“there were many bushes around here which I thought was strange because there was so much sulfuric acid in the area but I guess they must have adapted to it” – Navindd
Once the gondola gained elevation, the true beauty, immensity of the lake and the surroundings of this place can be witnessed. It oozed tranquility. Past Ubeko Station, the climb became steep. Now above the trees canopy, there were fabulous views of the width of Mt Fuji. A thick layer of clouds hung just below the reddish summit against an unusual blue sky. Plumes of steam rose from the ground as we approached Ōwakudani. From the station is a short nature trail around this active volcanic area. The pungent scent of sulfurous fumes hung heavily in the air. Little streams of bubbling hot water flowed from vents together with pools of bubbling mud. Although active in volcanic activities, many types of trees thrived here. One of the things to do here seemed to be to buy sulfur blackened eggs, “onsen tamago”. Tasted like ordinary eggs. Not wanting to inhale too much of the poisonous gases, we continued our rope-way ride to the summit of Sōunzan Station. There were great views of towns and the vast expanse of the Pacific. On the decent, we boarded a bright red funicular cable car to Gōra Station. It was a steep but a comfortable ride.
The view of Mount Fuji from Hakone, weather permitting, is one of the best. In the same light, Kawaguchiko would have been perfect – not for us though. Today, it showed its full grandeur. Regarded scared and for over thousand years, had inspired poets and artist, and pilgrims and “tourists” had climbed its slopes. Now we are part of that history. This morning, we were privileged. The morning sun shone brightly and the air clear. From afar, at Ōwakudani, the majesty of Fuji, apart from shadow cast from a streaking cloud, the view from its conical summit to its extensive slopes, the villages, the flora and landscape, were all clearly visible. As the sun moved, the vista constantly evolved. Like the seasons, nothing (view) is permanent. It is said that if a person was fortunate to see Fujisan in person, he or she will return to Japan. We certainly want to.
I woke up early this morning. It was bright outside and looked promising. Armed with my camera, I hurried outside towards the end of the corridor. A perfect conical Fujisan glowed in the dawn sun. It was a perfectly clear day. I could see the mountain huts and three trails – Subashri, Gotemba and Fujinomiya treks scratched on the slopes. It was a beautiful sight. The lush green forest in the foreground accentuated the view. I was mesmerised by the phenomenal mountain. Although I had earlier climbed to the summit, looking from here gave me a different perspective- one of awe, impermanence and beauty. You cannot see a mountain when you are on it. As the sun rose, the colours changed with it. From reddish to hazy brown and the sky pale blue. A golf course nearby the hotel was still in darkness.
The previous day’s rain seemed to have created a sharp image of the green pine forest and the blue Lake Ashi. The air was fresh but chilly. It was a promising day to venture other parts of Hakone. We made arrangements at the hotel via a luggage transfer service to deliver our luggage to Hakone Yumoto train station. From here we walked to the pier and caught the Hakone Ropeway to Ōwakudani. Hakone is a popular tourist site, not only for views of Fuji but renown for natural hot springs and spas. It is after all a volcanic area. It lies within the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park.
“….the magnificent Mt Fuji was red like Mars, towering in the distant” – Navindd
There is something in the water! Japan is dotted with volcanos and thus active thermal activities. Taking hot spring or “onsen” bath is an age old Japanese tradition which has now become almost religious. Onsen are spread out throughout Japan but some are valued highly for its water quality and ambiance. The old ones usually do. There are several ‘types’ – indoor and “rotenburo”, outdoor (open air); gender separated and mixed; simple and intricate; family and communal; public,”Sentō” and private (as part of a ryokan). Indoor pools can be tiled or wooden – cypress, oak, cedar. I was looking forward to indulge in this tradition. Navindd and Lee Cheng were apprehensive, nakedness is involved!
