Searching for Fuji-San
04.09.2008 - 07.09.2008 26 °C
We climbed a mountain, but Fuji-San wasn’t there.
We crossed the water, but Fuji-San wasn’t there.
We flew through the sky, but Fuji-San wasn’t there.
So we took a train somewhere else, and Fuji-San still wasn’t there.
“Ah, Fuji-San is very shy,” said the lady who ran the B&B we stayed at in Moto-Hakone, a mountain town by the shore of Lake Ashi, near Mount Fuji. It’s no surprise that we weren’t able to see Japan’s iconic volcano, really -- summer is very humid here and the sky is hazy. You can really only be sure of seeing Fuji-San (the suffix “-San” is used as both an honorific title, like “Mister,” and a word that means “Mount”) in the winter, when the air is totally clear. At other times, Fuji-San mostly remains bashfully cloaked in a swath of clouds.
It’s OK that we came to the mountains of central Japan and didn’t get to see Fuji-San, though. There’s plenty else to do and see in this resort area, including hiking on cedar-lined trails that were once the main highway between Kyoto and Tokyo...
The old Tokaido Highway. You can almost hear the clip-clop of the hooves of a passing samurai’s horse.
...As well as soaking in onsens, spas that feature baths in natural hot springs.
Obviously, I couldn’t take pictures inside the baths, because they were full of naked people, including us. And my camera has a phobia of hot steamy water. This is the outside of the Ten Zan onsen.
Japan sits smack-dab on top of one of the most geothermally active parts of the planet, and hot water bubbles up from below all over the place. The Japanese love to soak themselves in it; in fact, they say that the onsen is the only part of their culture that is uniquely Japanese, not imported from mainland Asia.
Some onsens are free, but most cost anywhere from $10-25 to visit. You take off your shoes upon entering (like almost everyplace else in Japan) and pay your fee, then men and women go their separate ways. You put your clothes in a locker and take a shower (major faux pas to go into a public bath without cleaning the naughty bits first), sitting down on a bench and washing, using a bowl to rinse yourself. You have a sweat in the nuclear-hot sauna if you like, then step outside into the rotemburo, a series of pools of various degrees of heat and bubblocity. Most of the pools are lined with natural rock and nestled in overhanging foliage. It’s quite beautiful, and very relaxing. Settle in, and if you’re going totally Japanese, drape the little towel you use to cover yourself outside the baths over your head.
After a good long soak in the bath of your choice, you shower off again, put on a yukata (light cotton kimono) and relax with tea and a book. It’s all very peaceful and reinvigorating after a long day hiking (or slaving in the office, if you’re Japanese).
Nothing but the sound of the waterfall outside
After a couple of Fuji-less days in Hakone, we moved on to Takayama, a small city on the edge of the Japan Alps.
Takayama from the foothills
The riverside old town has beautiful streets lined with perfectly preserved wooden and half-timber houses built during the era of the Shoguns, from the 17th-19th centuries.
Edo-era shops and houses
Waiting for a fare
Needless to say, it’s a very popular weekend trip for Japanese families.
”I refuse to smile for foreigners just because I look so darn cute in my kimono!"
Takayama is full of ryokans, traditional Japanese inns.
Ryokan Irori Sosuke
For about $100 per night, you get your own futon in a tatami-lined room with sliding paper doors, a yukata, and a bath down the hall.
I think I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so...
For a bit more, you can get meals downstairs, by the irori, the small fireplace in the living room.
Inside the ryokan
Refreshed from our time in the mountains even if we didn’t see Fuji-San, we headed onward to the cultural heart of Japan, the Kansai region: a big conurbation of the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and our destination -- Nara, Japan’s 7th century capital and home to the world’s largest wooden building, the Todai-ji temple.