Mount Fuji: Arising like an apparition above the clouds.

06.10.17 | Japan, Sabbatical, Travel |

The final article to be featured in the Japan Travel Series has been published. Read it on the Japan Travel site or read an exclusive extended version below.

Reading time: 3 minutes. Extended version reading time: 9 minutes.

 Mount Fuji: Arising like an apparition above the clouds.

I’m glad to be leaving Tokyo. The city is too big and too busy for me. Out of the window of the train between Odawara to Hakone Yumato, Mount Fuji arises like an apparition. The clouds are so low that they erase the bottom of the mountain. It seems like the snowy top of Fuji just hovers in the air. It’s another stunning day with white clouds in the bright blue sky.
I change trains to the Hakone-Tozan Mountain Railway. Opened in 1919, it climbs 527 metres on its zig-zag journey up into the mountains. The railway is a sister railway of the Rhätische Bahn in Switzerland. The train changes direction at switchback points three times on its climb. It’s early and, at the first switchback, the few passengers (me included) swap seats to face the new forward direction, only to have to swap back two more times at the subsequent switchbacks. At each stop, the driver has to get out of his cab and walk to the other end of the train. The line is mostly single track and so, at each station, we have to wait for the train coming in the opposite direction. Initially, the weaving climb is through tunnels. As we get higher, the route is open. We snake past waterfalls on the side of the snowy mountain.
I get off at Choukokunomori. It’s a small village with a wooden hotel that has hosted John Lennon and Charlie Chaplinamongst others. I stop for breakfast in one of the few small cafés. The set breakfast menu is a small bowl of salad, mildly curried rice covered with an omelette (and a dollop of ketchup) and ‘fruit juce’, which is clear jelly with a small chunk of kiwi and pineapple in it and served in petite pink cup on a doily saucer. The Hakone Open Air Museum is around the corner from the café and set on the hillside beneath the railway. The sun is very bright in the deep blue sky and it shines down on the fields covered with thick snow. I wander around the museum following the cleared pathway and on either side are modern sculptures by the likes of Henry Moore, Rodoin, Miro, Anthony Gormley and others. There is an extensive collection of Picasso’s work housed in one of the buildings. It’s a surreal exhibition in an unusual place and fantastically done.
Further up the mountain, at Gora, I have to change from the train to the Hakone Tozan Cable Car to get to Sounzan. Unfortunately, the Hakone Ropeway is closed for maintenance for a short section between here and Owakudani. With my stop for breakfast and my visit to the open air museum, it’s now mid-morning and it’s busy with surprisingly more people than either Nikko or Kamakura had. There’s a queue for the replacement bus and my heart sinks. Inside, the windows are steamed up and, unlike on the pleasant train journey, there is no view. To my relief, as we reach Owakudani, I get my first glimpse of the steaming hillside. White vapour hisses out from craters in the earth. Hakone’s volcano erupted over three thousand years ago to create the landscape of white steam released from pockets in the mountainside. I can see why the area was known as Jogokudani (Valley of Hell) before the Meiji Emperor renamed the area Owakudani (Immense Shimmering Valley) in 1873.
The bus turns in direction to reach the terminus and I get a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the bright sunshine, rising above the other mountains, with its distinct concentric form and snowy top. It is awe-inspiring. I get off the bus with the crowds, but only a few of us head to the viewpoint to see the sacred mountain. By the time I’ve taken in the view and breathed in the sulphuric volcanic air, it seems the crowds have disappeared. I make my way to the Hakone Ropeway. The terminus shop sells local black eggs that are boiled in the sulphur springs. Local legend has it that if you eat one it will add eleven years to your life.
It turns out that the Hakone Ropeway is actually a cable car ride to Togendai, which offers stunning views of Mount Fuji and Lake Ashi. In a similar way, the Hakone Cable Car between Gora and Sounzan was actually an electric funicular railway (not a cable car), and, to add to the confusion, my Hakone Free Pass is not actually a free pass as I had to pay for it. Nevertheless, the cable car ropeway does provide spectacular views and I’m lucky that there’s no fog or mist. Initially the view is just of Fuji which is good enough but as we go further I look down on to Lake Ashi. Its dark blue waters are surrounded by the dark green trees that contrast with the white of Fuji and the light-blue of the sky.
At Togendai, with pure Japanese efficiency, the cable car arrives and we transfer to a replica pirate ship for a cruise along the lake. The cruise leaves immediately and I don’t see any alternative but to join it. There’s no sign or explanation as to why it’s a pirate ship either. From the ship Fuji is hidden by another mountain, but the views of the lake and its surrounding mountains are fantastic. The Japanese cedar trees that circle the lake are almost autumnal with their dark green and browny-red colours. Only those at the foot of the mountains have the grey of winter. The lake is a crater lake, four hundred and twenty-five metres above sea level, and therefore never goes below four degrees in temperature. As we get to the southern side of the lake we pass shrines on the edge of the lake with their red gateways sitting in the water. At Hakone-machi I look back across the lake and Mount Fuji rises once more above the lake, towering above the other snowy mountains.