My first was at Kawaguchiko. After the long accent and decent on Fujisan, it was only appropriate that I soak this battered old body in a nice hot spring. Near to our hostel is a five star ryokan, Fuji Onsenji Yumedono, which offered its “onsen” facilities at ¥900 (discounted rate). The entrance is landscaped with dense vegetation and wooden buildings. The narrow walkway with lanterns led to a reception hall. First, remove the shoes/slippers and slip on an indoor footwear which were all neatly arranged facing inwards. Here the “onsen” is gender separated with large red (women, “Onnayu”) and blue (men, ” Otokoyu”) “noren” , curtains with a ‘yu’ symbol. Then, to the changing room, “Datsuijo”. There are strict etiquettes’ to follow in an “onsen” experience. Removed all my clothing and left them in a tray. Entered the hot pool (this was an indoor pool). It was steamy with a few people around. There are a few taps with basins and stools along a wall. Here, it is required that one takes a bath, completely scrubbed with soap and washed down (seated, I might add). Now, I entered the hot pool. It was certain HOT! The hot shower did help to acclimatise to the hot spring water. Clothing’s, including towels are not allowed to touch the pool water. Gradually, my whole body was immersed in the mineral water. My body relaxed and sensual appeal of a hot bath set in. I noticed that the men around me had a small towel, “tenugui”, either on their heads or on the side. Basically, it is used to cover the genitals when out of the water. I had none.
The essence of being naked is that all are equal, no boundaries – no differences in status, profession, wealth, etc. I like this ideology. Sweat poured out. I needed another shower. Then, back into the soothing pool again. Just outside the bath rooms, is a large raised wooden platform. Time for pause, sip some tea and to reminisce on my first Japanese “onsen” experience. It was comforting, calming and sedative. I returned the following day for another session. Hakone is a popular “onsen” region with numerous resorts and traditional ryokans. The initial euphoric feeling remained with each experience as we travelled. Immersing oneself in this Japanese tradition is essential and definitely rewarding. Next time, an outdoor or even, perhaps a mixed “onsen”?
“The “onsen” experience is not just entering a hot bath but is much more although subtle – it is the cleansing of the body and mind; a healing place; take time to slow down in a rushed world; recharged as fatigue dissipates; perhaps, in such a place – a zen enlightenment may occur?”
At the entrance past a huge clock, magnificent coloured images of Fujisan in varying light conditions and seasons were displayed. I looked out across the lake and could only see Fuji’s base barely visible in black and white. This is also a major stop for tour buses. Jars of blueberry jam and more were displayed on the shelves. We relaxed with a nice light meal near a pergola. We continued cycling close to the water’s edge and passed small patches of wild flowers and rice fields. Straws of rice hung upside down on wooden poles to dry. At one stage, the pathway was completely covered with undergrowth and sedge grasses. With a little effort, we continued along this shoreline. Where there were no paths, we detoured towards the main roads. We cycled past several capes and bays along the shore. Picturesque settlements dotted the shoreline. Once we had passed the Koyo Tunnel, the stretch of road was covered with evergreen trees on either side and was pleasant to ride. The damp weather continued and the skies stubbornly grey.
Along the main road, opposite a shrine, was a delightful eatery. It was small but had fabulous views of the lake and the rocky outcrops floating on the water. With our shoes damp and clothing wrapped under the rain coats, we decided to stop for lunch. The hostess could not speak any English. However, a congenial couple next to us acted as interpreters. There was only one fixed lunch menu – pork belly. I requested for a vegetarian option. The hostess obliged.
“…..had only two dishes on the menu – lunch and desert……the food looked amazing. On my plate was the most delicious smelling pork belly, soup, eggs and potato salad – a scrumptious combination” – Navindd
We had one of the best meals served by a hospitable hostess. The atmosphere was great –homely. It is these small eateries that are a delight when travelling around in Japan, both in cities and rural areas. As usual language barriers bring about special rapport. These are the memories that last a long time about these places. Later we tucked into some lovely sweet local deserts. We continued cycling as the day headed towards dusk. The gloomy weather continued but was pleasant to cycle.
