By Ryan Vincent J. Cordova
The famed Sir George Mallory was once asked, “Why do men climb mountains?” His now famous reply has become a familiar catchphrase for mountaineers and would-be mountaineers alike: “Because it’s there.”
Sir Mallory was talking about the Himalayas when he uttered his famous quote, but his response echoes a sentiment that a lot of people can still relate to whenever we are drawn to a rugged mountain peak somewhere. It is also the sentiment that brought me and my aunt to make a snap decision to return to Japan earlier this year.
We’re not mountaineers, we don’t have any dreams of climbing a mountain, but we do want to see a good view of one.
Mt. Fuji is an active stratovolcano about 100 km southwest of Tokyo, with a peak 3,776 meters high in the sky and known for its picturesque snow-capped profile. It is one of three mountains in Japan considered as sacred places – the other two being Mt. Tate and Mt. Haku.
It is possible to see Mt. Fuji from Tokyo on clear days, which were in short supply during our trip last year. We had failed to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji before, so this time it fell on me to come up with a plan long before our actual trip to see Japan’s most recognizable landmark.
Shinjuku: Gateway to Fuji
We both love mountains, but my aunt and I are admittedly not mountaineers, by any stretch of the definition. There are two ways to enjoy Mt. Fuji, both readily accessible via Tokyo’s extensive train networks: actually climbing the mountain, or simply enjoying a good view of it from a little distance away. For this journey, I just decided on an itinerary that would get us as close to the mountain as we can get on a day trip from Tokyo.
Mt. Fuji is surrounded by the so-called “Fuji Five Lakes” area, from where apparently travelers can get great views of the mountain. I wanted to try something different, so for this trip I got advance reservations for the Highway Bus to Kawaguchiko – or in simple English, “Lake Kawaguchi” – one of the scenic towns in the Fuji Five Lakes area that was also the most easily accessible to tourists. Well, that was the plan…
The Highway Bus would leave in the morning from the busy business district of Shinjuku, one of the most fast-paced, densely populated of Tokyo’s wards. Getting to Shinjuku from our hotel in Ueno was easy by train – once we had gotten off the train to look for the bus station itself, however, that’s where we got completely lost, spending the better part of an hour getting lost in Shinjuku’s maze of side streets and underpasses.
In the end, we missed our bus and had to go to Plan B, by train from the Japan Railways (JR) Shinjuku Station. Unlike the bus, which would have taken us directly to Kawaguchiko, we had to switch trains at Otsuki; thankfully, the Japanese train network continues to have not yet betrayed our expectations of convenience.
We were hoping to still make it in time to see Mt. Fuji before she put on her “hat.” The best time to see Mt. Fuji in all her glory was early in the morning, when clouds have not yet begun to form around her peak.
Lake Town: Kawaguchiko
The trip from Shinjuku to Kawaguchiko passes through some diverse terrain, from high-rise big city urban sprawl, through industrial factory towns to rural smalltown villges dotting the countryside along the railway lines. The travel time takes about 1 hour, 45 minutes by rapid express train, considerably longer for regular and rapid trains.
Travelers might want to take note: Rapid express trains can be more expensive and serve fewer stops but are considerably faster on their specific routes – and usually have more luxurious coaches as well.
Mt. Fuji may still be quite a distance away across the lake, but make no mistake, this is mountain country. On rainy days near Kawaguchiko, fog can roll in and make for some dramatically obscured landscape scenery.
Kawaguchiko – or “Lake Kawaguchi”, the -ko suffix stands for “Lake” – is the best accessible gateway to the Fuji Five Lakes area near the foot of Mt. Fuji. This picturesque small town, spread out along the banks of Lake Kawaguchi, sees the most tourist traffic in the Fuji Five Lakes area – but also the best tourism infrastructure as well.
The tourist information center is adjacent to the station building and the tour buses around Lake Kawaguchi depart from in front of the station; also, the Kawaguchiko Station building makes for a beautiful background to a photo.
The place is a real tourist magnet, so expect to be sharing the trip with a lot of other tourists. We arrived during an offpeak period and the lines of visitors on the regular tourist bus routes that depart from Kawaguchiko Station were considerable.
A little food for thought for those looking to visit: Since we only came on a day trip we weren’t able to take advantage of it, but the tourist bus passes also come in a discounted two-day unlimited package that lets you ride the bus as much as you want for two days. You might want to keep that in mind when planning a future visit to Kawaguchiko.
The bus lines from the station run along the edge of Lake Kawaguchi, making for a very scenic ride. Since we only had a limited amount of time, I decided on the best place to feed our hungry shutterbugs.
Oishi Park, at the terminus of the first of Kawaguchiko’s two main tourist bus lines, features a tourist center and a garden that goes right up to the edge of Lake Kawaguchi. It is a good place to take photos of Mt. Fuji as a backdrop against the lake.
And as a photo, the view of the mountain does not disappoint. Even when covered by a hat of morning cumulus, the majestic slopes of Mt. Fuji from across the water gracefully sloping into the clouds are a truly awe-inspiring sight to behold – worthy of a poem or two. A variety of flowering shrubs grow along the lakeside. It was still too early in spring during our visit to see many of the plants in bloom, but depending on the season of your arrival, one can catch different flowers coloring the paths along the lakeside.
Again, for the best pictures of Mt. Fuji though, the best views of Kawaguchiko come before 10am. The scenery may not be as striking, but one can also get Mt. Fuji on camera during the train ride under good weather conditions.
We only stayed for only a few hours, taking back only pictures and some souvenirs from the Oishi Park tourist center. It was a brief but inspiring visit, and unfortunately we had other places we wanted to see on this trip to Japan.
After the train ride back to Tokyo, we still had a couple hours of daylight left. What to do with a couple hours in Tokyo? Just some stations away from Shinjuku Station there is a well-known tourist hotspot that we also wanted to see.
The so-called “Shibuya Crossing” is at the 8th exit of Shibuya Station. For the most part, it’s just a normal intersection like so many in Japan; but what sets it apart is the sheer volume of pedestrians crossing like an army of ants on the move every time the light changes. The Crossing is officially the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world. Many would recognize the location thanks to Hollywood, which has often used the intersection in movies.
At the plaza right next to the Shibuya Crossing is another similarly popular tourist attraction – together with the Crossing, one can’t miss it by the crowds. The statue of Hachiko standing at the center of the plaza is in honor of the faithful dog who waited for his dead master outside Shibuya Station until his own death. Dog lover or not, the story is one that has moved many people all over the world and continues to draw visitors to this statue every year.
Like Shinjuku, Shibuya is a huge place, and understandably the train stations servicing the area have quite a lot of exits. If ever you get lost finding your way to Hachiko’s statue and the Shibuya Crossing, just remember Hachiko’s name – “hachi” is Japanese for the number “8”.
There are few places in the world where one can go to into the mountains for a commune with nature in the morning and then go out amongst the rush hour crowds of a major metropolitan area, all within the same day; of course, it’s definitely not a feat for the faint of heart – or weak knees, for that matter.
So why did we choose that kind of hectic schedule for a vacation? Because it’s there.