have their own word for this, shimobashira or frost pillars. The saying ‘you learn something new every day’ is especially true for travelling.
We were lucky and had sunshine all day and it was a great pleasure to hike up the row of mountains. We could hardly believe how empty the path was; apart from the area around the ropeway we only met a couple of other walkers. This was all about to change as we approached the top. Suddenly, there were a lot more people. For lunch, we only just managed to beat a group of hikers to a sunny bench at a lookout area and enjoy another view of Fuji. Near the top of Misotuge yama were two huts offering food, drinks (yes, there were vending machines) and accommodation. Around them sat loads of hikers (moat of them on the ground) having their lunch.
Even though this trip was described as being 5-6h long (depending on the path you take), every Japanese hiker carried at least a 30 or 40 liter backpack (our daysack was 15l) and we could not understand why. There was no cloud in sight, the weather stable and not too cold. At lunch time discovered the solution: they basically carried a whole kitchen with them. Most locals had some type of gas stove to heat up water so they could have instant noodles. Rch backpack seemed to contain at least two of the big (and largely empty) meal tubs plus a lot of other snacky food. They did not seem to thing that there are more convenient meal options for hiking than that. Even the Japanese onagiri (stuffed rice wrapped in seaweed) is a lot better in terms of calory per space. Some people seemed to have improved things slightly: they carried their hot water in a thermo flask.
We summited mount Mitsutoge and then chose another pathway down to see what else the mountains had in store. The path was a little steeper and slippy. Matthias ended up with some muddy trousers after the needle ice helped him slide down a bank. It was really strange stuff to walk on as it crunched like ice but them slid you downwards as the leaf litter and pine needles balancing on top prevented your shoes finding any grip. The slowly slowly approach paid off and we both made it safely off the steeper sections of the path. Our walk took us along a forestry track to some fantastic waterfalls and then into town and along the lake shore. This even gave us the chance for a view of Fuji from the lake. It was a brilliant day and ended with a sunset view of Fuji (not so impressive as sunrise) and a good cup of tea.
Our second day promised to be cloudy and cool. Instead of opting for a lie in we got up with Fuji and the sun to enjoy breakfast with a view. Afterall we may only see Fuji for a few days in our lives, so we might as well make the most of it. We set out in search of mount Asahiwada otherwise known as the flower mountain. It was a long trek across town to the foot of the mountain chain but once we reached the first view point we were rewarded with a green woodpecker sighting. Further along our trail got steep and became relentless. It was less scenic than the previous day and tired our legs out fast. With burning thighs we reached the summit of Asahiwada and climbed the last few steps to the viewing platform. We could see lake Kawaguchi but still didn’t get a view of lake Sako. Just a few hundred meters down the trail lake Sako came into view and the cold breeze started to blow. We were missing the sunshine a lot and so made swift progress to the next summit. It had better lake views but we had our sight set on a bus ride back to the hostel and a hot cuppa.
We were happy to be back in the warm and with tea in hand before our bus back to Tokyo. We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out. When the evening came around we made our way to the bus station and started our journey back south. It had been totally worth our detour. We both agreed we had been missing the great outdoors and felt ready for the next few weeks of mainly cities.