Next morning, I looked out of my room window across the lovely “onsen” I had visited yesterday. The sky was grey and drizzled intermittently. Kawaguchiko is an excellent place to view Mt Fuji but not today. I wandered off to the lake’s edge. A couple of fisherman had cast their line and waited patiently. Fine early morning mist descended onto the lush green mountains and the Kachi-Kachi – Yama Ropeway was barely visible. I walked across the Kawaguchiko Ohashi Bridge over a misty lake. A few fishermen on tiny boats headed towards their favourite spots. There was hardly any road traffic this morning. Only the sounds of bird calls and the hum of the motorised fishing boats broke the silence. I felt a million miles away from the hustle and bustle and neon lights of Tokyo. However, it is only a two hour train journey to get here. This place exudes tranquillity and is reminiscent of a lake resort.
We hired some bicycles at the hostel to explore the lake’s surroundings. Lake Kawaguchiko lies within the Fuji Five Lake, “Fujigoko” region. The other lakes are Saiko, Shojiko, Motosuko and Yamanakako. One common feature of all these lakes is it offers best viewing opportunities of Mt Fuji and its reflection on the lakes. There were few vehicles on the road this morning.
We crossed the bridge which I had visited earlier this morning, and just followed the road left onto the northern shores. Where possible, we stayed close to the shore. We cycled along a narrow paved pathway under drooping willows and maple trees. This narrow lane is a favourite during the cherry blossom and autumn leaves colour when in season. We were excited to see just a tiny bit of autumn leaves colour. This site is one of the many views of Fuji- san reflected on the water.
Today, only the wide base of Fuji was visible. It started to drizzle yet again. We rode in the rain. Unfortunately, Lee Cheng fell off the bike near a hotel. Fortunately she recovered with a slight bruise. Along the pathway, there are a few small parks to rest and wander around. We passed rows of neatly manicured lavender bushes. Blueberry is also popular here. We had arrived at the Oishi Natural Living Center.
“….on a clear day you could see Mt Fuji. Sadly, when we arrived, the weather was not on our side as all we could see were angry black clouds” – Navindd
“Then, the final torii or gate stood in front of us, marking the summit. We ran up the stairs with new found energy and joy. Everyone was shouting happily and hugging each other, the cold was forgotten” – Navindd
Slowly but surely we forged on guided only by light from our headlamps. Some trekkers were slumped on the ground with exhaustion. Altitude sickness is a serious issue. The steepness continued. The icy wind battered our faces. Gradually, the night sky turned to deep blue and the horizon was visible. However, heavy clouds prevailed. At 0430, we reached the white “torii” guarded by two marble lion statues. The last leg was a series of steps. We had reached the 10th station, the summit. A cluster of buildings occupied the narrow space including Kushusi Jinga shrine. Today’s few trekkers rested here. All the buildings were shut but rattled in the blowing wind. Tiredness from the walk vanished and our bodies magically seemed revitalised. A sense of having arrived came upon us. Navindd and I walked higher to the crater rim. A series of peaks surrounded the crater with the highest being 3776m. A thick fog engulfed the summit. Within minutes, the deep crater was invisible. Our hands were frozen. A glow emerged between the clouds and the grey sky. For a few precious minutes, we witnessed a magnificent sunrise – “Goraikō”, meaning “arrival of light”. The white clouds below turned to a sea of blue. Two Japanese hikers hailed at that sight. Moments like this, I truly appreciated the holiness of Fuji.
Suddenly, the summit was completely engulfed with dense clouds and a relentless icy wind descended. A hailstorm erupted. With no shelter available, we hastily descended on a slippery rocky trail. The wind and ice battered down mercilessly. Dawn was illuminated but no sunlight. Only a grey cocoon with falling icy stones. After, over an hour’s walk, we sought refuge in a hut. The staffs were in their final stages of packing. With hot drinks in our hands and sheltered, we felt warm. Windows and doors shattered in the wind.