In the village of Hakone-machi there’s a reconstruction of the checkpoint established by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1619 which marked the border between the Kyoto and Edo regions. The checkpoint was to ensure weapons could not be smuggled into Edo and so that family members could not be sneaked out as hostages. Behind the checkpoint is the cedar avenue and also the Old Hakone Road. Walking around the checkpoint Mount Fuji looms in the distance and the view is quite spectacular across the lake. I mostly ignore the checkpoint exhibits and stare out across the lake at this world-famous mountain. I sit with a coffee in a small café and have some “WTF” time.
It’s so warm now that I almost need sun tan lotion. It’s so strange to see the mounds of snow everywhere in this warmth. I take the ferry the short distance across the lake to Hakone-en, where I take the cable car up Mount Komagatake. At the base of the mountain, where the ferry terminal and the cable car station meet, one women is desperate for business, waving small wood items – yosegizaiku (wooden mosaics) and himitsu-baku (secret boxes) – at the tour group ahead. There’s an old, small aquarium here but the whole place looks run down. The tour group is a strange mix of Chinese and Koreans plus a few Westerners. I hear American and British accents for the first time in days. The cable car terminus at the top of Mount Komagatake is even more run down than its counterpart at the bottom. When I bought my ticket for the cable car, the lady held a sign up to me that confusingly said: ‘Toilet becomes the mountain of the foot only’. I realise now, at the top, this meant there are no toilets up here but, in point of fact, there’s nothing up here at all.
Outside, with the elevation of the mountain, it’s cold and windy. The ground is covered with deep snow and thick ice, but the view is incredible. Behind the cable car building, on the peak of the mountain, is a red temple with a red gateway. From my viewpoint, it seems like the temple is at the very top of the world. The view to the south is of the lake with the mountainside in the shade. The view to the north is of the lake with Fuji rising above it. The bright haze of the day causes the white snow of Fuji’s peak to merge with the white clouds in the sky. It’s quite stunning.
The summit of Mount Komagatake needs some serious renovation work. My guess is that the newer Hokane Ropeway has taken its customers away, but this is the best view of Fuji I’ve had all day and it has the lake as an added attraction. I stay until my fingers are too cold to take any more photographs.
To complete my round trip of Hakone, I take the bus back towards Hakone-Yumato. Hakone-Yumato means source of hot-water. Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered natural baths to be built here in 1590 to provide his armies with respite in the natural hot spring waters of this volcanic region.
After an amazing day, as the sunshine of the day begins to turn to late afternoon gloom, I get off the bus in a small village and walk a hundred metres or so to my accommodation for the night. My honkan (hot springs inn) is a traditional wooden building alongside a fast flowing stream. I take my shoes off at the door and swap them for geta. I check in and reserve my time for my onsen (hot springs bath).
The inn is one of the oldest in the Hakone region. Incredibly, it originally opened in 1630. My ryuton (room) is comprised of two rooms with two smaller outer rooms with shoji between each. The very small entrance room is solely for my geta and has no tatami mats unlike the next two rooms. The next is a small room with shoji hiding a wardrobe which contains my futon, pillows and quilt. The middle room, the biggest, has a low table in the centre with two flat chairs with no legs plus zabuteon (cushions) and tea making equipment on the table. There is also a tokonoma (alcove), a hot water heater for the tea, and, surprisingly, a modern television which looks completely out of place. The small outer room, which overlooks the stream, is chilly with a small western table, two chairs and a sink. The toilets and washing facilities are elsewhere.
On the table, along with the fire safety brochure, is an instruction pamphlet for bathing, changing into a yukata (robe) and for organising the futon to sleep on. I follow the instructions for my yukata and walk, with difficulty in my geta, to the hot springs. There are public baths, one for men and one for women, plus a private one. I have reserved the private bath as I don’t really know the etiquette and don’t want to offend anyone with any mistakes. I follow the instructions by washing myself thoroughly in the shower first before bathing in the hot spring water. The water is supposedly efficacious against rheumatism, high blood pressure, diabetes and other ailments.
At dinner, in the dining hall on the top floor, I’m the only Westerner. At least I have my yukata on. Two Korean guests are inconspicuous in their jeans and t-shirts. The restaurant is only half full, although this is the second sitting of the evening. The other diners are young, maybe fifteen years or so younger than I. Two old waitresses fuss over everyone, bringing dish after dish from the kitchen. There is no menu and no choice. Neither of the waitresses speak any English, so I just sit back and let them serve me. The main course has vegetables in a bowl set on a small stove on the table. One of the waitresses comes over and takes my plate of raw beef and adds it to the mix. I eat my cold fishy starters whilst it cooks. Once the beef is done, I tuck into that too, adding the stew and sticky rice to my small bowl before eating it. I have no idea what any of it is, but it’s very, very good. Soup is brought too, plus a small salad and then a sorbet for desert.
Unusually, there is a bar in the honkan and (naturally enough) I check it out. It’s empty, so I take a beer back to my ryuton and catch up on my emails, sitting on the floor at the low table. I set up my futon and, in my Japanese bed, I’m grateful for another WTF day in Japan.

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