Eventually, the two hour storm subsided. The sunlight on my face was bliss. Everything was now crispy and clear. The sight of the soft morning light on the shrubs, the lunar-like reddish surface and the green pine trees below were uplifting. As we descended, Navindd alerted me to the moon that was just descending behind Fuji. We retraced our trek downhill. We had time to appreciate the terrain we had walked earlier in darkness – the steep rocky slopes, the link chains and ropes, huts, flora and the grandeur of the mountain.
Looking back towards the summit, it had indeed been a pilgrimage on a holy mountain. The cold, icy wind and terrain is now etched in our memories as an experience to savour. It is especially special as we had done this as a family. I am proud of Navindd and Lee Cheng.
“we were so high above the clouds that when we looked up, all we could see was the blue sky, a burning bright sun and the peaceful moon – all in one picture” – Navindd
Today, Fuji relented. This journey would be one of the enduring moments of our lives. With minimum facilities and totally self- reliant, I was anxious about climbing Fuji in the off season. However, it was worth every moment, from start to finish. After descending for four hours, we surrendered to “ramen” and pancake at the 5th Station. We left by bus to the lake town, Kawaguchiko. I looked back at the holy mountain; it was no more – once again, wrapped up in a greyish-white soft cocoon. It was meant to be!
As we entered the hut, we were greeted by about two dozen weary but jubilant trekkers. Natsuko, an English speaker with whom I had booked the hut earlier, grinned brightly. There was one foreigner and the rest Japanese. We warmed up at a small fire place. The hut was basic but adequate. The atmosphere was cosy and jovial. One trekker called out to me to come into the cold and windy exterior. I braved the elements and witnessed the auspicious “Kage Fuji”, the shadow of Fuji reflected onto the swirling grey clouds. Throughout the accent, there were rarely any views of the lakes and towns at the base of Fuji as the clouds descended. After a simple hot meal, we collapsed into our sleeping bags in a long double bunk room, with a capacity of 300, for a deserved rest and reflection.
I did not get much sleep as doors slammed and voices chattered in the lounge. We were up at past midnight. We dressed up in our thermal underwear, layers of shirts, pants and fleece. In the lounge, the other trekkers were already having their breakfast. I topped up my water bottle with boiled water at ¥1000 per litre. We had sushi and a hot bowl of miso soup. I staggered around neither asleep nor fully awake. Lee Cheng had second thoughts of continuing. As this hut was shutting down today, her options of staying indoors’ vanished. Alternatively, is to wait outside the hut in the bitter cold and wind with no shelter or to descend. She pulled herself and decided to trek to the summit. Our final apparels were waterproof jacket and pants, and hiking boots. When the door opened, the icy cold air hit my face. I pulled my gloves tightly and adjusted my headlamps. It was pitch dark and bitterly cold.
We started around 1.45am. Guided only by our headlamps, we walked on the steep terrain. It was slippery and footing at times unsteady. I could see scattered light trails up the mountain slope. We navigated the volcanic rocks, some sharp like razors, and negotiated large boulders. Breathlessness became frequent. Sometimes walking upright was not an option where the climb was steep and required us to be on all fours. Chains anchored to the rock were the only means to move forward. However, it was slippery and terribly icy. I was tired but breathing well. My fingers were especially cold. We passed a few huts, made from metal and wood. All tightly held down and locked. There is not even a shelter from the howling wind. Besides the closed mountain huts, rescue personnel, facilities and transportation, also does not exist. Self- preparedness for an off- season climb is paramount.
Walking slowly with frequent rest enabled us to acclimatise to the increasing altitude. We reached a red “torii” at 9th Station. Physically we felt good but the elements, wind and bitter cold, was a challenge. It seemed like it has taken us awhile to get here. Navindd had been strong throughout.
“Our lights shone onto the ground, and in these beams, I could nearly see the icy wind” – Navindd
We were up early and caught the Chuo Line to Otsuki and the Fujikyu Railway to Kawaguchiko. This is our starting point to trek the Fujiyoshida Trail up the iconic Mt Fuji or Fujisan. The three hour train ride passed through countryside dominated by farming and rice production. A few local trekkers in full outdoor attire shared the coach with us. They looked serious and well prepared. They disembarked to the numerous trails along the way. The three of us remained.
Kawaguchiko is a small town and also the starting point to the Fuji Five Lakes or Fujigoko in the Mt Fuji National Park. At the station, there were hive of activities. The day was warm and humid. No views of Mt Fuji though. We refuelled with some noodles and caught a bus to Kawaguchiko Fifth Station. It is midway as the summit is the tenth station. The easy access by road meant we saved a good five hours trek. At 2300m, it was cool with fine views of the reddish volcanic Mt Fuji’s summit. Scattered huts clung onto steep slopes. A vague trail was visible. The lowers slopes were planted with pine. A thick layer of clouds hung low below the station obstructing views of the lakes and towns dotted around Fuji’s wide base. With a quick lunch, and prayer around the nearby Komitake Shirne, we began our trek. We were excited but apprehensive. It is the off season and only one hut remained open on its last day. We left the Fifth Station, which by now had swelled with tourist and tours buses, at around 1pm. It was hot but pleasant with a blue sky. Perfect weather to walk I thought. Now this compact station was crowded with a mix of local and foreign tourist whom had arrived by the bus loads. Traffic was heavy. We were glad to leave.
We started our trek out of the Fifth Station at around 1pm. The sun was high and the blue sky promised good weather. I have this mantra when climbing mountains – the mountain is the mountain. It meant, the mountain will behave any which way it wanted irrespective of the weather or meteorological conditions. There is no bad weather if we are well prepared. Naturally extremes do happen though unpredictable. I knew there was very little help once on the mountain. I carefully itemised all the apparels and gear required. The warm weather gear included thermals, and some light food. I was not prepared to take chances with my family. We encountered some tired faces of trekkers’ descending. The marked path eventually led us out of the human traffic and into a forested area. When we emerged out into the open, a zig- zag path led upwards which inclined steeply. Past concrete retaining wall, a collection of seventeen huts clanged onto the steep reddish rocky slopes. The heat was intense and hardly any breeze. Once we passed the tree line, high altitude flora of low lime green shrubs covered parts of the slope. The exposed areas were barren rusted iron volcanic rocks. Navindd impressed me with his agility and strength. I reminded him to slow down. At these heights, altitude sickness can strike anyone. Lee Cheng and I continued with our rather slow pace with intermittent rest and drink stops. The views of the distant land below us were obscured by the dense thick clouds.
“The train to Kawaguchiko led us higher into the mountains and we could feel a significant temperature drop” – Navindd
“Below, the dense green forest was visible, but, when I looked up, all I could see was a steep slope of arid rocks. I thought to myself, are we going to climb this?” – Navindd
Every hut we passed was shut and bolted down. We were alone. We walked, sometimes in silence only to the sounds of accentuated breathing, crushing movements of rock under our weary feet and the gentle breeze. We rested at a station. We seemed elevated in the sky above the clouds. Workers were busy maintaining the narrow pathways and steps. I looked towards the blinding blue sky; the summit was not symmetrical or cone shaped. A red “torii” and a white “torii”, below the summit, were visible. I was tired and anxious as the sun descended behind the mountain. Daylight faded rapidly. Temperature plunged. In the mountain’s shadow, there was a sense of urgency to move continuously. Human voices and clanging of utensils were heard. We had reached the 3200m Hakuunso Hut at the 8th Station around 5 pm. I was delighted, relieved, joyful and elated. Below the hut, a sea of swirling clouds. Though it was not a walk in the park, it’s attainable. This was our family’s first accent of a mountain. Hakuunso hut, the only one open on the mountain and on its last day as well, provided basic accommodation and two hot meals for ¥7200. Booking is essential.